'The Voice,' a music icon, falls silent Frank Sinatra's career a mix of greatness, scandal


They called him "The Voice." It seemed an unremarkable description -- after all, what singer didn't have a voice? -- until you heard him. Then it all made sense.

When he sang, he didn't just deliver the melody but animated it, filled it with passion and power, longing and loneliness. The voice revealed how the singer felt and let listeners share in those emotions. It touched untold lives' and brought him unimagined success.

The voice was stilled early Friday morning when Frank Sinatra suffered a heart attack in Los Angeles. He was pronounced dead at 1: 50 a.m. EDT in the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. His wife, Barbara, was with him. He was 82.

Born Francis Albert Sinatra in Hoboken, N.J., Dec. 12, 1915, he was the only child of Anthony Martin Sinatra, a boilermaker and sometime boxer from Catania, Sicily, and his wife, Natalie "Dolly" Della Garavante, of Genoa, Italy.

As a recording artist, Frank Sinatra had a career without parallel. He had his first million-seller, "All or Nothing at All," in 1943, and released his best-selling album, the triple-platinum "Duets," 50 years later (his last studio recordings, "Duets II," was released in 1994). He had records in the hit parade for more than a half-century, placing 70 albums and 170 singles on the pop charts. Moreover, with plans in place for new collections of his work, his name might remain on the charts well into the next century.

But his professional life was not limited to the bandstand and recording studio. Sinatra acted in more than 50 movies, winning the Academy Award in 1953 for his supporting role in "From Here to Eternity." He was also something of an entrepreneur, having been in the casino business in the '50s and established his own record company, Reprise, in 1961.

Along with his success, however, there was scandal. Hot-tempered and tempestuous, with a flair for vicious profanity, he was well-known for holding grudges and throwing punches. His love life was equally stormy, full of flirtations, affairs and bitter fights. He married four times -- to high school sweetheart Nancy Barbato in 1939, to Ava Gardner in 1951, to Mia Farrow in 1966 and to Barbara Marx in 1976.

Raising suspicions

He was friendly with President John F. Kennedy and Mafia chief Sam Giancana, a combination that raised eyebrows and suspicions. He also helped disgraced former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew pay off tax debts and was a regular visitor at the Reagan White House.

He was as capable of cruelty as he was of kindness. But good or bad, it wasn't just what Sinatra did that made him matter. It was what he represented.

When he was a young man, making a name for himself with Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, he seemed the epitome of romantic intensity. As an established star, running around Las Vegas with his Rat Pack pals, he came across as the ultimate in hepcat cool. In the '70s, he was the "Chairman of the Board," exuding class and sophistication; in the '80s, "Ol' Blue Eyes" stood for enduring quality and Republican respectability.

He was the century's first true pop star. His audience was nearly universal, and his skill as a singer stretched across generations, from Tony Bennett and Mel Torme to Luther Vandross and Bono. Yet for everything he achieved, Sinatra always seemed to

symbolize something greater. His fans saw sincerity, prestige, great talent and noblesse oblige; his detractors saw arrogance, mob ties, lack of discipline and venality.

As a youth, Sinatra's main interest was sports, and his first job upon leaving high school was with the Jersey Observer, where he worked his way up from copy boy to cub reporter on the sports desk. But after seeing Bing Crosby in concert one night in 1933, the young Sinatra became convinced that he, too, could be a pop singer.

"I could tell when a singer was lousy and when he was fine, and it wasn't long before I began to see why," he recalled in 1943. "I learned that a voice no better than the next one sounded solid to me because of just one thing -- sincerity. The guy who put his heart into a song and made it mean something was my guy."

Within months of making the decision to sing, he appeared on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour -- a popular radio show for up-and-coming talent -- as a member of the Hoboken Four. By 1939, he had signed with Harry James, then a year later joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

It was with Dorsey that Sinatra reached stardom. Not only did he deliver his first chart-topping hit, the memorably melancholy "I'll Never Smile Again" but it was then that Sinatra's sex appeal came to the fore. With his gangly limbs and boxy suits, he looked like a human coat rack behind the mike, but once he began to sing, bobby-soxers were enraptured. The press began to refer to him as "Frank Swoonatra" in tribute to the fainting fans.

'Favorite male volcalist'

In 1942, Sinatra was voted "favorite male vocalist" in both the Downbeat and Metronome polls, assuming a dominance Crosby had held for eight consecutive years. By then, there were hundreds of Sinatra fan clubs, and his concerts regularly generated audience hysteria.

Fighting off those clamoring fans was as close as he got to combat during World War II. Classified 4-F because of a punctured eardrum, he contributed to the war effort by entertaining the troops and performing at benefits for European aid.

Eventually, Hollywood beckoned. He made his first feature, the prophetically titled "Las Vegas Nights," in 1941, and by 1949 had played alongside the likes of Jimmy Durante (in "It Happened in Brooklyn"), Fred MacMurray and Lee J. Cobb (in "The Miracle of the Bells") and Gene Kelly (in "Anchors Aweigh" and "On the Town").

As his star rose, however, so did reports of his infidelities and questionable judgment. Although he had been married to the former Nancy Barbato since 1939 -- they had three children, Nancy, Frank and Christine -- he had been linked romantically with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. In 1951, he divorced his first wife and married Gardner, but the relationship was neither long-lasting nor happy.

