“The Voice(s) of Frank Sinatra”
Not long after Frank Sinatra began his meteoric rise to stardom in the mid-1940s, he acquired a nickname - “The Voice.” Newly solo after leaving his job as boy singer for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Sinatra's tone, phrasing, and Herculean breath control was already seen as something apart from the man himself. “The Voice” transcended the Sinatra whose romantic exploits filled the gossip columns; it transcended the hysteria of the bobbysoxers. In retrospect though, “The Voice” really should be “The Voices,” for no one moment in time tells the whole story of Sinatra's singing style.
For some, the quintessential Sinatra is the pure-toned crooner of “I'll Be Seeing You,” when Sinatra sang with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra. For others, Sinatra was at his best as the tough but tender balladeer of the middle period concept albums like In The Wee Small Hours. And there are still others for whom Sinatra's peak was anthems like “My Way” and “New York, New York.” In truth, a large part of Sinatra's artistry was his process, the way that he adapted and matured over the course of his career. Understanding “The Voice” requires the long view.
Frank Sinatra's vocal style may be divided into three distinct periods: early (late 1930s to 1953), middle (mid-1950s to early 1960s) and late (1960s to 1990s). The early period coincides with his tenures with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, as well as his early solo years. Sinatra recorded for Columbia and RCA Victor at this time, two of the oldest and most established record labels in the world. The middle period covers his time with Capitol Records, when he pioneered the thematically linked long-playing album, and the late period includes his work with Reprise Records, a label that Sinatra himself helped to launch.
Like all crooners, Sinatra was inspired by the cool, relaxed approach of Bing Crosby, who had come to prominence in the late 1920s as part of the Rhythm Boys trio with Paul Whiteman's orchestra, and thereafter dominated radio, recording and films. Crosby transformed popular singing by exploiting the possibilities of a fairly new invention, the microphone. Rather than projecting to the rafters of the theatre like his predecessor Al Jolson, Crosby cultivated an naturalistic, intimate vocal style that electrified listeners. To say that Bing Crosby redefined popular singing in the first half of the twentieth century is an understatement. Building on Crosby's innovations, Sinatra developed a masterful microphone technique, using it as a tool to allow him to project a range of dynamic levels, from whisper-quiet to the loudest belted notes. Where Sinatra surpassed Crosby was in the area of musical acting.
Sinatra at his best conveyed a deep understanding of a song's lyric and the possibilities of presenting that lyric within the context of the melody. He tastefully employed dynamics (loud and soft singing), creative phrasing (the ways that a melody is divided into phrases) and contrasting vocal techniques. He was also not beyond making the occasional lyric change to personalize a song or to make a syllable snap closed a little more tightly. His performances, especially from his middle period on, are striking in their carefully constructed sense of drama. Sinatra was also enamoured of singers who worked in more of a pure jazz vein, like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. Both of these artists were known for taking great liberties with the melodies of the songs that they sang, replacing notes and phrases with new and often spontaneous recomposed material. While Sinatra was more conservative in his recompositions, he did make small but effective melodic alterations from time to time. In short, Sinatra advanced the art of interpretation, creating a third level of musical signification after music and lyrics. In this way, he was truly a collaborator with the songwriter, the arranger and the musicians.
Sinatra was also part of an Italian-American singing tradition stretching from popular opera singer and recording pioneer Enrico Caruso to Crosby's short-lived rival Russ Columbo. The Italian singing aesthetic valued beautiful vocal tone or bel canto, as well as an athleticism of breath control for the singing of long phrases and held notes. For the latter pursuit, Sinatra found inspiration in Jascha Heifetz's violin and Tommy Dorsey's trombone playing. As Sinatra recalled in a 1992 interview:
When I first started, it was my idea to make my voice work like a musical instrument. I've always been fascinated with Jascha Heifetz' way with the violin and Tommy Dorsey's way with the horn. Heifetz' constant bowing, when you never hear a break, carries a melody line straight through, just as Dorsey's trombone did.
