Dolly was in trouble. She lay in agony on her kitchen table. Less than five feet tall and all of ninety pounds herself, the child she bore was enormous and her labor was not progressing as it should. Today, she might have been given prostaglandin to promote dilation. But this was 1915. The doctor chose forceps to extract the thirteen and-one-half-pound child who would carry the scars of this delivery for the rest of his life.
So it was that Francis Albert Sinatra came into the world at 415 Monroe St., Hoboken, New Jersey on December 12, 1915. Despite his astonishing birth weight, Sinatra would grow to be only about 5’7” and remain notoriously skinny until his mid-40’s.
The traumatic delivery left Dolly unable to have more children. It is said that parents tend toward extremes in their rearing of only children: they both over-indulge and expect too much of them. So it was with young Frankie. He would later say that he never knew whether Dolly was going to hit him or hug him.
Frankie’s parents were busy people. Dolly became a midwife and also immersed herself in local politics. His father, Marty, a fireman, bought a tavern and ran it with Dolly’s help. Young Frankie found himself continually farmed out to friends, neighbors and relatives. He would recall that it was at about age eleven, sitting on a Nickelodeon in his father’s bar that he first sang publicly. He would remember thinking “what a great racket this is.”
Later, an uncle gave Frank a ukulele. He would strum it as he sang to the delight of classmates, including his high school sweetheart, Nancy Barbato, who would become his first wife and mother of his three children.
But as Frank grew up, little else was working for him. He failed at everything but practical jokes. His teachers judged him utterly lacking in aptitude for anything and he flopped at job after job.
In due course, he became a high school dropout. But he kept singing. Then one night he took Nancy to see Bing Crosby perform. Entranced, he turned to her and announced, “I’m going to be a singer.”
Knowing what one wants to do with his life at only seventeen can be a great blessing. Some never figure it out. But for a seventeen year-old dropout from Hoboken, the pursuit of a singing career could only be fraught with struggle.
Frank’s first struggle was on the home front. Dolly and Marty didn’t approve of his aspirations. Marty threw him out. He soon found himself alone in New York City, that “trashcan dream come true.” He was thrown out of a few bars where he offered his vocal stylings. In others, he sang all night for a sandwich or a few packs of cigarettes.
A small break came when, thanks to Dolly’s persistent urging, a Hoboken trio admitted young Sinatra and became The Hoboken Four. The foursome proceeded to win a talent contest, which netted them a concert tour at $75 a week. It was then – not on stage, but on the tour bus – that the Sinatra genius first flickered. The bus would be crowded with musicians talking, necking, reading, playing cards. Impromptu, Sinatra would rise and sing… and everything stopped. Years later, one of the troupe remembered why: “He had his heart and soul in it.”
When the tour ended, The Hoboken Four disbanded and proved to be a stepping stone to nowhere. But Sinatra was in earnest. He began taking voice lessons and kept looking for his chance. Fifteen miles outside of Hoboken was a nightclub called the Rustic Cabin. It featured live music, which on Saturday nights could be heard across the river in Manhattan, thanks to a wire link with WNEW radio. Sinatra auditioned as a singing waiter at the Cabin and was turned down. Heartbroken, he came home, went to his room, locked the door and just cried.
If Sinatra had not succeeded as a singer it likely would have destroyed him. As Dolly listened through the door she understood for the first time just how existential singing was for him. Dolly now used her political connections–which included underworld characters with influence at nightclubs–to procure a second chance for her son. He got the job. Yes, he was waiting tables and sweeping the floor, but he got to sing with the house pianist and visiting bands.
And there was that radio link! Trumpeter and bandleader Harry James checked into a Manhattan hotel one night and heard Sinatra’s voice on a speaker in his room. The next night, James drove to the Rustic Cabin and hired him on the spot. It was June of 1939. Stardom was not far away.
The Harry James Band was a stepping stone to somewhere. Sinatra would sing with James for just six months. In November came an invitation to audition for the Tommy Dorsey Band. Dorsey hired Sinatra as the band’s new “boy singer.” Sinatra was nearly twenty-four and men much younger would soon be fighting Hitler and Tojo, but that was the jargon of the era. His starting pay was $100 a week. Sinatra had hit the big time.
Sinatra joined the Dorsey Band in January of 1940. Dorsey’s “girl singer,” Jo Stafford, recalled his first show in Indianapolis. The band hadn’t rehearsed with him. Most hadn’t even met him.
“Out came this rather frail looking young man with a whole bunch of hair,” Stafford said “sang no more than a few bars of ‘Stardust’ and a great hush fell over the theater…Nobody ever sounded like that before.”
