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.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
“My Way”‘s lyrics were written by Paul Anka but the music itself actually comes of the French song “Comme d’habitude” co-composed and co-written (with Jacques Revaux), and performed in 1967 by Claude François.
So that was before Bowie’s version.
Furthetmore, David Bowie himself aknowleged that in 1968 – the year before Paul Anka acquired the French song – his manager, Kenneth Pitt, asked him to write English lyrics for “Comme d’habitude”, so he never claimed to have written the song, only lyrics
(3:10 in the video)
Amazing! And don’t forget that Sinatra was also a great actor.
“I can’t entirely blame pop culture for turning him into background music…”
Ugh. Pop culture treats Sinatra like a god. Pop culture has reached into the pre-rock world and pulled out particular heroes to slurp on–Miles, Coltrane, and Sinatra in particular–without any seeming interest in other artists from the pre-rock millieu. I’m sorry, I honestly do respect this writer for much insight he has on many matters, but an example of this is devoting a paragraph to the supposedly sublime artistry Sinatra displays in avoiding popping his p’s. As if other vocalists of the time were filling records with popping p’s. If only Mel Torme or Sara Vaughan or Joe Williams or Julie London or Ella Fitzgerald or Anita O’Day or Nat King Cole could have achieved such lofty heights of understanding to not pop their p’s.
I remember once, decades ago, listening to Larry King going on and on about Sinatra’s phrasing. “Listen to the phrasing…the phrasing…he may have lost a little of his voice in his later years, but oh, the phrasing…” and one couldn’t help but realize that he had no idea what the word “phrasing” meant, but that he had read it somewhere. It stuck in my mind because it was so typical.
As long as I can remember, I’ve heard people gushing about Sinatra who have no actual interest in listening to jazz (or whatever Sinatra is) vocalists. Sinatra’s reputation is far beyond his actual listenership, and this is the same for the superior musicians that I mentioned, Miles and Coltrane, who are always getting praised by pop music people who have (seemingly) sort of listened to parts of Kind Of Blue and A Love Supreme and nothing else.
The writer of this post, Josh Jones, is not like that. I’m always learning things and getting insights from Josh Jones. But I’m sorry, sometimes if you’re the thousandth person to say something, you’re the straw to someone’s camel’s back.
Allow me to express my dissent. As a singer, Sinatra was very talented. I hear the quality in his vocal tone and delivery. I’m in the minority, and lots of good ears like Sinatra very much. But I don’t get how other people don’t hear a deep insincerity and hollowness in his music; I just don’t understand how you don’t hear in his music a characteristic that I can’t escape and which, basically, grosses me out. He often sounds like a guy singing songs he doesn’t like. He sings love songs like a guy who can’t wait to get to the whore house.
Let other people have their fun, right? Yes. So enjoy Sinatra if you really do. But it’s not de rigueur for others to do so. It is possible to consider his music attentively and end up despising it. So, I’ve said my piece, thanks for the forum, and now I’ll go back to suffering in silence for the next thousand times I hear someone say “Oh Sinatra, the sublime artistry…listen to the phrasing….”
IT’S NOT INSINCERITY !!! IT’S “SWING” !!! NOT A PAT BOONE OR A PERRY COMO FAUX SINCERITY !!! BUT A REAL HUMAN BEING ACTUALLY USING HIS INSTRUMENT TO EXPRESS BOTH THE FULL GRANDEUR OF THE MOMENT’S EMOTION — BUT ALSO THE FACT THAT THAT EMOTION IS PART OF THE PASSING PARADE OF ACTUAL HUMAN LIFE … YES, YOU MIGHT FIND THE SINGER AT THE WHOREHOUSE LATER ON TRYING TO FIND A RELEASE FOR THE INCREDIBLE PURITY OF THE EMOTION HE HAD BEEN EXPRESSING TO YOU — AND THAT’S WHAT COMES THROUGH !! THAT’S WHAT TURNS WOMEN ON — THAT, SURE, WHEN HE’S SINGING THE SONG HE’S REALLY THAT INTO YOU — BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN HE’S A WUSS OR A PANSY WHO’S NOT GOING TO GO HIS OWN WAY AFTER GIVING YOU YOUR CHANCE !! YOU WANT INSINCERE — LOOK AT MORE RECENT SINGERS JUST MOCKING A PASTICHE OF THE GREAT ONES … KURT ELLING IS WORTHLESSLY INSINCERE !! DIANA KRALL IS INSINCERE!! THE LIST GOES ON … BUT SINATRA IS SINATRA !!!
Life On Mars was much earlier than 1977.
First released in 1971 on the album Hunky Dory.
You need to relax and just enjoy the music. It’s me, you, anyone of us singing about their own life.
Hhh,Well said Mr.Toad..(!!)
Learn how to type UPPER and lower case so your writing can be easily understood.
I’m all Sinatra for decades. I own over 30 books on him’ some for and some against. I’ve read them all, and consider myself quite knowledgeable about Mr. Sinatra! I’ve also sung some 35 of his hits professionally, in dozens of cities & towns throughout the U.S. I have studied and perfected his style,phrasing and enunciation. I had 3 agents, who got me gigs. So, in my opinion, Frank Sinatra was the best and longest lasting pop/swing singer in our lifetime, and I am currently going on 83 years old.
Ron Reynolds could not have expressed “SINATRA” more accurately. Mr. Sinatra lived a musical life and he had it “His Way”! I began listening to his 78rpm recordings in 1944 when I was 10 years old. Being from a musical family I began teaching myself to play the drums while listen to Gene Krupa records & still play today in jazz groups @ age 83. I still look to Mr. Sinatra as the “Icon” among “Icons” of jazz/swing singers. Check out “Sinatra Reprise…The Very Good Years” an excellent mix of swing, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”…humor, “Love & Marriage”…Life’s expression, “My Way”… & of course, “Send in the Clowns”,but not to forget perhaps his best, “Summer Wind”. Sinatra was what he was, & the “Beat Will Go On & On!”
I thinks this absolutely mesmerizing. Ive never thought of Sinatra as background music.
Fantastic article. I’m a former student of classical voice. One of my professors absolutely worshipped Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, which we music nerds found so eccentric at the time. Of course, now I can appreciate that the vocal instrument of a great singer “d’un certain age”, buffeted by life and perhaps just past its prime, acquires patina.