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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 a refreshing example of how an upscale celebrity biography can remain stylishly objective—reading like good fiction while capturing the vernacular pungency that humanizes and gives snap and sizzle to a performer’s persona. Kaplan opts to take off on Frank Sinatra’s earthy, wise-cracking Hoboken twang, making this 750-page biography (covering only Sinatra’s first 40 years) seem regrettably short.

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

In the 1930s singers achieved 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 in Sinatra’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 crooner of the day, Bing Crosby. Largely self-taught, Sinatra was drawn to the great cabaret recordings of Mabel Mercer and Billie 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-tune his superb phrasing.

Before his great 1950s Capitol recordings, Sinatra endured a slump in which he seemed sentimentally out of sync with the cynical 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 status while 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 not play as large a part in the heights to which Sinatra would ascend as is generally supposed, although he had known Frank Costello and Bugsy Siegel since his youth. His successes at the Las Vegas Sands (of which he was part-owner) were his alone.

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