The crowd yelled for more. Frank and Tommy improvised an encore…and then the screaming started. The screaming of the bobby soxers: it would define Sinatra as the musical icon of the war years.
Sinatra’s delivery was already silky smooth; Harry James had wanted to bill him as “Frankie Satin.” But Dorsey’s trombone was smoother. Frank couldn’t figure it out. Dorsey seemed never to take a breath. Finally, he discovered that Dorsey had mastered the art of the catch-breath: a quick breath hidden in plain sight so as not to disrupt the phrasing. Sinatra was determined to sing the same way. He went back to his voice coach and began running and swimming underwater. It worked astonishingly well. One biographer reported that Frank could sing twelve to sixteen measures without a breath, which isn’t humanly possible. He only appeared not to be breathing.
He also only appeared to be content in the Dorsey stable. Offstage, he was battling for the limelight with the band’s ace drummer, Buddy Rich, and itching to take the next step – going solo. Growing up starved for parental attention and not knowing if he would be hit or hugged when he received it had endowed Sinatra with the sensitivity to interpret the songs he sang. It had also left him horribly insecure. He threw a water pitcher at Rich and hired some Hoboken toughs to rough him up. Sinatra would snap on a lot of people through the years. Yet the sensitivity that informed his music also sustained an extraordinary generosity. Buddy Rich provides the perfect example of this dichotomy. Years after their rivalry in the Dorsey band, Rich fell ill and Sinatra came to his financial aid.
In 1942, underworld connections again came to help Sinatra. The Dorsey gig had been grand, but Frank was ready to move on. Dorsey was not inclined to let him go. Not, that is, until someone suggested that trying to enforce Frank’s contract might not be good for Dorsey’s health.
Off went Sinatra and…nothing! A musicians’ strike kept him out of the recording studio. He bided his time, singing to adoring crowds of bobby soxers in nonetheless small clubs. Then, in December, the phone rang. The voice on the other end was that of Robert Weitman, director of the Paramount Theater. “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?” asked Wightman. That night, Jack Benny introduced him and Benny Goodman directed the band. Neither man had ever heard of Frank Sinatra. Neither had any inkling of what was about to happen. The Paramount erupted.
“I thought the G_ _ d_ _ _ _d building was going to cave in,” Benny said. “They screamed, they ran down the aisles and chanted Frankie-e-e-e! The sound was deafening.”
The originally scheduled one-week stand was extended to two months. Sinatra had become “The Voice.”
The Voice would dominate the airwaves and the record stores for the rest of the war. Postwar, the mood of the country changed, becoming less hungry for the lovesick, nostalgic ballads that had been so successful for Sinatra. More importantly, as 1950 approached, Sinatra’s personal life had become a nightmare of his own creation. He blew up his marriage to Nancy Barbato for a tempestuous affair with Ava Gardner. The episode drained Sinatra emotionally and physically. He turned to self-medication.
The Voice grew feeble. One night in 1950, after seeing specks of blood in his mouth for several days, Sinatra reached for a high note and produced nothing but dust. He had suffered a hemorrhage of his vocal cords. Columbia records dropped him, his talent agent dropped him. Worst of all, Ava Gardner dropped him. Sinatra had never lost at love before and never would again. He was teetering very, very near the edge. Only his success in the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity and a new recording contract with Capitol Records provided enough encouragement to help him hang on and get his voice back in shape.
By 1953, The Voice had returned. It was different now: a little darker, a little lower. The tones that captured the hearts of the bobby soxers were tender, sensitive and romantic. The voice that the world now heard could convey elation, devastation, jubilation and desperation, could be hip, could be haunted. There was also a new maturity…the maturity of someone who had lived and loved and lost–and survived.
“I’ve loved, I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve had my fill, my share of losing.”
Those words were literally written for Sinatra. He became so synonymous with the torch song, that a generation later, Stephen Bishop could sing of a lonesome man who “puts on Sinatra and starts to cry,” and everyone understood.
Frank’s tenure at Capitol Records in the Fifties established the essential Sinatra persona that would endure to the end of his career and still echoes today. People thronged to the studio to watch him work. There was no show to be seen there; only a man completely immersed in his music. From then on, no one questioned whether Sinatra identified with this or that song; one just understood. It was a priori knowledge.
Sinatra explained it all in five words: “When I sing I believe.”
More than the tone or the timbre, more than the breath control, more than the incomparable phrasing, here was the secret of the greatest popular singer of the 20th century – that he simply believed — and invited us to believe with him.