by Alex Bennet
from HUSTLER Magazine January 2011
AT HIS BEST THE CROONER HAS NO CONTENDERS.
For around a year or so I have been obsessed with Frank Sinatra. It started when I programmed him into my iPod. I would put it on shuffle, and as it played I would click past my other choices, past Amy Winehouse and Elvis Costello, until I reached a Sinatra track. Finally saying, “Fuck shuffle!,” I just played nothing but Sinatra.
There’s something about the singer that never gets boring. Listening to him at his prime—the ’50s and ’60s—he’s utterly amazing. Sinatra may have had the most perfect voice ever. The interpretation, the control, his use of the voice as an instrument and the absolute attention to craft are unbelievable.
You’d think having all that talent would have made Sinatra’s life complete bliss. However, in reading about the man, you discover he was absolutely miserable most of his life. Perhaps it was that pain that made him amazing. You take the bad because it influences the good.
The early Sinatra—the late ’30s and ’40s—is quite uninteresting. Sure, the voice was pure, but it wasn’t until the 1950s— after his career took a dive—that he became great. He was dropped by both his movie studio and his record company, divorced his wife Nancy and married actress Ava Gardner. He even ruptured his vocal cords, temporarily rendering him unable to sing. Worst of all, he lost his confidence. I recently saw him in a 1950 Bob Hope TV special, and he came across as a real honest-to-goodness, washed-up has-been.
Then Sinatra garnered 1953’s best supporting actor Academy Award for his performance in From Here to Eternity. With the confidence of that win, he came back better than ever. The pain had added something to his abilities. The boy was now a man. It was one brilliant album after another. This was his “golden age.” It was perfection, and for no small reason. The man strove for it. He wanted to be the best there ever was.
With a few exceptions, really famous performers today don’t have that devotion to craft. They aren’t trying to be the best there is. They settle for popularity and tons of cash. Take Amy Winehouse. At her best she’s remarkable, very reminiscent of Billie Holiday. But she seems to have no respect for her talents. Not giving a shit, she’s letting it all fall apart. In the end this attitude may wind up killing her.
Very few performers can hold on to those powers as long as Frank did. In their heyday the Rolling Stones were the best rock ’n’ roll band ever. In them I heard that same perfection you find in Sinatra. But he retained it for 25 years; the Stones couldn’t.
Sinatra’s career spanned longer than six decades, although his final 15 years saw a pathetic loss of his powers. Woody Allen once said that by the time he finally got to meet his idol, Groucho Marx, the man had suffered three heart attacks. By then, Allen said, “There was nothing left.” It was depressing, he elaborated, to see that no matter how much talent you have, one day it will be taken away from you.
I remember feeling that way the one time I actually saw Sinatra perform live. It was in May 1992, six years before he died. My acquaintance, comedian Tom Dreesen, was in the San Francisco Bay area opening for Sinatra at the Circle Star Theater, so he invited me to see the great man at work. I was supposed to meet him that night, but no such luck. Tom told me Sinatra’s best friend Jilly Rizzo had died that day, and the grieving singer wasn’t seeing anyone, although he forced himself to do the concert. But the figure onstage was depressing. I remember thinking that when the light hit him just right and he hit a note on target, I was seeing the old Sinatra. But mostly I was just seeing the old Sinatra.
At one point I thought Frank was staring at me as he sang. Then I realized I was sitting behind one of the teleprompters that surrounded the stage, and he was reading from it. “She gets too hungry for dinner at 8, Jack,” he sang. On the teleprompter I saw the word Jack had been inserted in an effort to evoke his past hipness.
On my iPod I once had a bootleg of a Sinatra concert recorded in Milan, Italy, in 1986. When you hear him sing the first lines of “Night and Day,” he’s off-key. There’s nothing left of him. Historically, it is known as the worst concert he ever gave. I have deleted it from my playlist.
Today’s entertainers should learn from Frank Sinatra: Strive for perfection. That would be the one true
Alex Bennett is a longtime HUSTLER contributor. The two-time Emmy winner, who broke into broadcasting as a teenager, can be heard on Sirius Left. 146 (9 a.m. to noon ET) and XM America Left 167 (midnight to 3 a.m. ET).
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