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Frank: The Voice

Biographer James Kaplan succeeds in capturing the fragile ego, contradictory impulses, and immense talent that defined Frank Sinatra.

By Michael Giltz / November 22, 2010

Frank: The Voice By James Kaplan Doubleday 786 pp., $35

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James Kaplan’s look at the greatest singer of them all, Frank Sinatra, cannily follows the example of some recent celebrity autobiographies. Both Julie Andrews and Steve Martin realized that the journey to stardom is a lot more interesting than being (and staying) on top, so they end their memoirs just as their careers are taking off for good.

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Kaplan knows that too, so his new book charts Sinatra’s childhood days, those early breaks with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, the path on to the movies and fame (and Ava), up until it all spiraled down and was seemingly lost forever.

Frank: The Voice ends with one of the most amazing comebacks in pop culture history. Sinatra finishes shooting his Oscar-winning role on “From Here To Eternity” and virtually walks off the set in Hawaii, jumps on a plane, and heads right into the Capitol studios to record his first song with arranger-producer Nelson Riddle.

But how did he get there? Kaplan interviewed roughly a dozen or so mostly minor figures in Sinatra’s life but “Frank: The Voice” is a product mostly of diligent research. Kaplan has dug through more than 120 books, hundreds (if not thousands) of articles and gossip items, and added a healthy dollop of imagination to tell Sinatra’s story with empathy.

Frankie wouldn’t have liked a book that talked about his weaknesses and fears, multiple suicide attempts, a coddled childhood, and lucky breaks. He much preferred the image of a tough guy born out of a hardscrabble youth who rose on pluck and talent and never backed down from a fight. But Kaplan is on Sinatra’s side as much as he can be without distorting the facts.

If Sinatra were ever honest, this is how he might have told his story. In Kaplan’s words, Sinatra is “scared s***less” during an early recording session. Sinatra doesn’t have sex with groupies. He f***s them. It’s a tough guy patois that Kaplan dips into at times (though thankfully not that often) to capture the swaggering self-image Sinatra always projected to the world.

The swagger didn’t come naturally to him. Sinatra was a momma’s boy, dressed up in fancy clothes and given every opportunity by his tough-as-nails, politically active, abortionist mother, Dolly. Sinatra weaseled his way into a hot local singing trio not because of his talent or charm (he was a pest, really) but because he owned a car and would drive them to gigs.

Then came another lucky break when the wife of bandleader Harry James heard Sinatra singing on a local radio show and touted him to her husband. That led to touring and more groupies, who no doubt didn’t expect the sweet-voiced, scrawny Sinatra to be quite so red hot a lover. Then came the jump from James to Dorsey and the movies and Sinatra was on his way.

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