Frank Sinatra: He Had It ‘His Way’

Frank Sinatra: He Had It ‘His Way’

Like his iconic “My Way”, Frank Sinatra, the singer and actor whose extraordinary voice elevated popular song into an art, simply had it his way.

Widely held to be the greatest singer in American pop history and one of the most successful entertainers of the 20th century, Sinatra was also the first modern pop superstar. He defined that role in the early 1940’s when his first solo appearances provoked the kind of mass pandemonium that later greeted Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

By the time of his death at 82 in May 1998, Sinatra had a show business career that spanned more than 50 years and comprised recordings, film and television as well as countless performances in nightclubs, concert halls and sports arenas. In essence, he stood as a singular mirror of the American entertainer psyche.

His evolution from the idealistic crooner of the early 1940’s to the sophisticated swinger of the 50’s and 60’s seemed to personify the country’s loss of innocence. During World War II, Sinatra’s tender romanticism served as the dreamy emotional link between millions of women and their husbands and boyfriends fighting overseas. Reinventing himself in the 50’s, the starry-eyed boy next door turned into the cosmopolitan man of the world, a bruised romantic with a tough-guy streak and a song for every emotional season.

In a series of brilliant conceptual albums, he codified a musical vocabulary of adult relationships with which millions identified. The haunted voice heard on a jukebox in the wee small hours of the morning lamenting the end of a love affair was the same voice that jubilantly invited the world to ”come fly with me” to exotic realms in a never-ending party.

Sinatra appeared in 58 films, and won an Academy Award as best supporting actor for his portrayal of the feisty misfit soldier Maggio in ”From Here to Eternity” (1953). As an actor, he could communicate the same complex mixture of emotional honesty, vulnerability and cockiness that he projected as a singer, but he often chose his roles indifferently or unwisely.

It was as a singer that he exerted the strongest cultural influence. Following his idol Bing Crosby, who had pioneered the use of the microphone, Sinatra transformed popular singing by infusing lyrics with a personal, intimate point of view that conveyed a steady current of eroticism.

The skinny blue-eyed crooner, quickly nicknamed The Voice, made hordes of bobby-soxers swoon in the 1940’s with an extraordinarily smooth and flexible baritone that he wielded with matchless skill. His mastery of long-lined phrasing inspired imitations by many other male crooners, notably Dick Haymes, Vic Damone and Tony Bennett in the 1940’s and 50’s and most recently the pop jazz star Harry Connick Jr.

After the voice lost its velvety youthfulness, Sinatra’s interpretations grew more personal and idiosyncratic, so that each performance became a direct expression of his personality and his mood of the moment. In expressing anger, petulance and bravado — attitudes that had largely been excluded from the acceptable vocabulary of pop feeling — Sinatra paved the way for the unfettered vocal aggression of rock singers.

The changes in Sinatra’s vocal timbre coincided with a precipitous career descent in the late 1940’s and early 50’s. But in 1953, Sinatra made one of the most spectacular career comebacks in show business history, re-emerging as a coarser-voiced, jazzier interpreter of popular standards who put a more aggressive personal stamp on his songs.

Almost singlehandedly, he helped lead a revival of vocalized swing music that took American pop to a new level of musical sophistication. Coinciding with the rise of the long-playing record album, his 1950’s recordings — along with Ella Fitzgerald’s ”song book” albums saluting individual composers — were instrumental in establishing a canon of American pop song literature.

With Nelson Riddle, his most talented arranger, Sinatra defined the criteria for sound, style and song selection in pop recording during the pre-Beatles era. The aggressive uptempo style of Sinatra’s mature years spawned a genre of punchy, rhythmic belting associated with Las Vegas, which he was instrumental in establishing and popularizing as an entertainment capital.

By the late 1950’s, Sinatra had become so much the personification of American show business success that his life and his art became emblematic of the temper of the times. Except perhaps for Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, probably nobody did more to create a male ideal in the 1950’s. For years, Sinatra seemed the embodiment of the hard-drinking, hedonistic swinger who could have his pick of women and who was the leader of a party-loving entourage.

That personality and wardrobe, borrowed in part from his friend Jimmy Van Heusen, the talented songwriter and man about town who liked to insouciantly sling his raincoat over his shoulder, was, in turn, imitated by many other show business figures. It was a style Sinatra never entirely abandoned. Even in his later years, he would often stroll onto the stage with a drink in his hand.

On a deeper level, Sinatra’s career and public image touched many aspects of American cultural life. For millions, his ascent from humble Italian-American roots in Hoboken, N.J., was a symbol of ethnic achievement. And more than most entertainers, he used his influence to support political candidates. His change of allegiance from pro-Roosevelt Democrat in the 1940’s to pro-Reagan Republican in the 1980’s paralleled a seismic shift in American politics.

By the end of his career, Sinatra’s annual income was estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, from concerts, record albums, real estate ventures and holdings in several companies, including a missile-parts concern, a private airline, Reprise Records (which he founded), Artanis (Sinatra spelled backward) Productions and Sinatra Enterprises.

Songs of Love

Sinatra left his imprint on scores of popular songs and was the background voice, it seemed, for the romances of most Americans, from the earliest to the second time around. Among the standards he recorded at least three times were ”All or Nothing at All,” ”Angel Eyes,” ”Autumn in New York,” ”I Concentrate on You,” ”I Get a Kick Out of You,” ”I’ll Be Seeing You,” ”I’ll Never Smile Again,” ”I’ve Got a Crush on You,” ”I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” ”Nancy (With the Laughing Face),” ”Night and Day,” ”One for My Baby,” ”September Song” and ”Stormy Weather.”

His personal signature songs included ”Put Your Dreams Away” (his 1945 theme) and later ”Young at Heart” (1954), ”All the Way” (1957), ”It Was a Very Good Year” (1965), ”Strangers in the Night” (1966), ”My Way” (1969) and ”New York, New York” (1980).

For decades, his private life, with its many romances, feuds, brawls and associations with gangsters, was grist for the gossip columns. But he also had a reputation for spontaneous generosity, for helping singers who were starting out and for supporting friends who were in need. And over the years he gave hundreds of millions of dollars to various philanthropies.

Sinatra was born in Hoboken on Dec. 12, 1915, the only child of Martin Sinatra, a boilermaker and sometime boxer from Catania, Sicily, and his wife, Natalie Garavante, who was nicknamed Dolly. The young Francis Albert Sinatra attended Dave E. Rue Junior High School and Demarest High in Hoboken. He decided to become a singer either after attending a Crosby concert or seeing a Crosby film sometime in 1931 or 1932. His mother encouraged his ambition, allowing him to drop out of high school.

In 1935, after two years of local club dates, he joined three other young men from Hoboken who called themselves the Three Flashes. The quartet renamed itself the Hoboken Four and won first prize on ”Major Bowes’s Original Amateur Hour.”

After several months with the group, Sinatra decided to go it alone, and in the late 1930’s he had his first important nightclub engagement, at the Rustic Cabin, a roadhouse in Alpine, N.J. Local radio exposure brought him to the attention of Harry James, the trumpet player who had recently left Benny Goodman to form his own band. James signed Sinatra for $75 a week, and the singer made his first concert appearance with the James band in June 1939 and his first recording the next month.

A New Family And a New Fame

Early that year, he married his longtime sweetheart, Nancy Barbato. They had three children: Nancy, who was born in 1940; Franklin Wayne (later shortened to Frank Jr.), born in 1944, and Christina (Tina), born in 1948.

Six months after Sinatra signed with Harry James, Tommy Dorsey invited him to join his band, which was far more popular. Released without protest from his contract by James, Sinatra remained with Dorsey from January 1940 until September 1942. His first successful record with the band was ”Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” Six months after joining Dorsey, he scored his first No. 1 hit, ”I’ll Never Smile Again,” a dreamy ballad he sang with the Pied Pipers, the vocal group then led by Jo Stafford.

Determined to be the first singer since Crosby to have a successful solo career, he split from Dorsey, who held him to a contract that gave the band leader 43 1/3 percent of the singer’s income for the next decade. Eventually Sinatra, with his record label, Columbia, and his booking agency, MCA, bought out the contract.

