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Monday, Feb. 14, 2011

‘Frank: The Voice’ a Stylish Sinatra Biography

James Kaplan covers first 40 years of iconic singer’s life

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Frank: The Voice (Doubleday), James Kaplan’s terrific new look at the most iconic singer of the 20th century, is arefreshing example of how an upscale celebritybiography can remain stylishly objective—reading like good fiction while capturing thevernacular pungency that humanizesand givessnap and sizzle to a performer’spersona. Kaplan opts to take off on Frank Sinatra’s earthy,wise-cracking Hobokentwang, making this 750-page biography (coveringonlySinatra’s first 40 years) seem regrettably short.

But there is a lot to cover.Sinatra was tornfrom his mother’s womb with forceps, leaving permanent scarring on the left side of his face. He was left on a kitchen sinkwhile the doctordetermined if mother Dollywould survive. Their relationship would remain love-hate, providing the tough determination that launched his career. She would have no other children.

In the 1930s singersachieved stardom by spearheading a pop orchestra at prestigious nightclubs. Sinatra’s first break came on the “Major Bowes Amateur Hour” radio show, but he would soon appear with the greatest bands, including Harry James, Benny Goodman and the formidable Tommy Dorsey. These men were hard-drinking, relentless perfectionists, and they saw the future inSinatra’s subtlety,providing those arrangements best suited to his unique style. One of the endearing qualities of Kaplan’s approach is the affectionate way in which he captures the flavor of the big-band era that launched the Sinatra style.

Before Sinatra became a teenage sensation thrilling thousands of swooning girls at his stage appearances, his recordings were already rivaling the pre-eminent croonerof the day, Bing Crosby.Largely self-taught, Sinatrawas drawn to the great cabaretrecordings of Mabel Mercer andBillie Holiday, and his sensitivity to the spoken lyric would become his lifelong trademark. His genius for inhabiting the words of a song were further developed by opera singer John Quinlan, who helped him strengthen his lower register and fine-tunehis superb phrasing.

Before his great1950s Capitolrecordings, Sinatraendured a slump in which he seemed sentimentally out ofsyncwith thecynical postwar years. As his drinking increased, things started to unravel. By the time he met Ava Gardner, his second wife (described as a “nihilistic force of nature”), her acting career was achieving superstar statuswhile Sinatra’s time appeared to be on the wane. She was the mirror image of his self-destructing nemesis, from which there seemed to be no return.

But at the nadir of Sinatra’s career,Gardner helped him get the part of the downtrodden Maggio in the career-altering film From Here to Eternity. Mob influence did notplay as large a part in the heights to which Sinatra wouldascend as is generally supposed, although hehad known FrankCostello andBugsy Siegel since his youth. Hissuccesses at the Las Vegas Sands (of which he was part-owner) were hisalone.

Was Frank Sinatra the greatest popular singer of the 20th century, as Kaplan repeatedly eulogizes? The evidence bearing witness tohis true genius remains on disc.