Monday 23 September 2019

'When I sing, I believe, I'm honest' - singer Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra, who died 20 years ago tomorrow, had the voice of an angel, and a temper from the fires of hell

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
Frank Sinatra and Barbara Marx
Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow
Frank Sinatra with his first wife Nancy and children Nancy and Frank Jr.
The Rat Pack. L-R: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.

Jonathan deBurca Butler

As his voice weaved its way through a rain-soaked Lansdowne Road, Frank Sinatra paused to glare up at an aeroplane that had audaciously flown overhead. "Not when I'm on," he joked. His audience lapped it up.

For the guts of two hours, Ol' Blue Eyes with his crooners in crime, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr wowed an audience of 18,000. It was 1989 and the 74-year-old's first time in Ireland.

"There was a private party for them in the Horse Show House across from the RDS," recalls Mike Hanrahan of Stockton's Wing, "and we were invited to play the music and I remember Brendan Grace did some stand-up for them. Their crew were there and then there was some of the orchestra and there were lots of minders everywhere. They were lovely people, very respectful of the musicians. Sinatra showed us a lot of respect, it came oozing from him".

As it turned out, Sammy Davis Jr took a particular shine to the Irish group and invited them to join him on stage for the following two evening performances.

Frank Sinatra and Barbara Marx
Frank Sinatra and Barbara Marx

"We got to play with Sammy and see Sinatra perform with the full orchestra which was incredible," recalls Hanrahan. "Everyone was saying that his voice was shot at that stage but he really was amazing. His timing and delivery of songs was extraordinary."

When Frank Sinatra died 20 years ago tomorrow, aged 82, it was after a lifetime steeped in music which saw him release a staggering 59 albums over a career that spanned an unmatched seven decades. Few have come close to his impact on popular culture, yet his life was not without its many dark sides.

Sinatra was born in a tenement in Hoboken, New Jersey, on December 12, 1915. He entered the world reluctantly and the forceps used to bring him into it left him with a perforated eardrum and permanent scarring on his neck, cheek and ear. He was the only child of Antonino Martino Sinatra, a sometime boxer from Catania, Sicily, and Natalina "Dolly" Garaventa.

During his Lansdowne Road concert, Sinatra took great pleasure in telling his audience that, for a period, his father had taken the name Marty O'Brien. Italians were not welcome in the New Jersey fight game and so the Sicilian took on an Irish surname. Years later, Marty would open a bar with Dolly under the same name and for a time, so he said at least, Ol' Blue Eyes believed he was partly Irish. There wasn't a drop in him.

It was in Marty O'Brien's that Sinatra started singing. He decided it would be his career after coming across Bing Crosby in the early 1930s. His mother encouraged his dream and allowed him to drop out of high school to pursue it. By all accounts, Dolly was a formidable force. Heavily involved in local politics, she tied herself to the gates of City Hall as a suffragette, canvassed for the Democrats in her local ward and performed illegal abortions for the Italian Catholics who had nowhere else to turn. Her relationship with her son was typical of the time - loving but tough.

"They'd fought through his childhood," said Nancy Sinatra in Tom Santopietro's Sinatra in Hollywood, "but I believe that to counter her steel will, he'd developed his own."

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow
Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow

Regardless of his scars and skinny frame, Sinatra was a confident and determined young man. From early on it got him into trouble. His first arrest came in 1938, at a nightclub where one of his girlfriends attacked his wife-to-be Nancy Barbato and later had Frank arrested twice - for seduction and adultery. The mugshot that accompanied his arrest did little harm to his cultivation of the bad boy image. The following year he and Nancy married. They had three children - Nancy (1940), Frank Jr (1944) and Tina (1948).

The war years were good to Sinatra. His perforated eardrum kept him away from the draft and he used his time well. After short progressive stints with several different bands, Sinatra was invited to join the well-known Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

Sinatra once claimed: "The only two people I've been afraid of are my mother and Tommy Dorsey," and the band leader was a strong influence on him, and godfather to Nancy. Dorsey himself was wary of Sinatra, once calling him "the most fascinating man in the world" but warning against putting "your hand in the cage". Sinatra's relationship with band drummer Buddy Rich was also somewhat fraught. When Sinatra accused him of messing up drum solos, Rich called him a "silly f***". Sinatra responded by picking up a jug of water and flinging it at Rich's head.

In 1940, Sinatra scored his first number 1 with I'll Never Smile Again. His career went from strength to strength and he decided he would go it alone.

"It was the war years, and there was a great loneliness," Sinatra later recounted. "I was the boy in every corner drugstore who'd gone off, drafted to the war. That was all."

At the age of 27 he made his first solo appearance at the Paramount Theatre in New York City, setting off a public hysteria that made headlines. Later it was claimed that girls had been hired to scream as loudly as they possibly could and thus create the hysteria, but either way, within weeks he had signed lucrative contracts with Columbia Records, RKO Pictures and the radio programme Your Hit Parade.

Sinatramania soon followed. So-called bobbysoxers couldn't get enough of the blue-eyed boy from Jersey and he was quickly dubbed "The Voice", a moniker that stuck. When the war ended, Sinatra seemed at the peak of his powers. In 1946 he had 15 Top-10 hits. But below the surface all was not well.

