June 28, 2015

DORSEY, HOLIDAY, CROSBY... FRANK (profanity alert):

Swoonatra : a review of Sinatra: London (Ian Penman, 7/03/15, London Review of Books)

When Sinatra's new booking agency, GAC, persuaded the owners of New York's Paramount Theatre to add him to its big New Year show, their driven young client had none of the star power of already signed performers like Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee; his billing read 'Extra Added Attraction', and for Sinatra this particular gig was a pretty big deal. As Donald Clarke puts it in All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra (1997), the Paramount Theatre was 'one of the shrines of the Swing era'. And so, on 30 December 1943, Sinatra was brought onstage, in an almost desultory way, by Benny Goodman. 'And now, Frank Sinatra ...' The 28-year-old Francis Albert Sinatra stepped up, and history turned a small corner. He was met by a tsunami of hysterical screams from a passel of young female fans. Goodman was initially thrown, completely struck dumb in fact, then looked over his shoulder and blurted out: 'What the [****] is that?' Clarke: 'Sinatra laughed, and his fear left him.'

Sinatra may have left damp seats and shredded hankies in his skinny-bod wake but he was nobody's idea of a teenager. By the time of the Paramount 'Swoonatra' incident he was four years married to his first wife, Nancy, with one young child (Nancy Jr) and a second (Frank Jr) just about to arrive. He dressed like other adults of the time. (His sole concession to dandyism was a lasciviously Borromean, outsize bow-tie.) His day-to-day social intercourse was conducted among hard-bitten, resourcefully cynical musicians - we can just imagine the ribbings they dished out to young Francis about his undiscerning new fan base. Sinatra's bandmates were actually more bewildered than bothered by this latest development: despite his major rep as a real ladies' man, no one had him pegged as the next Valentino. This was a scrawny, underfed-looking Italian kid with big ears: there was definitely something of a semolina dough Mickey Mouse about his looks. But he obviously gave off some subtle radar peep of rapt carnality, equal parts vulnerable boy-child and lazily virile roué. Unlike the pendulum-hipped Presleys up ahead, he could intimate sexual confidence with his eyes alone. His sexual charge was like his song: underplayed, tinged with unflappable cool picked up second-hand in the shady cloisters of jazz. Just as he could mine exquisite sadness from superficially happy songs, he managed to suggest bedtime fevers with a barely perceptible finger's brush of his microphone stand.

As Clarke points out, none of this was entirely new: there had been previous scenes of clammy hysteria triggered by male musicians and screen stars, from Franz Liszt to Rudy Vallée. But these hormonal crazes tended to fizzle out, often ignominiously, even if (like Sinatra) you had a resourceful press agent hyping the script. This was a watershed moment between the insider hegemony of jazz-inflected Swing and the wider plains of Elvis-era pop music. The 'Swoonatra' craze might easily have been a barrier to wider public acceptance for Sinatra, but as it transpired he made the coming decade entirely his own. In conventional sales-ledger terms it was his starry apotheosis.

Working the road in the 1930s and 1940s with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands, Sinatra acquired a lot of jazz life knowledge by osmosis. (Jazz inflections peppered his speech for the rest of his life: 'I've known discouragement, despair and all those other cats.') He learned what not to do: how to hold back, live in the space between instrumental arcs. By Sinatra's own account, the three main figures who shaped his navigation of song - how to float and sustain and linger - were Tommy Dorsey ('the General Motors of the band business'), Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby. Anyone surprised by the inclusion of the latter should do a bit of digging: Crosby is a fascinating character. As well as a subtly revolutionary singer he was a technophile obsessed with recording techniques, and with how best to refine and update them to suit the new, softer style of singing and playing. Crosby was the original 'crooner' when the world was full of vocalists who belted out songs to the back of the hall. An old-school jazz fan like Sinatra, he worshipped Louis Armstrong and closely studied Satchmo's self-presentation and singular way with a tune. Crosby's delivery was 'cool' in a way that was entirely new to the mainstream, studded with jazz tics such as unexpected pauses and slurred or flattened notes. His understanding of microphone technique meant he could step back and let the audience come to him. He was a pivotal figure on the journey of cool jazz tones from a largely black, underground world into the mainstream, and a big influence on younger acts like Sinatra.

Posted by at June 28, 2015 9:32 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus