In today’s culture of hyperbole, born of desperate attempts to be noticed amid the Niagara of Internet and other outpourings, the label “genius” is affixed promiscuously to evanescent popular entertainers, fungible corporate CEOs and other perishable phenomena. But it almost fits the saloon singer — his preferred description of himself — who was born 100 years ago, on Dec. 12, 1915, in Hoboken, N.J.
It is, however, more precise and, in a way, more flattering to say that Frank Sinatra should be celebrated for his craftsmanship. Of geniuses, we have, it seems, a steady stream. Actual craftsmen are rarer and more useful because they are exemplary for anyone with a craft, be it surgery or carpentry. Sinatra was many things, some of them — libertine, bully, gangster groupie — regrettable. But he unquestionably was the greatest singer of American songs.
How should an artist’s character and private life condition our appreciation of his or her art? How, say, should knowledge of T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism condition one’s admiration for his poetry? With Sinatra, tune out the public personality and listen to his music as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan and Oscar Peterson did. They all, according to the culture critic Terry Teachout, named Sinatra their most admired singer.
For decades he was, Teachout says, “the fixed star in the crowded sky of American popular culture.” It speaks well of Sinatra, and reveals the prickly pride that sometimes made him volcanic, that he refused to adopt a less Italian name when ethnicity was problematic in the waning days of America’s Anglo-Saxon ascendancy. Anthony Dominick Benedetto (Tony Bennett) and Dino Paul Crocetti (Dean Martin) adjusted. Sinatra was an unadjusted man.
In spite of the spectacular vulgarity of Sinatra’s choices of friends and fun, he bequeathed to postwar America a sense of style, even male elegance. His Las Vegas cavorting with “The Rat Pack” (Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford) was an embarrassing manifestation of 1950s arrested-development masculinity: adolescence forever. But never mind his toupees and elevator shoes, his loutish flunkies and violent bodyguards, his awful movies and public brawls, his pimping for Camelot. And never mind that the comedian Shecky Greene was not altogether joking when he said: “Sinatra saved my life in 1967. Five guys were beating me up, and I heard Frank say, ‘That’s enough.’ ”
Never mind the tawdriness so abundantly reported in the just-published second volume of James Kaplan’s 1,765-page biography (“Sinatra: The Chairman”). But you must remember this: In a recording studio, Sinatra, who could not read music, was a meticulous collaborator with great musicians — including the Hollywood String Quartet — and arrangers.
For Sinatra, before a song was music, it was words alone. He studied lyrics, internalized them, then sang, making music from poems. His good fortune was that he had one of the nation’s cultural treasures, the Great American Songbook, to interpret. It was the good fortune of that book’s authors — Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer and many others — that Sinatra came along to remind some Americans and inform others of that book’s existence.
This is one kind of popular music:
“I can’t get no satisfaction,
I can’t get no girl reaction”
This is Sinatra’s kind:
“The summer wind came blowin’ in from across the sea
It lingered there, to touch your hair and walk with me
All summer long we sang a song and then we strolled that golden sand
Two sweethearts and the summer wind
Like painted kites, those days and nights, they went flyin’ by
The world was new beneath a blue umbrella sky
Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you
I lost you, I lost you to the summer wind
The autumn wind, and the winter winds, they have come and gone
And still the days, those lonely days, they go on and on
And guess who sighs his lullabies through nights that never end
My fickle friend, the summer wind”
Frequent performing, too much Jack Daniel’s and too many unfiltered Camel cigarettes took their toll before he acknowledged this and left the road, much too late. However, his reputation is preserved by the short-term memory loss of a nation that will forever hear the Sinatra of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
Kaplan reports, according to “legend,” that Sinatra’s casket in a Palm Springs cemetery contains some Jack Daniel’s and Camels. If so, even in death, Sinatra did it his way.
George Will’s is at firstname.lastname@example.org.