Sitting on the bandstand behind Dorsey on countless gigs, he watched the bandleader filling up his lungs and playing impossibly long lines. Hoping to emulate Dorsey's “long breath” style, Sinatra started to jog and swim underwater to develop his lung capacity. He also strove to interpret the songs that he sang in the most direct and affecting way possible, to advance the art of “musical acting” as it were. And in this he succeeded from the very beginning of his career.
“I'll Be Seeing You” from 1940 (found on The Essential Frank Sinatra & Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra on Bluebird/Legacy) is an excellent example of Sinatra's early style. Here he sings in a higher range than he is often associated with – closer to tenor than baritone. He evinces a rhythmic looseness that speaks to Sinatra's understanding of jazz and swing feel, largely gained by listening to instrumentalists. His notes have a rapid but subtle vibrato (a slight up-and-down undulation of pitch) and he sings with the clear enunciation that would be a hallmark of his approach career-wide. As well, the synergy between Dorsey's muted trombone and Sinatra's vocal is striking – they are two sides of the same coin. Overall, “I'll Be Seeing You” has an easy intimacy, with a rather cool emotional temperature. The dominant aesthetic is that of tonal beauty and impeccable taste. Yet there is something to his vocal approach in this period that is self-conscious; Sinatra is listening to himself singing, luxuriating in the beauty of his instrument. This suggests an immaturity that comes into sharp relief when one considers the best work of the following period.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, musical tastes were changing. The public was moving away from the exquisitely crafted standards that Sinatra favored and opting instead for novelty material like “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window.” Sinatra began to be seen as a throwback to the war years, and rather passe. In addition to being dropped from his solo contract with Columbia Records in 1953, Sinatra faced well-publicized personal crises culminating in the dissolution of his first marriage. He later called this period his “Year of Mondays.” But after scoring an Oscar-winning role in the film From Here To Eternity and marrying actress Ava Gardner, Sinatra launched his first comeback with a new lease on life and a new record contract with upstart Capitol Records.
Sinatra's years with Capitol are seen by many fans as an artistic peak for the singer. He recorded a series of acclaimed long-playing albums (then a new format) that were thematically unified in song subject and style. He collaborated with the best arrangers in the business, including Nelson Riddle and Billy May. His choice of material veered between the ballads for which he was famous and uptempo swing numbers. Sinatra's vocal style had changed by the mid-1950s, lowering in range and taking on a greater resonance and a deep, rich, saxophone-like tone. His sound was somewhat more masculine and dynamic, while maintaining the masterful swing and subtle vibrato of his early period. Artistically, Sinatra delved deeper into the art of interpreting the lyric, and in the process created a new vocal persona: tough but tender, bruised by life but fully in charge.
Sinatra recorded at least six versions of Cole Porter's classic standard “Night and Day.” His 1957 version, released as part of his album A Swingin' Affair, finds him fronting a forceful, brassy big band playing an arrangement by Nelson Riddle. One of the most striking aspects of this performance is Sinatra's phrasing. “Night and Day” was introduced by Fred Astaire, who phrased the melody in short one- and two-bar bursts. Sinatra takes a more flexible and long-lined approach. After singing the first two A sections in short phrases, he takes a breath and, unusually, runs the last line of the second A section directly into the bridge - “I think of you day and night” runs directly into “night and day under the hide of me...” without even a breath. This is not just impressive technique; by running one section into another, he emphasizes the obsessive romantic character of Porter's lyric. He then sings out the chorus with luxuriously long phrases. After a short instrumental interlude Sinatra sings the entire song again, taking considerable Billie Holiday-inspired melodic liberties and concluding with an astounding long note.