In addition to ”I’ll Never Smile Again,” Sinatra left behind several classic early recordings with Dorsey. They included ”Star Dust” (1940, with the Pied Pipers), ”This Love of Mine” (1941) and ”There Are Such Things” (1942, with the Pied Pipers).

Sinatra’s last concert with Dorsey was in September 1942. Three months later, he made history at the age of 27 with his first solo appearance at the Paramount Theater in New York City. Billed as an ”extra added attraction” on a program headlined by Benny Goodman, Sinatra appeared on Dec. 30 and set off a public hysteria that made headlines. Within weeks he had signed lucrative contracts with Columbia Records, R.K.O. Pictures and the radio program ”Your Hit Parade.”

The adulation reached a high point on Oct. 12, 1944, the opening day of a three-week return engagement at the Paramount, when 30,000 fans — most of them bobby-soxers — formed a frenzied mob in Times Square.

”It was the war years, and there was a great loneliness,” Sinatra, who was kept from the draft by a punctured eardrum, later recounted. ”I was the boy in every corner drugstore who’d gone off, drafted to the war. That was all.”

From 1943 to 1945, he was the lead singer on ”Your Hit Parade” and at the same time began recording for Columbia. Because of a musicians’ strike, the accompaniment on his first several recording sessions for the label was a vocal chorus called the Bobby Tucker Singers, instead of an orchestra. In June 1943, however, Columbia rereleased a recording he had made in September 1939 with Harry James. The recording, ”All or Nothing at All,” which had sold 8,000 copies in its first release, sold over a million.

Once the musicians’ strike was settled in November 1944, Sinatra began recording with Axel Stordahl, who had been a trombonist and lead arranger with Tommy Dorsey. Stordahl’s sweet string-laced settings for Sinatra’s recordings silhouetted a yearning voice that one writer compared to ”worn velveteen.”

Until Sinatra left Columbia for Capitol Records in 1953, Stordahl remained his principal arranger. He also brilliantly exploited the songs of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, who tailored many of their ballads to Sinatra’s voice and style.

Riding High in April, Shot Down in May

Sinatra’s first movie appearance was in 1940, singing with the Dorsey band in ”Las Vegas Nights.” He made his movie acting debut in 1943, in ”Higher and Higher,” an innocuous bit of froth that was described by Bosley Crowther, movie critic for The New York Times, as ”a slapdash setting for the incredibly unctuous readings of the Voice.” The film was followed by ”Step Lively” (1944) and ”Anchors Aweigh” (1945), the first of three movies in which Sinatra played Gene Kelly’s sidekick. In these early films, Sinatra, often wearing a sailor suit and projecting a skinny soulfulness, played a wide-eyed innocent who was shy with women.

In 1945, he also made ”The House I Live In,” a 10-minute patriotic plea for racial and religious tolerance that won him a special Academy Award. Like his mother, Sinatra was an ardent Democrat and supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. He visited the White House in 1944 and campaigned for Roosevelt in his bid for a fourth term as President.

Sinatra’s popularity remained at a peak through 1946, when he had 15 hit singles. Then it began a gradual slide that steepened after 1948 and hit bottom in 1952. As early as November 1947, an appearance at the Capitol Theater in New York drew disappointing attendance. Only 4 Sinatra singles made the Top 10 in 1947, and the number dropped to one in 1948.

Although he had shown himself to have an engaging screen presence, his film career had not made him a top box-office star. From 1946 to 1949, he appeared in five MGM musicals — ”Till the Clouds Roll By” (1946) (in which he sang ”Ol’ Man River” in a white suit), ”It Happened in Brooklyn” (1947), ”The Kissing Bandit” (1948), ”Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1949) and ”On the Town” (1949) — and one R.K.O. film, ”The Miracle of the Bells” (1948), in which he was miscast as a priest. After two more unsuccessful pictures, ”Double Dynamite” (1951) and ”Meet Danny Wilson” (1952), his movie career all but evaporated.

Part of the public disenchantment came after the columnist Robert Ruark denounced him in 1947 for having socialized with the deported gangster Lucky Luciano in Cuba. The suggestion that the singer consorted with criminals made him a target of the conservative press, which resented his pro-Roosevelt political stance. For the rest of Sinatra’s career, stories of his relations with the underworld dogged him, and he reacted angrily to the charges.

