Sinatra's talents crossed all racial lines

May 20, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

Wherever Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is right now, he may well be shedding a tear.

Farrakhan, like most of us, has probably spent the past few days mourning the passing of Ol' Blue Eyes - Frank Sinatra. The Italian-American crooner was the favorite singer of the African-American firebrand whose incendiary rhetoric has been labeled anti-white and anti-Semitic. Only in America.

Farrakhan was a singer himself in his pre-Nation of Islam days. His admiration for Sinatra proves that Ol' Blue Eyes was the best at his craft, a singer's singer. When it came to crooning, Sinatra was the man. What other 50-year-old white guy from the swing era could get a No. 1 song on Baltimore's local rhythm and blues station in 1966? Sinatra did, with "That's Life." It didn't have a rhythm and blues melody, but it had rhythm and blues lyrics. And nobody could sing them like Sinatra.

But do we praise Sinatra the singer or condemn Sinatra the hood? Monday's Sun editorial page featured a cartoon of stereotypical mob types serving as pallbearers for Sinatra. A colleague all but challenged me to write something critical about Sinatra, claiming it would "show courage."

And more than a little bit of tunnel vision. True, if Sinatra is in heaven now it would only prove that God had probably lowered '' his lofty standards considerably, but most of us will get to heaven only if God is grading on a curve anyway. Another colleague said that the misdeeds and legal problems of today's gangsta rappers were nothing compared to Sinatra's flair for thuggery, though Ol' Blue Eyes never went to jail.

"Let's just say he was well-connected," the colleague shared.

But there was more to Sinatra than his alleged mob connections and thuggery. He raised millions of dollars for charity. He was a veritable one-man Hollywood civil rights squad, hiring blacks for his films long before it became considered the fair and moral thing to do. There is a story - albeit one that sounds apocryphal - that even Sinatra's alleged thuggishness and mob connections might have done some good.

The story goes that a certain photographer was, with the consent of Sammy Davis Jr.'s widow, taking pictures at Davis' funeral with the intent to publish them. Davis' friends watched in horror and tried to get the photographer to cease and desist. Finally Sinatra intervened. Keep taking those pictures, pal, Sinatra said, and you'll never live to see them published. The photographer beat a hasty retreat. The pictures remained private. Loyalty to friends was a Sinatra trademark. So was being multitalented.

Sinatra as a singer had no peer. Sinatra the actor was no slouch either. Sinatra made so many films his fans could hold video-thons for weeks. Unfortunately, not everyone seems aware that. A Sun intern called one local video store Friday to see if there was a rush on Sinatra videos.

"We ain't got no Frank Sinatra videos," was the response. Let's hope the "We Mutilate Grammar Video Store" is soon out of business.

I first met Sinatra through his movies, not his singing. It was in one of those half-dozen or so movie houses that dotted Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1950s that I saw him - as an assassin paid to kill the president in a movie named "Suddenly." Sterling Hayden played the hero, but Sinatra made the picture. It vanished for years after President John F. Kennedy's assassination - art was apparently imitating life too closely for some folks - resurfaced on cable and has since vanished again.

A couple of years later, in one of those same movies, there was Sinatra again - playing an arrogant, foppish bully who terrorized an entire town in the western "Johnny Concho." Some critics called the movie offbeat, which doesn't begin to describe it. I didn't appreciate it until years later. It might be the most unusual western ever made and Sinatra's most underrated performance. plays a gambler who must come to grips with his cowardice and immorality. (Sinatra's critics are no doubt snickering that that's more than he was able to do in real life.)

Sinatra won an Oscar for playing Private Maggio in 1953's Best Picture "From Here to Eternity," but my favorite Ol' Blue Eyes performance is 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate." Sinatra was superb as an Army intelligence officer reeling from the effects of his brainwashing during the Korean War while trying to piece together a puzzle that, when completed, pointed to an assassination attempt of a presidential candidate.

They don't make pictures like that anymore. They don't make talents like Sinatra's anymore, either.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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