Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Day the Music Died

By Nicholas Stix

Jonathan Schwartz just ended his Saturday show on NPR’s WNYC-FM (93.9) by remarking that today is the 13th anniversary of the death of Frank Sinatra, who was born on December 12, 1915.

“I was working that day, at a station that is defunct, happily in my opinion: WQEW….

“[Upon leaving work] I looked up at the Empire State Building: It was all blue, as in ‘ol’ blue eyes.’”

Schwartz then played 1983’s “All the Way Home,” which Schwartz considers to have been “his last great record.” Probably so.

Long before Frank Sinatra died he was senile, his bodily systems were constantly failing him, and I considered that his death would be a blessing. Besides, what would I care? As famous as the man was, he was a complete stranger to me.

When I heard the news, it turned out that I cared a great deal, and was not at all relieved. For days, I was in a funk.

Frank Sinatra remains the greatest singer in the history of recorded music. There was not only his voice, which at the time of his greatest popularity was between a baritone and a tenor, until cigarettes pushed him over to baritone country. There was his phrasing, particularly with torch songs, and his way of swinging, ever upward, with up-tempo songs.

For about ten years, until he was hit by one of history’s longest mid-life crises, he was one of the world’s greatest movie actors. I only learned much later that, among millionaires, Sinatra was probably the most generous man on the face of the Earth. His kindness was, however, often overshadowed by thuggery. He described himself as a manic-depressive.

Marlene Dietrich called him “the Mercedes-Benz of lovers.” She was not alone in that judgment. He got around. About 25 years after the 1951 divorce of Sinatra and his first wife, Nancy, the mother of his three children went through, a reporter asked Nancy why she never remarried. She said, “When you’ve had the best, all the others are disappointments.”

Nancy Barbato Sinatra is supposedly still alive. That would make her about 90 years old.

Sinatra considered wife number two, Ava Gardner (1920-1990), his great love. I read somewhere—maybe in Gardner’s ghostwritten autobiography—that between their 1957 divorce and the rest of her life, that they would periodically rendezvous in luxury hotels around the world.

I dunno. That was surely his most passionate relationship, but his happiest? Including their extramarital affair, Sinatra and Gardner were together only about four years, were miserable most of the time they were together, the marriage was dead on arrival, and their divorce went through less than two years after they’d tied the knot. Gardner blamed her own jealousy, admitting that it drove her crazy whenever they were in public, and another woman looked Sinatra’s way. That’s a whole lotta crazy.

The only woman with whom he enjoyed any sort of happiness, I maintain, was his first wife.

Even tragic mistakes, such as his embrace of civil rights, were motivated by a fundamentally American sense of fairness that, unfortunately, was not reciprocated. Sinatra integrated Las Vegas, when he told clubs that if they wouldn’t hire his close friend, Sammy Davis Jr., then considered in many quarters to be the world’s greatest live entertainer, that they couldn’t have him, either.

He was the pugnacious little guy who won out, an “Angelo Maggio,” but unlike his tragic movie alter ego, one who lived and prevailed… with a little help from his broken-nosed friends.

He was the embodiment of the best of America, and only a little of her worst.

R.I.P., Francis.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sinatra was one of the greats. But he admitted he didn't have the best voice of the male singers of his era.

That honor goes to Vic Damone. Sinatra said he had the "best pipes in the business."

I would also venture to say Sinatra was happy with his wife Barbara, to whom he was married for 22 years.

But you wrote a very nice appreciation.

I know what you mean about feelings a little sad when guys like Sinatra die. You never knew them, but it still dings you a bit.