Divorce and Remarriage; Career Troubles

While his career was in decline in the late 1940’s, his marriage to Nancy Barbato also unraveled. In 1949 he had begun an affair with the movie star Ava Gardner. The relationship became public the next year, and on November 7, 1951, one week after his divorce was final, he married her in Philadelphia.

Passionate but stormy, the marriage lasted just less than two years. MGM announced their separation in October 1953, and they were divorced in 1957. (She died in 1990.)

Those personal upheavals, including a suicide attempt, coincided with increasing tension between Sinatra and Columbia Records after Mitch Miller took the company’s creative reins in 1950.

In an ever more desperate search for a hit single, Sinatra let himself be coerced into recording inferior material, the most notorious example being ”Mama Will Bark,” a 1951 novelty duet with the television personality Dagmar that included dog imitations by Donald Baine.

Although his voice had begun to reflect the strain he was under, he still made some powerful recordings, including ”April in Paris,” the anguished ”I’m a Fool to Want You” and renditions of ”Castle Rock” and ”The Birth of the Blues” that anticipated the swinging Sinatra of the mid-50’s.

Sinatra’s phenomenal resurgence began in 1953 with the release of ”From Here to Eternity,” Fred Zinnemann’s film version of James Jones’s best-selling novel about American G.I.’s in Hawaii on the eve of World War II. His portrayal of Maggio, the combative Italian-American soldier who is beaten to death in a stockade, his spirit unbroken, won him rave reviews, an Oscar and renewed public sympathy.

In April 1953, Sinatra, then 37, had signed with Capitol Records. A cautious deal, the contract was for only one year, with no advance. Sinatra arrived at Capitol just when his voice had lost most of its youthful sheen, but the move proved fortunate. Only five years earlier, the long-playing record had been introduced, and the longer form encouraged Sinatra, who brought remarkable introspective depth to the interpretation of lyrics, to make cohesive album-length emotional statements.

In his second recording session for Capitol, in late April 1953, Sinatra was teamed with Nelson Riddle, who became the most important of the several arrangers with whom he worked during his decade with the label. A trombonist who had also worked with Tommy Dorsey, Riddle pioneered in augmenting a big-band lineup with strings, and he was the master of an elegant pop impressionism that enhanced Sinatra’s vocal image of urbane sophistication. On a series of classic pop albums for Capitol, the singer and arranger virtually reinvented swing music for a more opulent era.

That process began with their first single release, ”I’ve Got the World on a String,” which hit the pop charts in the summer of 1953. It continued with the albums ”Songs for Young Lovers,” released in early 1954, and ”Swing Easy,” which came out six months later.

The collaboration hit its artistic peak with three albums. ”In the Wee Small Hours,” a 16-cut collection of classic torch songs sung in a quietly anguished baritone, was released in the spring of 1955. ”Songs for Swingin’ Lovers,” released a year later, defined Sinatra in his adult ”swinging” mode. It included what many regard as his greatest recorded performance: Cole Porter’s ”I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

”Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely,” released in the summer of 1958, expanded on the mournful, introspective tone of ”Wee Small Hours” by adding shadings that were at once jazzier and more operatic. The album, which included his classic recording of ”What’s New,” inspired Linda Ronstadt’s hit 1983 album ”What’s New,” which in turn spurred a revival of interest in elegant 50’s pop styles.

Sinatra’s Capitol albums were among the first so-called concept albums in the way they explored different adult approaches to love and invoked varied aspects of the singer’s personality. These were the fun-loving hedonist (”Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” and its equally brilliant 1957 follow-up, ”A Swingin’ Affair”), the romantic confidant (”Close to You,” recorded with the Hollywood String Quartet), the jet-set playboy (”Come Fly With Me”), the romantic loner (”Where Are You?,” ”No One Cares”) and the hardened sensation-seeker (”Come Swing With Me”).

The Hit Maker And Prolific Actor

In 1959, ”Come Dance With Me!,” a hard-swinging album arranged by Billy May, won Sinatra his first Grammy Awards, for album of the year and best male vocal performance, and stayed on the sales chart for 140 weeks, longer than any other Sinatra album.

