I’ll be honest, for a long time when I thought of Frank Sinatra, I thought of Marilyn Monroe, ratpack films, and the Olive Garden. That is, until I lived for a short time near The Bronx’s Arthur Avenue, the best Little Italy in New York. Sinatra poured from the speakers of Italian eateries and cigar and pastry shops. It dramatically increased the quality of my pleasant associations with his music. Still, I rarely listened very closely. I can’t entirely blame pop culture for turning him into background music—it happens to nearly every major star. But overuse of his voice as accompaniment to olive oil, cigars, and martinis has perhaps made us tune him out too often.
Treating Sinatra as mood music would not have sat well with some of the singers many of us grew up idolizing from a young age, like Paul McCartney and David Bowie, who both found his work formative. McCartney thought so highly of it, he sent Sinatra one of his earliest compositions, an off-kilter lounge crooner called “Suicide” that he wrote at the age of 14. (Hear an unreleased recording below.)
“I thought it was quite a good one,” he remembered, “but apparently [Sinatra] thought I was taking the mickey out of him and he rejected it.”
Bowie, in 1977, wrote what he expressly intended as a parody of Sinatra—“Life on Mars.” But the story is even stranger than that. He specifically tried to “take the mickey” out of Sinatra’s “My Way,” a song credited to Paul Anka that just happens to have first been written, with different lyrics, by Bowie, as “Even a Fool Learns to Love” in 1968 (hear Bowie sing it above). “Life on Mars,” one of the most beautifully melodic songs in all of pop music, with one of Bowie’s best vocal performances, shows how much the Thin White Duke owed to Ole Blue Eyes.
These are just two of hundreds of male singers whose melodies have taken up immortal residence in our brains and who owe a tremendous debt to Frank Sinatra. In addition to his keen melodic sensibility, Sinatra also set a high bar with his technique. In the video at the top of the post from 1965, we see the consummate artist record “It Was a Very Good Year” in the studio, while smoking a cigarette and casually sipping what may be coffee from a paper cup in his other hand.
At one point, he stops and banters with the engineer, asking him to stop for any “P popping,” the explosive sound resulting from singers putting too much force into their “p” sounds and distorting the microphone. Nowadays everyone uses what’s called a “pop filter” to catch these bursts of air, but Sinatra doesn’t have one, or seem to need one. “I don’t thump,” he tells the recording engineer, “I’m a sneaky P popper.” Indeed. One commenter on YouTube pointed out Sinatra’s graceful mic technique:
Notice how he turned his head when he sang “it poured sweet and clear” to avoid the spike on the P. In fact, he backed away from the mic just a bit for that whole last verse because he was singing much stronger for the last statement of the song. Think about it… this was a live studio recording. One take. No overdubs, No added tracks. Just pure talent. The only thing the sound engineers had to do was adjust the eq levels a bit and that’s it. This is what you hear on the album. You’d be hard pressed to find ANYONE who could do that today.
Most vocal performances get recorded in booths, and certainly not in big open rooms with an orchestra and no headphones. Some singers learn to handle a microphone well. Many do not. Audio compression supplies the dynamics, performances get processed digitally and edited together from several takes. Young producers often wonder how people made great sounding records before improvements like pop filters, isolating monitoring systems, or software that allow a nearly infinite number of corrective techniques. The answer: perhaps many of these things aren’t always improvements, but props. As Sinatra shows us in this footage, great sound in the studio came from the professionalism and attentive technique of artists and engineers who got it right at the source.