Why Three Generations Swooned to the Sultan

The young Italian from Hoboken, N.J. - who claimed he only wanted to be a saloon singer - was first, the century's prototypical media heartthrob, and finally, its king of popular song.

In a career that spanned seven decades and every major medium, Frank Sinatra, who died Thursday, brought together two vital streams of American vocal music: sentimental balladeering and rhythmic, improvisatory jazz. Through the process, his velvet baritone redefined the form for all who followed.

Sinatra prided himself on learning from other singers without imitating them. Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday showed him how to dramatize the lyrics of a song, but it was trumpeter Tommy Dorsey and bandleader Harry James who taught him how to both breathe and swing. Through his inimitable merging of lyrical message and melody, he became a creative touchstone for a succession of pop stars, from Elvis to Barbra Streisand, who has called Sinatra's style the epitome of popular song. Even decades after his pioneering idiom lost fashion, he inspired new generations. Sinatra, said U2 bandleader Bono, had what every rocker wants - swagger and attitude.

NORTH Hollywood fan Bobby Cowan has all 72 albums Sinatra recorded because "he sings every song directly to me." She notes that her grandfather gave Sinatra his first break in the 1930s, when he booked him on the radio show "Major Bowes Amateur Hour." His subsequent career included more Top 40 records than anyone else and chart-topping albums in every decade from the '40s on, including the 1996 "Duets," which sold more than 3 million copies. A best-actor Oscar for his role in "From Here to Eternity," as well as the failure of three marriages, spotlighted a life of personal and professional highs and lows.

Along the way, he also earned a reputation for toughness, from his birth in blue-collar Hoboken to a lifelong swirl of alleged Mafia connections. But despite a bullying tendency that many say was simply part of his driving ambition to succeed, those who knew him well - such as singer Mel Torme and actress Shirley MacLaine - have said that an underlying honesty or easiness was the key to his ability to reach his audience, no matter the era.

Those who worked with him, and those who knew him only through his songs, agree.

"He had the best timing, the best feel for the rhythm of any singer, ever," muses Chuck Berghofer, a bass player who toured for five years with Sinatra. If you tried to compliment him, "he'd just say, 'nah, I just get a cuckoo rhythm section and stay out of the way.' "

Mr. Berghofer adds, "Frank always made it look so easy that people thought he wasn't paying attention to the technical things. But he was a perfectionist. If I didn't come in exactly where he expected me, he'd send me an evil eye and bark, 'Where were you?' " A second later, says Berghofer, Sinatra would wink as if to say, 'Hey, we're all in this together.' "He was a regular guy in spite of all the celebrity. He was still a regular guy to the end."

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