It came to the attention of the media that Sinatra had fraternised with a deported Mafioso named Lucky Luciano in Cuba. The suggestion that the singer consorted with criminals made him a target for the press, and for the rest of his career stories of his relations with the mob dogged him. He often reacted angrily to members of the media.

On one occasion, after exchanging words with journalist Lee Mortimer in Ciro's Nightclub in 1948, Sinatra punched him and ended up having to settle out of court.

Bad press surrounding his questionable friendships, and a wave of new singing talent - much of it inspired by him - meant Sinatra's star began losing some of its glow. While his career was in decline in the late 1940s, his marriage to Nancy also unravelled. In 1949, he had begun an affair with movie star Ava Gardner. A year later and just one week after his divorce, he married her in Philadelphia. That relationship also had what Gardner later referred to as "some pretty amazing occurrences". According to her account, a large crack in a bathroom sink was the result of Sinatra hurling a champagne bottle at her. Others suggest that Ava gave as good as she got.

"If Frank and Ava argued and Frank threw a cup, Ava threw something bigger at him," recalled Tony "the Clam" Consiglio, Sinatra's long-time friend and henchman. "There was no stopping it."

Sinatra's second marriage lasted just two years and was followed by at least two suicide attempts. By now he was yesterday's man and his smooth timbre had roughened along with his image.

Redemption, when it came, arrived via the silver screen with the release in 1953 of From Here to Eternity, a film about American GIs in Hawaii on the eve of World War II. Sinatra's portrayal of Maggio, the combative Italian-American soldier who is beaten to death, won him rave reviews and an Oscar. It also gave his singing career the shot in the arm it needed.

He signed for Capitol Records and over the next 10 years made some of his most iconic recordings. Songs for Swinging Lovers (1956) included You Make me Feel So Young and I've Got You Under My Skin while 1958's Come Fly With Me included the much-loved title track.

His acting career also blossomed with acclaimed roles in Guys and Dolls (1955), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

He was now back on something of a career high, but his personal life was no less turbulent. He was briefly engaged to Lauren Bacall who described him as "terrifying" and followed this with a romance with South African actress Juliet Prowse, who described him as "a complex person" who "after a few drinks could be very difficult".

"Frank hated to go to bed before the sun came up," recalled Tony Consiglio. "And he always had to have people around. Being alone scared him. Alone, Frank would become sullen and introspective. I never knew why."

It was Bacall who coined the term Rat Pack to describe the Hollywood drinking circle that included her then-husband Humphrey Bogart and Sinatra. It eventually solidified into a quintet of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. They actually referred to themselves as The Summit or The Clan but the media preferred the rodent reference and the name stuck. They did much to sustain each others' careers through the mid to late 1960s and became synonymous with Las Vegas and hard-drinking. In an era that focused more on free love and drugs than romance and whiskey, Sinatra should have been irrelevant but in truth he had some of his biggest hits, including That's Life (1966), Strangers in the Night (1966) and the wonderful Somethin' Stupid (1967) which he recorded with daughter Nancy.

In 1966, when he was 50, Sinatra married 21-year-old Mia Farrow. Having persuaded her to put a halt to her burgeoning career, he ferried her from shoot to shoot like a trophy. Farrow became increasingly restless and accepted a role in Rosemary's Baby, a decision that set her on a path to a glittering career but resulted in the couple's divorce in 1968.

Years later, in an interview with Vanity Fair, Farrow claimed that she and Sinatra had "never really split up" and that her son Ronan, born in 1987 while she and Woody Allen were married, could possibly be Sinatra's.

Sinatra decided he needed a break and in June 1971 he retired from showbiz. "I've got things to do," he told TIME magazine, "like... do anything at all for eight months". In the end, the 'Chairman of the Board' stayed away for the guts of two years, returning in 1973 with Ol' Blue Eyes is Back.

He married his fourth wife, Barbara Marx, in 1976 but even then, aged 61, he was prone to irrational acts of violence. In her memoir, Lady Blue Eyes: My Life With Frank Sinatra, she recalled that during a late-night game of charades, the singer's team lost a round. Sinatra turned on her, the time-keeper, while she was holding a large brass clock on her lap.

"He came over and he had been drinking quite a lot," she recalled. "He picked up the clock and I think he wanted to hit me with it. He threw it against the front door and it broke into a thousand pieces."

New York, New York had become a hit in 1977 and by the early 1980s, Sinatra's image as the durable crooner was something which Ronald Reagan felt he could use to his benefit during his presidential campaign. Sinatra was only too willing to oblige. But his critics came after him and more reputational damage was caused by His Way, Kitty Kelley's unauthorised biography (1983), which put the spotlight on his volatile personality and his purported relationships with organised-crime figures.

Though its expose was harsh, it did little to put off his fans, and in 1989, the year he first came to Ireland, he went on a sold-out world tour.

Sinatra's final flourish came with the release in 1993 of Frank Sinatra Duets, which he recorded with Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and Bono among others.

Sinatra last performed on stage in 1995.

On May 14, 1998 he died in Los Angeles after a heart attack. The following evening, the lights on the Empire State Building were turned blue and in the casinos of Las Vegas, roulette wheels stopped spinning for one minute.

"Whatever else has been said about me personally is unimportant," he said in an interview in 1963. "When I sing, I believe, I'm honest."

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