As much as Sinatra's hard-swinging middle period defined the state of the art, his approach to slower ballad material was perhaps even more superlative. “One For My Baby,” a Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer song introduced, like “Night and Day,” by Fred Astaire, was recorded six times by Sinatra from 1947 to 1993. His 1958 version, from the long-playing album Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely, is easily the most iconic version. The lyric to “One For My Baby” invites the listener to eavesdrop on a bar patron telling a bartender (“Joe”) vaguely about a romantic disappointment. Sinatra's 1958 version is a masterwork of theatrical singing – one can almost see Sinatra slumped at the bar while Joe polishes tumblers, half-listening. Beginning only with piano accompaniment, Sinatra undersings the first few lines, trailing off almost to silence on the phrase “except you and me.” After the orchestra enters almost imperceptibly and the key of the song raises to a higher pitch, Sinatra ups the drama with the line “Put another nickel/in the machine” by cutting off “nickel” and leaving what seems like an interminable silence before finishing the line, almost as an afterthought. “Feelin' so bad” finds the singer adding a subtle vibrato to his notes that gives the line a quivery, pathetic quality that suits the next phrase, “Can't you make the music/easy and sad.” Almost as if he's gathering up strength, Sinatra sings the line “You've gotta be true to your code” with noble, heroic long tones. One can hear an echo of Sinatra's Tommy Dorsey influence in this line. But a moment later he sounds deflated and inconsolable for the final line of the section, “Just make it one for my baby/and one more for the road.” Sinatra moves from the depths to the heights and back to the depths in two minutes flat.
How do you top the pinnacle of popular singing? Sinatra was increasingly at odds with the rising mainstream of rock and roll, and he responded by establishing his own record company, Reprise, and staking out the territory that he would rule for the rest of his career. From this point, he would try out one sound after another, working with young arrangers like Neal Hefti and Quincy Jones, dabbling in bossa nova and even soft rock. By the early 1960s Sinatra's vocal style was changing as well, in line with age and the world-weary persona borne of his well-known and often stormy personal life.
In the 1960s Sinatra the saloon singer became Sinatra the concert singer. His voice became coarser again, its range further lowered and narrowed by age and use. As Sammy Cahn once wrote, Sinatra's range moved over the course of his career “from violin to viola to cello.” Long lines gave way to shorter, sometimes barked phrases, with infrequent yet impressive long notes at the ends of songs.
His style became more minimalistic. Sinatra would leave out words or notes, boiling the songs down to their essence. At other times, he would alter the lyrics to make them more percussive-sounding, or more colloquial. In the late 60s, in an effort to stay on the pop charts, Sinatra veered into the soft Latin rock of “Strangers In The Night” and even experimented with a hard-biting, Ray Charles-influenced vocal sound for “That's Life” with some success.
“My Way,” a French song with English lyrics by Paul Anka, is in some ways emblematic of Sinatra's late period. Having first recorded the song in 1968, by the 1970s it had become a centerpiece of Sinatra's live concerts, which filled stadiums as readily as any rock band. Anka wrote the lyric with Sinatra in mind. It has served as an anthem both of Sinatra's storied life and career as well as the personal struggles and victories of many listeners. “My Way” as he sang it at Madison Square Garden in 1974 (released on the album The Main Event - Live) covers the gamut of late Sinatra, with the singer moving from a wistful recollection of past grievances to a triumphant bravura conclusion. The opening phrases are short and almost breathy, getting progressively longer over the course of the first two verses with dramatic pauses before the words “my way”. By the time he gets to the bridge (“Yes there were times...”) he is in full flight, masterfully ending his phrases with crisp consonants. His vocal power is astounding even in this late period. A recomposed phrase on “not in a shy way” darts, for only a moment, down to the bottom of Sinatra's range. While seemingly a throwaway ornament, that little flourish subtly underlines the boasting quality of Anka's lyrics. It is these little touches of interpretation that make Sinatra's art so singular.
It's not an overstatement to say that Frank Sinatra was the single greatest interpreter of American popular song. Through his artistry and sensitivity he elevated the role of the pop singer to that of the finest musical artist. In the process, he revealed the greatness of the “American Songbook,” the enduring works of Gershwin, Berlin, Arlen, Rodgers, Porter and a handful of others. Irving Berlin said of Sinatra, “Frank Sinatra is a songwriter's dream. No singer has done more for the songwriter. He knows his way around a song and does it his way, with tender, loving care.” As Sinatra himself stated, “Throughout my career, if I have done anything, I have paid attention to every note and every word I sing - if I respect the song. If I cannot project this to a listener, I fail.”
“The Voice” itself changed and adapted to the eras in which Sinatra lived as well as the changes in Sinatra himself – his life experiences as well as the physical condition of his vocal instrument. Fortunately for us, Sinatra's evolution is well-documented in extensive recordings, almost all of which are available in a variety of formats today.