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.
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.
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.
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.