Sinatra’s career as a maker of hit singles was also rejuvenated. ”Young at Heart,” which hit the pop charts in February 1954, reached No. 2 on Billboard’s pop singles chart, and ”Learnin’ the Blues” reached No. 1 the following year. His other significant hits from the late 1950’s included ”Love and Marriage,” (which was written for a television production of ”Our Town,” in which Sinatra played the Stage Manager), ”The Tender Trap” (1955), ”Hey! Jealous Lover” (1956), ”All the Way” (1957) and ”Witchcraft” (1958).

During this period, the versatile team of Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, who had become partners in 1954, functioned almost as Sinatra’s house songwriters, supplying both movie song hits and the title songs for albums.

After ”From Here to Eternity,” Sinatra’s movie career boomed, with the roles many and varied. He played the perennial gambler Nathan Detroit in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical ”Guys and Dolls” (1955), a heroin addict in ”The Man With the Golden Arm” the same year and an Army investigator tracking a would-be assassin in the political thriller ”The Manchurian Candidate” (1962).

His performance in ”The Man With the Golden Arm” won him an Academy Award nomination for best actor.

In his better movie roles — playing a would-be Presidential assassin in ”Suddenly” (1954), the comedian Joe E. Lewis in ”The Joker Is Wild” (1957) and a vulnerable intellectual in ”Some Came Running” (1958) — Sinatra conveyed an outsider’s edgy volatility that matched the film-noirish mood of his more introspective albums.

His roles in the film musicals ”High Society” (1956) and ”Pal Joey” (1957) as well as ”Guys and Dolls” effectively played off his scrappy, streetwise image.

Assessing his film career, the critic David Thomson said Sinatra had a ”pervasive influence on American acting: he glamorized the fatalistic outsider; he made his own anger intriguing, and in the late 50’s especially he was one of our darkest male icons.”

”Sinatra is a noir sound,” he said, ”like saxophones, foghorns, gunfire and the quiet weeping of women in the background.”

Chairman of the Board, Leader of the Rat Pack

Sinatra remained a top box office draw for nearly a decade, and his success as both singer and actor led the New York radio personality William B. Williams to nickname him Chairman of the Board of show business. The name stuck for the rest of his long career.

At a time when restraints on sexual and social behavior had begun to loosen a bit, the high-living Sinatra, who enjoyed gambling and womanizing, became in the popular press the embodiment of the swinger, a concept repeatedly invoked by his album titles. In the 60’s, Sinatra appeared to be America’s quintessential middle-aged playboy.

”Ocean’s Eleven” (1960) was the first of three Sinatra films to feature the star surrounded by the hard-drinking, high-living clique — nicknamed the Rat Pack — that included Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. The group was an outgrowth of a social circle that had centered on Humphrey Bogart, who died in 1957. The Rat Packers would appear together in three more lighthearted capers: ”Sergeants Three” (1962), ”Four for Texas” (1963) and ”Robin and the Seven Hoods” (1964). This was the other side of Sinatra. As carefully as he plumbed his music, after 1960 he seemed largely to be walking through his movies.

Las Vegas Playground And Kennedy Campaign

One of the Rat Pack’s favorite playgrounds was Las Vegas, where Sinatra was a pioneer entertainer. In 1953, he bought a 2 percent interest in the Sands Hotel, and eventually became a corporate vice president. He earned $100,000 a week in his frequent performances at the Sands and used the hotel for recording albums and making movies.

After supporting Adlai Stevenson’s bid for the Presidency in 1956, Sinatra worked avidly for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and supervised the newly elected President’s inaugural gala in Washington in January 1961. But his pro-Kennedy sentiments cooled after the President canceled a weekend visit to Sinatra’s house because the singer had played host to the Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana and his associates. And in 1963, the singer lost his Nevada gambling license after Giancana was seen in the Cal-Neva gambling casino in which the singer held a major interest. The license was restored in 1981. By the 1970’s, Sinatra had turned to the right. He became a supporter of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Sinatra’s recording career entered a major new phase when he formed his own record company, Reprise, in late 1960. Since the new label overlapped his Capitol contract, for about a year he recorded for both labels. In 1963, he sold his record company to Warner Brothers, retaining a one-third interest. In association with Warner Brothers, he also set up his own independent film production company, Artanis.