More disturbing were his gangland dalliances. In 1947, he flew to Havana where he performed for a group of mobsters, including Carlo Gambino, Santo Trafficante and Meyer Lansky, and was photographed having dinner with Charlie "Lucky" Luciano. Afterwards, Sinatra was denounced by columnist Robert Ruark,

who wrote that Sinatra "was setting a most peculiar example for his hordes of pimply, shrieking slaves. "

Hits become rare

Ruark's denunciation couldn't have come at a worse time commercially for Sinatra. Hits became increasingly rare after "Mam'selle" went to No. 1 in the summer of '47, and Sinatra's subsequent efforts sometimes seemed desperate, as with the 1951 novelty number, "Mama Will Bark."

Sinatra would forever be dogged by charges that he associated with mobsters. To some extent, there was nothing particularly unusual about his coming into contact with gangsters; as his daughter, Nancy, said last year, "Of course my father worked for the Mafia. Everyone in showbiz did. ... "

What bothered some was how close Sinatra's contact was -- particularly given some of his other friendships. In 1961, he introduced a woman named Judith Campbell Exner to President Kennedy. That Exner became close to Kennedy (she later said she had been the president's mistress) was scandal enough; what made matters worse was that Sinatra had also introduced Exner to Chicago godfather Sam Giancana, with whom she also was having an affair. No wonder the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in 1977 considered the singer responsible for the first mob penetration of the White House. He was, however, never tried for any mob-related offenses.

Although such dark doings provided fodder for the gossip columns, most Americans paid more attention to Sinatra's rising prominence in Hollywood.

His performance as the hotheaded Private Maggio in "From Here to Eternity" in 1953 earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He went on to roles in "Guys and Dolls," "High Society," "Pal Joey" and "The Man with the Golden Arm."

Despite his movie work, Sinatra didn't neglect his music. As swing lost ground commercially in the '50s, Sinatra abandoned the sweetness of his earlier work in favor of darker, more emotionally charged performances.

In a series of thematic albums recorded with arranger Nelson Riddle for Capitol Records, Sinatra virtually defined the greatness of the American popular song, taking tunes by such composers as Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and Jimmy Van Heusen, and treating them with the sort of gravity and intensity previously reserved for European art songs.

Enshrining songwriters

Just as the bebop movement elevated jazz from popular dance music to the level of serious art, so Sinatra enshrined the greatness of mid-20th century American songwriting.

"I don't sing a lot of words strung together," Sinatra said in 1968. "I believe every word I sing. I feel the song and I feel what the composer had in mind when he wrote it. I have seen a lot of life and a lot of living. When I sing a love song, I know what I am singing about. If I'm singing the blues, I know what they're about, too."

If those albums set the standard for Sinatra's artistry, what forever framed his image was the Rat Pack he ran with in the late '50s and early '60s. Modelled on the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, a social group assembled by Humphrey Bogart (of which Sinatra was a member), this group -- included Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and, as mascot, Shirley MacLaine -- came to epitomize Vegas-style showbiz hip.

Sinatra started his own label, Reprise, in 1961, and topped the charts twice during the Beatles era, first with "Strangers in the Night" (in 1966) and through a duet with daughter Nancy called "Somethin' Stupid" (1967). His version of "That's Life" even crossed over to the R&B; charts, climbing to No. 25 in 1966.

Tumultuous private life

During this period, his private life remained tumultuous. In November 1963, his son, Frank Jr., was kidnapped and held for $240,000 ransom. (The kidnappers were arrested, tried and convicted.) A year later, Sinatra began dating a 19-year-old actress, Mia Farrow, whom he married in 1966 when she was 21, he 50. Within 16 months, the pair had separated, and soon were divorced.

Still, that marriage was nowhere near as shocking as the 1971 announcement that the singer would retire to spend more time with his family. It didn't last, of course -- within two years, he had released the self-explanatory "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back" -- but the move marked a change in Sinatra's attitude and allegiances.

Once an ardent Democrat who hung out with the Kennedys and supported Hubert Humphrey, the singer befriended Vice President Agnew, and made public appearances on his behalf (including a 1972 "Spiro T. Agnew Appreciation Night" in Baltimore). Not even Agnew's resignation could dissuade Sinatra, who in 1979 lent the disgraced politician $200,000 to cover back taxes.

In 1970, Sinatra endorsed Republican Ronald Reagan over Democrat Jesse Unruh in the California gubernatorial race. Reagan returned the favor in 1976 when he interrupted his presidential campaign to attend Sinatra's wedding to Barbara Marx. Sinatra became a regular visitor at the White House.

Sinatra continued to tour for most of the next two decades, but time began to take its toll. In 1988, he embarked on a Rat Pack reunion tour with Davis and Martin. But Martin dropped out halfway through the tour, and Davis was in less-than-perfect condition. Davis died in 1990, Martin in 1996.

Still, Sinatra soldiered on, relying on TelePrompTers to remind him of the lyrics and even then getting lost from time to time. Yet no matter how fractured or tentative his performances got, his fans cheered him on, letting their memories fill in the blanks. For them, he was and always would be The Voice, a singer so great that nothing so slight as human frailty could diminish the impact of his performance.

vTC Even though that voice is silent now its magic will endure. So long as people fall in and out of love, there will be an audience ready to understand and appreciate the music Frank Sinatra made.

Pub Date: 5/16/98

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