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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.

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At every step of the journey, Kaplan does a good job of capturing what he feels is Sinatra’s fragile ego, contradictory impulses, and – when possible – separating fact from fiction. The Voice – Sinatra’s skill at bringing lyrics alive – was a gift, pure and simple. Sinatra worked at his craft and took singing a lot more seriously than he took anything else, but it was still a gift. Certainly, the story here is of a kid who got one golden opportunity after another – and often squandered them with his bullheadedness, ego, and refusal to work hard when he was on top.

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In this period, radio was the TV of its day and a golden opportunity. Not to Sinatra. Time and again he’s shown blowing off work, making impossible demands, showing up late, refusing to rehearse, and so on. The same is true with most of the movies he made, with the notable exception of his first big role (“Anchors Aweigh”) and his comeback vehicle (“From Here To Eternity”).

It’s a relief when we get a glimpse of Sinatra in the recording studio. Kaplan quotes at length one description of Sinatra in complete control, positioning individual musicians closer or farther from the mike, demanding exact and particular changes for certain moments in a bar, technically proficient and as far from winging it as can be.

But above all, the focus here is on his private life, which was dominated by Ava Gardner, the tempestuous actress. They bicker and fight to an extraordinary degree and they did it all in the white-hot glare of the media, where every spat, every separation, was detailed to a degree that would set the stage for future celebs, from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Kaplan draws on a wide variety of sources to tell his story. Here’s one cavil about his work: Whenever a particularly juicy or surprising anecdote is repeated, if you check the footnotes time and again the source is Kitty Kelley’s biography “My Way.” If it’s not the most-cited reference in the book (and I think it is), it’s certainly in the Top 3. Kaplan has no hatchet to wield, but clearly he’s not going to turn his back on scandal or dirt, wherever it comes from.

Perhaps the best way to read this breezy book (and many people will) is to provide your own soundtrack. Whenever a particular song or album is mentioned that you own, play it. That keeps you focused on the paramount reason we’re still talking about Sinatra today: the music.

Michael Giltz is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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