Beginning with ”Ring-a-Ding-Ding!” in 1961 and for the next 20 years, Sinatra recorded more than 30 albums for Reprise. By this time, his voice had hardened and coarsened. Except for ”Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim,” a remarkable 1967 collaboration with the Brazilian songwriter, guitarist and singer in which he sang very softly, his ballad singing tended toward the stentorian, often with a noticeable edge of macho toughness. The coarsening of his voice, however, helped give his singing an extra rhythmic punch.

Looking Back Brings Its Rewards

Increasingly, his albums had a self-consciously retrospective air. ”I Remember Tommy . . .” (1961) looked back to his days with the Dorsey band. ”Sinatra’s Sinatra” (1963) consisted entirely of newly recorded Sinatra favorites.

His 50th birthday in 1965 was celebrated with the release of two deliberately monumental albums, ”September of My Years” and ”A Man and His Music,” an anthology of his career that he narrated and sang. ”September of My Years,” whose title anthem of middle-aged nostalgia was custom-written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and arranged by Gordon Jenkins, won Grammys for album of the year and best male vocal performance. Sinatra scored a double triumph in 1966 when ”A Man and His Music” was voted album of the year, and ”Strangers in the Night,” his first No. 1 single in 11 years, won record of the year. The string of hits continued with a Top 5 hit, ”That’s Life” (1966), and ”Something Stupid” (1967), a duet with his daughter Nancy.

In 1969 he had a substantial hit with ”My Way,” an adaptation of a French ballad, ”Mon Habitude,” by Claude Francois, Jacques Revaux and Giles Thibaut, with English lyrics by Paul Anka. Along with ”New York, New York,” which he recorded for a three-disk set, ”Trilogy: Past, Present, Future” (1980), it became one of the signature songs of his later years.

The moment when Sinatra and his style of music seemed the least fashionable was in the late 1960’s, when the youthful rock counterculture dominated popular music. Sinatra was no fan of rock-and-roll, having once dismissed it as music ”sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons.”

He did make tentative efforts to adapt to changing styles, trying his hand at songs by Jim Croce, Jimmy Webb, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, John Denver, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Peter Allen, Billy Joel and the Beatles, among others. But even singing soft rock, he never sounded entirely comfortable.

His surprise marriage in 1966 to the actress Mia Farrow, then 21 (30 years his junior), seemed in part to be a search for a youthful connection. They were divorced in 1968.

As a film actor, Sinatra continued to work steadily through the 1960’s. Besides his Rat Pack jaunts, his films included ”Come Blow Your Horn” (1963), ”Von Ryan’s Express” (1965), ”Tony Rome” (1967), ”The Detective” (1968) and ”Dirty Dingus Magee” (1970).

Retirement? Could It Be? Doing That His Way

In June 1971, Sinatra announced his retirement during a gala concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, but it lasted only two years. He returned with the album ”Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back,” the title of which gave him his last show business nickname.

In 1976 he married for the fourth time, to Barbara Blakely Marx, who had been married to Zeppo Marx. She survives him, along with his daughters, his son and two grandchildren.

His recordings and films became less frequent. In 1980, after a six-year hiatus, he released ”Trilogy: Past, Present, Future,” a concept album in which a Gordon Jenkins oratorio imagined the singer as an intergalactic traveler. It was followed by the moody ”She Shot Me Down” (1981) and the jazzy ”L.A. Is My Lady” (1984).

Sinatra returned to film in 1977 with a television movie, ”Contract on Cherry Street,” which was poorly received, as was his last major Hollywood role, as an aging detective in ”The First Deadly Sin” (1980). In 1984, he briefly appeared as himself in ”Cannonball Run 2.” For his 75th birthday in 1990, Capitol and Reprise each released extensive, elaborately packaged Sinatra retrospectives. Columbia had released a six-disk anthology four years earlier.

