Frank Sinatra first burst into the national consciousness in the 1940s. He became a teen singing idol while touring the country and making records with big band leaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey.
By the time he was only 32 and just starting to make movies he had already been hailed as “an American phenomenon” by a New Yorker magazine writer whose book presciently stated: “Frankie is more of a symbol than most of us are aware.” Seventy years later and 14 years after his death at age 82, everything about the man -- his personal style, his biography, and mostly, his music – continues to define a tough but tender idea of masculinity and embody everything that was romantic and alluring about America in its post-World War II prime.
A show coming to the Lesher Center for the Arts explores the music of Sinatra and by extension its meaning in our lives. In Diablo Theatre Company’s My Way, A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra four singers and eight dancers take the reins of Sinatra’s songbook, traveling from Sinatra’s big band days (“I’ll Be Seeing You”) to his heyday in Hollywood (“The Lady is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine”) to his Las Vegas Rat Pack era (“Strangers in the Night”) and to the September years of his career (“New York, New York”).
In all the pivotal moments of his five-decade career, Sinatra made songs that became classics, largely because, generations later, they work like time machines. Just listening to a Sinatra song can transport listeners back to important moments in our shared cultural history -- or to a moment in our own lives.
In a now famous Mad Men episode, the show’s fictional 1960s ad man Don Draper expounds on the time machine power of certain devices – in that episode’s case a Kodak carousel slide projector. Draper could easily be talking about any of the more than 50 Sinatra songs you can hear in My Way. Draper says that the feeling evoked by a parade of family photos – or, similarly, a revue of familiar songs -- is nostalgia. What Draper means by nostalgia is not something teary and overly sentimental. It’s something more delicate and potent, a “twinge in your heart,” more powerful than memory alone. It takes you to a time or a place “that you ache to go to again," he says.
Actually, Mad Men is a TV show that bathes in nostalgia for an era that Sinatra helped define – even if the show, so far, has not featured a Sinatra song on any of its episodes’ soundtracks. Maybe creator Matthew Weiner, known for being oblique when it comes to delivering the Big Message, considers the connection between Mad Men chic and Sinatra so obvious he doesn’t need to go there.
In any event, many Sinatra songs, including ones you’ll hear in My Way have rich historical associations to world events, cultural movements and the famous and infamous. If you just dig a little bit into the history of any of these songs, you’ll find treasures of information, time capsules of trivia and surprising six-degrees-like connections between events and individuals – Bing Crosby, Bogart and Bacall, Count Basie, the Kennedys, Grace Kelly, Elvis Presley, Ronald Reagan – who have become familiar to us through movies, TV, newsreels and old photos.
Take, for example, a brief history of the song “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Sinatra first recorded it in 1944 when he was singing with Tommy Dorsey’s band. The song became an anthem for soldiers in World War II serving overseas.
Actually, my mother would have been listening to it when she was a teenager growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Forty years later, I found an album of 78s containing songs Sinatra recorded with Dorsey. One disk contained “I’ll Be Seeing You.” I remember listening to it and being amazed at how a young Sinatra’s clear-as-bell voice carried through the crackling and hiss that were typical of 78s.
Here’s another Sinatra song with very high-profile associations: the peppy “High Hopes,” which Sinatra recorded for the 1959 film A Hole in the Head. The song won the Academy Award for Best Song and became a popular children’s tune, but it also became a symbol of how a skinny kid from Hoboken, New Jersey could rise to the heights of American power and culture. Sinatra gave permission for a version of the song, with slightly reworked lyrics, to be used as the theme song for the presidential campaign of his good friend John F. Kennedy.
Many of Sinatra’s classics evoke loneliness and sensuality, as well as for some, private memories of times when that loneliness and sensuality, “blended with the dim light, the alcohol … and late-night needs, becomes a kind of airy aphrodisiac.” That’s how writer Gay Talese put it in his famous 1966 Esquire magazine profile “Sinatra Has a Cold.” In this particular passage, Talese describes a scene at a private Beverly Hills club where Sinatra, then turning 50, is sitting quietly, dark and sullen with a cold, nursing a drink. Sinatra’s song “In the Wee Small Hours” starts playing in the bar and inspires Talese’s imagination to travel to thoughts of how Americans court and make love.
“Undoubtedly the words from this song, and others like it, had put millions in the mood, it was music to make love by, and doubtless much love had been made by it all over America at night in cars, while the batteries burned down, in cottages by the lake, on beaches during balmy summer evenings, in secluded parks and exclusive penthouses and furnished rooms, in cabin cruisers and cabs and cabanas -- in all places where Sinatra's songs could be heard were these words that warmed women, wooed and won them, snipped the final thread of inhibition and gratified the male egos of ungrateful lovers.”
Many of Sinatra’s more reflective works carry that sense of looking back on life, with fondness but also with regrets and then a damn-it-all acceptance. It’s almost as if songs like “My Way,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” and “One More for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” take you through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
And now, the end is here
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I'll say it clear
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain
I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and ev'ry highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way.
Singer-songwriter Paul Anka wrote “My Way” for Sinatra in 1967, adapting it from a French pop song he heard while vacationing in the south of France. Frank Sinatra recorded his version in December 1968. When it was released on an album of the same name, the song did very well in a post-Summer of Love era, hitting No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Elvis Presley started singing the song in concert in the 1970s. A few weeks after his 1977 death, Presley’s version of the song was released and became a monster hit in the United States and the UK, reaching No. 22 on the Billboard chart – higher than Frank Sinatra’s peak position.
But 35 years later, does anyone remember Presley’s version?
Not to slight Presley’s own impact on American culture, but “My Way” was and is Sinatra’s song. So many other great artists have masterfully covered songs associated with Sinatra. But in the end they are all Sinatra’s songs, and he’s still the Chairman of the Board. And, thanks to new generations of fans, who have become enamored of Sinatra’s style of cool, he looms as large in our consciousness as he always did.
Diablo Theatre Company’s My Way, A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra performs September 7 through September 29 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.