'The Voice,' a music icon, falls silent Frank Sinatra's career a mix of greatness, scandal

May 16, 1998|By J. D. Considine | By J. D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

They called him "The Voice." It seemed an unremarkable description -- after all, what singer didn't have a voice? -- until you heard him. Then it all made sense.

When he sang, he didn't just deliver the melody but animated it, filled it with passion and power, longing and loneliness. The voice revealed how the singer felt and let listeners share in those emotions. It touched untold lives' and brought him unimagined success.

The voice was stilled early Friday morning when Frank Sinatra suffered a heart attack in Los Angeles. He was pronounced dead at 1: 50 a.m. EDT in the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. His wife, Barbara, was with him. He was 82.

Born Francis Albert Sinatra in Hoboken, N.J., Dec. 12, 1915, he was the only child of Anthony Martin Sinatra, a boilermaker and sometime boxer from Catania, Sicily, and his wife, Natalie "Dolly" Della Garavante, of Genoa, Italy.

As a recording artist, Frank Sinatra had a career without parallel. He had his first million-seller, "All or Nothing at All," in 1943, and released his best-selling album, the triple-platinum "Duets," 50 years later (his last studio recordings, "Duets II," was released in 1994). He had records in the hit parade for more than a half-century, placing 70 albums and 170 singles on the pop charts. Moreover, with plans in place for new collections of his work, his name might remain on the charts well into the next century.

But his professional life was not limited to the bandstand and recording studio. Sinatra acted in more than 50 movies, winning the Academy Award in 1953 for his supporting role in "From Here to Eternity." He was also something of an entrepreneur, having been in the casino business in the '50s and established his own record company, Reprise, in 1961.

Along with his success, however, there was scandal. Hot-tempered and tempestuous, with a flair for vicious profanity, he was well-known for holding grudges and throwing punches. His love life was equally stormy, full of flirtations, affairs and bitter fights. He married four times -- to high school sweetheart Nancy Barbato in 1939, to Ava Gardner in 1951, to Mia Farrow in 1966 and to Barbara Marx in 1976.

Raising suspicions

He was friendly with President John F. Kennedy and Mafia chief Sam Giancana, a combination that raised eyebrows and suspicions. He also helped disgraced former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew pay off tax debts and was a regular visitor at the Reagan White House.

He was as capable of cruelty as he was of kindness. But good or bad, it wasn't just what Sinatra did that made him matter. It was what he represented.

When he was a young man, making a name for himself with Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, he seemed the epitome of romantic intensity. As an established star, running around Las Vegas with his Rat Pack pals, he came across as the ultimate in hepcat cool. In the '70s, he was the "Chairman of the Board," exuding class and sophistication; in the '80s, "Ol' Blue Eyes" stood for enduring quality and Republican respectability.

He was the century's first true pop star. His audience was nearly universal, and his skill as a singer stretched across generations, from Tony Bennett and Mel Torme to Luther Vandross and Bono. Yet for everything he achieved, Sinatra always seemed to

symbolize something greater. His fans saw sincerity, prestige, great talent and noblesse oblige; his detractors saw arrogance, mob ties, lack of discipline and venality.

As a youth, Sinatra's main interest was sports, and his first job upon leaving high school was with the Jersey Observer, where he worked his way up from copy boy to cub reporter on the sports desk. But after seeing Bing Crosby in concert one night in 1933, the young Sinatra became convinced that he, too, could be a pop singer.

"I could tell when a singer was lousy and when he was fine, and it wasn't long before I began to see why," he recalled in 1943. "I learned that a voice no better than the next one sounded solid to me because of just one thing -- sincerity. The guy who put his heart into a song and made it mean something was my guy."

Within months of making the decision to sing, he appeared on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour -- a popular radio show for up-and-coming talent -- as a member of the Hoboken Four. By 1939, he had signed with Harry James, then a year later joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

It was with Dorsey that Sinatra reached stardom. Not only did he deliver his first chart-topping hit, the memorably melancholy "I'll Never Smile Again" but it was then that Sinatra's sex appeal came to the fore. With his gangly limbs and boxy suits, he looked like a human coat rack behind the mike, but once he began to sing, bobby-soxers were enraptured. The press began to refer to him as "Frank Swoonatra" in tribute to the fainting fans.

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