Sinatra worked vigorously for the 1980 Presidential campaign of his close friend Ronald Reagan, and produced and directed a three-hour inaugural gala that was shown in an edited form on television in 1981. In 1985 he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Even after he stopped making records and movies, Sinatra continued to give concerts. In the early 1980’s, he was paid $2 million for four concerts in Argentina and $2 million for nine concerts in Sun City, South Africa. Sun City appearances by Sinatra, who had always supported civil rights causes, drew sharp criticism from anti-apartheid groups.

In 1982, he signed a $16 million three-year contract with the Golden Nugget Hotel in Atlantic City. In 1988 and 1989, Sinatra was still listed in Forbes magazine as among the 40 richest entertainers, with an annual income estimated at $14 million in 1989 and $12 million in 1988. But when he was required to submit a financial statement to the Nevada Gaming Commission for a renewal of his gambling license in 1981, he claimed a surprisingly modest net worth of just over $14 million.

Sinatra’s life was rocked in 1986 by the publication of ”His Way,” Kitty Kelley’s best-selling unauthorized biography, which focused on his volatile personality, his personal feuds, his streak of violence and his relationships over the years with organized-crime figures. It was a harsh portrait that nevertheless acknowledged Sinatra’s role as a musical icon.

The Concert Giver And Singer of Solo Duets

Sinatra toured the world in 1989 with Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli in a concert package billed as ”the ultimate event.” It was one of the grander bills in a rigorous touring schedule that he maintained into his late 70’s. He toured with Shirley MacLaine in 1992. Increasingly during his performances in later years he resorted to using electronic prompters at the front of the stage to read lyrics.

In 1993, at the age of 77, Sinatra had an astounding recording-career comeback with ”Frank Sinatra Duets,” a collection of 13 Sinatra standards rerecorded with such pop stars as Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross and Bono of the Irish rock group U2. The record was widely criticized for being an engineering stunt, since none of the guest singers were actually in the recording studio with Sinatra, who recorded his parts separately. The record nevertheless sold over two million copies in the United States. A year later, there was a weaker follow-up using a different roster of guests.

Sinatra’s last concert was on Feb. 25, 1995, at the Palm Desert Marriott Ballroom in Palm Desert, Calif.

Assessing his own abilities in 1963, Sinatra sounded a note that was quintessentially characteristic: forlorn and tough. ”Being an 18-karat manic-depressive, and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an overacute capacity for sadness as well as elation,” he said. ”Whatever else has been said about me personally is unimportant. When I sing, I believe, I’m honest.”

Swingin’ and in Films

With the November 1995 release of Frank Sinatra’s complete works on Reprise, the entire catalogue on all labels is available on compact disk. Here is a selective discography.

Tommy Dorsey/Frank Sinatra: Alltime Greatest Hits, Vol. 4 (RCA)

The Voice (Columbia)

Frank Sinatra: The Voice, The Columbia Years, 1943-1952 (4 CD’s, Columbia)

Swing Easy/Songs For Young Lovers (Capitol)

In the Wee Small Hours (Capitol)

Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (Capitol)

This Is Sinatra! (Capitol)

Close to You (featuring the Hollywood String Quartet) (Capitol)

A Swingin’ Affair (Capitol)

Where Are You? (Capitol)

Come Fly With Me (Capitol)

Ring-A-Ding-Ding! (Reprise)

September of My Years (Reprise)

Moonlight Sinatra (Reprise)

Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim (Reprise)

She Shot Me Down (Reprise)

Frank Sinatra Duets (Capitol)


Frank Sinatra appeared in 58 movies, winning an Oscar for his performance as Maggio, the doomed G.I. in ”From Here to Eternity” (1953). He played everything from a shy sailor in ”Anchors Aweigh” (1945) to a tough Army investigator in ”The Manchurian Candidate” (1962), a tormented drug addict in ”The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955) and a daring prisoner of war in ”Von Ryan’s Express (1965). Here are some of his films.

Higher and Higher (1943)

Anchors Aweigh (1945)

On the Town (1949)

From Here to Eternity (1953)

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)

Guys and Dolls (1955)

High Society (1956)

Pal Joey (1957)

The Joker Is Wild (1957)

Some Came Running (1959)

Ocean’s Eleven (1960)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Come Blow Your Horn (1963)

Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964)

Von Ryan’s Express (1965)

Tony Rome (1967)

  • Stephen Holden, New York Times


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