CONTROVERSIAL ACTOR Frank Sinatra

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CONTROVERSIAL ACTOR

Sinatra’s father, Martin, was a tavern owner and part-time prizefighter, and his mother, Natalie—known to all as “Dolly”—was a domineering influence both in local politics and in her son’s life and career. Upon hearing the recordings of Bing Crosby, Sinatra was inspired as a teenager to choose popular singing as a vocation. He joined a local singing group, which, as the Hoboken Four, won a talent competition in 1935 on the popular radio program Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. The group toured the country that year, but Sinatra was the only member with serious musical ambitions, and they soon disbanded. For the next few years, Sinatra sang with local dance bands and for remote radio broadcasts. In 1939, while singing and waiting tables at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, he was discovered and hired by trumpeter Harry James, who had recently quit the Benny Goodman Orchestra to start his own band.

Sinatra’s six-month tenure with the James band resulted in 10 commercial recordings featuring the young singer. On songs such as “From the Bottom of My Heart,”“My Buddy,” and “Ciribiribin,” Sinatra’s warm baritone and sensitivity to lyrics are well showcased. The best-known of the James-Sinatra sides is “All or Nothing at All”—a flop in 1939 but a million-seller when rereleased in 1943, after both men had become stars. Sinatra’s reputation among industry musicians grew swiftly, and James graciously freed Sinatra from his contract when the singer received a more lucrative offer from bandleader Tommy Dorsey in December 1939. The 83 commercial recordings (as well as several surviving air checks) that Sinatra went on to make with the Dorsey band from 1940 to 1942 represent his first major body of work.

Sinatra was enormously influenced by Dorsey’s trombone playing and strove to improve his breath control in order to emulate Dorsey’s seamless, unbroken melodic passages. It was also during this period that Sinatra proved his mastery of both ballads and up-tempo numbers, and Dorsey arrangers Axel Stordahl, Paul Weston, and Sy Oliver soon tailored their arrangements to highlight Sinatra’s skills. Often teamed with singer Connie Haines, or with Dorsey’s vocal group, The Pied Pipers (featuring future recording star Jo Stafford), Sinatra was featured on memorable sides such as “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Without a Song,” and “Oh! Look at Me Now.”

By 1942 Sinatra’s fame had eclipsed that of Dorsey, and the singer yearned for a solo career—a risky venture in the days when few big-band singers found success on their own. Dorsey enjoyed having such a popular performer in his band and became irate when Sinatra expressed his desire to leave, even though Sinatra offered to stay with the band for another year. After months of bitter negotiations, Sinatra left the Dorsey organization in late 1942; within weeks, he was a cultural phenomenon. Near-hysteria was generated by Sinatra’s appearances at New York’s Paramount theatre in January 1943, and such throngs of screaming, young female fans—known as “bobby-soxers”—had not been seen since the days of Rudolph Valentino. The singer was soon dubbed “Frankieboy,” “The Sultan of Swoon,” and, most popularly, “The Voice.”

Sinatra appeared in several films throughout the 1940s, the best among them being the musicals in which he costarred with dancer Gene Kelly. Of these, Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) are pleasant diversions, whereas On the Town (1949) ranks among the greatest of film musicals. It was acting, rather than music, that precipitated Sinatra’s comeback in 1953. He pleaded with Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn for the role of the scrappy, tragic soldier, Maggio, in From Here to Eternity (1953), and he agreed to work for scale. His performance was universally praised and earned him an Oscar for best supporting actor. Sinatra went on to become one of the top film stars of the 1950s and ’60s, and he delivered fine performances in quality films such as Suddenly (1954), Young at Heart (1954), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955; Academy Award nomination for best actor), Guys and Dolls (1955), The Joker Is Wild (1957), Pal Joey (1957), and Some Came Running (1958). The political thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is perhaps Sinatra’s greatest film and features his best performance. With the possible exception of Bing Crosby, no other American entertainer achieved such a level of respect and popularity as both singer and actor. Although it is said that Sinatra stopped taking films seriously after The Manchurian Candidate, owing to his ongoing frustration with the tedious filmmaking process, his motion-picture résumé remains impressive. In later years, he was memorable in The Detective (1968), and in his final starring vehicle, The First Deadly Sin (1980).

born December 12, 1915, HobokenNew Jersey, U.S.—died May 14, 1998, Los Angeles, California

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