A loving look at the man who did it his way

Frank Sinatra, My Father, by Nancy Sinatra. Long Island City, New York. Doubleday. 334 pp. $50. Producer George Schlatter calls Frank Sinatra ``One of our national treasures. Anywhere you go in the world, when you talk about America they know Coca-Cola, they know the Statue of Liberty, they know Sinatra.''

He's made 2,000 individual recordings and 116 LP albums; he's made 58 films. Critics and fellow-musicians regard him as the greatest singer in the history of American popular music. He clearly merited the 1983 Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts.

Now, just in time for his 70th birthday, Dec. 12, comes a lavish tribute to an extravagant life. Nancy Sinatra has assembled a wonderful family album of photographs, many in color, and spent years interviewing her father's colleagues.

The result is not another memoir savaging ``Daddy Dearest,'' but a full-length portrait by a loving daughter -- perhaps too loving to do justice to such a complex personality. Where her father is concerned, she finds little to criticize.

His three-year stint with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra was a graduate course in smoothness. Sinatra became a master of legato phrasing who aimed to ``carry the melody line straight through.'' He wanted to make his voice work in the same way as Dorsey's trombone. ``The first thing I needed was extraordinary breath control.'' Despite that skinny physique, he developed his endurance with swimming and running so that he would have the strength ``to sing six bars and, in some songs, eight bars without taking a v isible or audible breath.''

He also grasped the importance of the microphone: No longer was it necessary to belt it out to reach the rafters. With a mike, his cello sound could float easily on the breath. By avoiding strain, he achieved more subtlety in shading of pitch, and bending and teasing of rhythm.

Sinatra has always shown a sensitivity for the lyrics -- the story told in song. He imbues love songs with an unmatched drama and poetic emotion. His daughter writes: ``Arranger Gordon Jenkins told me how he and composer Jimmy Van Heusen were listening to a playback of Frank singing Irving Berlin's `All Alone.' `All alone, I'm so all alone' . . . in tones of genuine woe. Van Heusen said, `He believes it.' ''

Despite the ``Hit Parade'' radio show and records, by the late '40s Sinatra's career was on a downhill slide. The 1953 film ``From Here to Eternity'' won him an Oscar; more important, it countered his crooner image, established him as a serious actor, and revived his career.

The decade 1954-1964 produced Sinatra's best work in the recording studio -- albums like ``Come Fly With Me,'' ``Songs for Swingin' Lovers,'' and his finest, ``Only the Lonely.'' He confided to his daughter, ``I adore making records. I'd rather do that than almost anything else. Once you're on that record singing, it's you and you alone.''

He ``retired'' in 1971, but only two years later came a new album and a TV special, ``Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back.'' In the '70s he toured Australia, Japan, the United States, and Canada. He performed for charity at the Pyramids in Egypt, filled London's Palladium, and drew 275,000 fans to the immense Maracana soccer stadium in Rio. Today, he covers his shortness of breath by using more uptempo tunes and percussive phrasing -- and the velvet has turned gritty.

His oldest child describes their family life with her mother, Nancy, and the pain of the divorce and Sinatra's subsequent marriages to Ava Gardner, Mia Farrow, and Barbara Marx. She writes with ``compassionate acceptance'' of the contradictions and foibles of a man ``driven by ambition, by ego, by inextinguishable talent, and by gentleness, a force that can be almost violent, a love that is surpassing.''

Sinatra's ``saloon brawls'' and other gossip made good copy for the tabloids. Press attention in the '60s was prompted by the antics of ``The Summit'' -- Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop. His daughter writes that it was ``full of good times and lots of laughs,'' with breakfast at four in the afternoon. Las Vegas was home base; the Caesar's Palace marquee could say simply: ``HE'S HERE'' -- nothing further needed.

Despite the adulation and hype, Sinatra has never flagged in his commitment to his craft and art. A motto in his den reads, ``Music is the only form of art that touches the absolute.'' Where that art is concerned, he is a perfectionist. A musician herself, Nancy Sinatra understands that perfection in singing doesn't just happen, and she treats him as the serious artist he is.

David M. Burns leads the Hot Mustard Jazz Band in Washington, D.C.

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