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All Or Nothing At All:
A Life of Frank Sinatra

Chapter 9

A 12-CD set of the complete Columbia studio recordings had been issued; a two-disk set of the wartime V-disks and a CD of studio tracks and airchecks with Harry James followed. The complete recordings with Tommy Dorsey were superbly transferred to a five-CD set called The Song Is You, on RCA/BMG. Capitol and Reprise each issued their 'complete' Sinatra in sets of 20 or 21 CDs. In 1995, marking Sinatra's 80th birthday, there were a flock of books: Nancy Jr's new one, Frank Sinatra: An American Legend; Will Friedwald's The Song Is You, a fascinating celebration of the making of the recordings, full of interviews with musicians, arrangers and producers; an affectionate illustrated book by Stan Britt, produced in England; and the one you are reading.

The media had reported his every trip to the dentist for several years, and somebody wrote, 'When Frank Sinatra dies, you can throw away your calender. The twentieth century will be over.' He died on 14 May 1998, his last words said to be, 'I'm losing it.'

And after the funeral, eerily, nothing for a while, as though we were exhausted with Sinatra.

The American novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick has written, 'The great voices of Art never mean only Art; they also mean Life, they always mean Life.' The Zeitgeist, or time spirit, is the spirit or the attitude of a specific time or period: Frank Sinatra, in his often clumsy way, was a master of the twentieth-century Zeitgeist. He not only gained fame, wealth and power, but influenced the lives of millions with his art; thus he touched all the bases, accomplishing all the things that most people, in one way or another, would like to do, and he did it according to his century's rules, which were some written and some unwritten.

Sinatra likes gangsters, one observer said to Pete Hamill: 'He thinks they're funny.' Gangsters are funny. Many of them come to sticky ends sooner or later for the same reason that in the meantime they can afford to laugh at anything: they have jumped over the fence to discover, as Bob Dylan has tried to tell us, that there is nothing to understand except that there is nothing to understand. Each of us has to decide for him/herself whether or not there is such a thing as morality in the world; and upon this will depend, in the end, whether we can govern ourselves in a world without touchstones.

Sinatra had his own morality, his own standards of loyalty, keeping his word, and so forth; but he was a paradigm of our century because he was no more or less confused about it (and touchy about it) than the rest of us. As individuals we may disapprove of some of his behavior, but as a society, when we look at Sinatra we see what most of us would really like to see in the mirror: the guy who has it all, and can still effectively say, 'Who, me?'

When he sang, he was honest; and though he bedded an unusual number of women, he thought he was honest there, too. He told Pete Hamill, 'I loved them all. I really did.' 'Love means the precognitive flow,' wrote D.H. Lawrence. 'It is the honest state before the apple.' No matter how many bites of the apple Sinatra had, he could never find the love he had been missing all his life, and so had to keep searching. That is what the songs are about; that is where the vulnerability found a home. All or nothing at all. I'm a fool to want you. You make me feel so young. In this area, too, he lived through a time of change.

Barbara G. Harrison wrote an article for Viva magazine in 1976 called 'Oh, How We Worshipped the Gods of the Fifties.' In the mid-1950s Harrison went to live in Greenwich Village, where there seemed to be a new kind of freedom: nowadays young people try to protect themselves, to appear to be insensitive, but back then the idea was to be infinitely sensitive: key words were 'aware', 'evolving', 'becoming'. Their heroes were Frank Sinatra, because he sang the way he did and because he had fought his way back from what looked the end of his career; and Marlon Brando, who had more than a hint of danger about him; and the writers J.D. Salinger and Albert Camus, who appeared to be opposites. Salinger looked for ecstacy, while Camus struggled with despair, but both brought the same message: that man had to carry the weight of life alone, as Sinatra and Brando seemed to do.

In their love affairs with their poets and jazz musicians, the young women of Greenwich Village argued about who suffered the most pain. Harrison later wrote:

It is only on rereading Salinger and Camus that I realize how necessary women were to them as foils. Preferably long-legged, cool, innocent young women with undicriminating hearts ... We could accept any damned nonsense from a man, provided it was haloed by poetic feeling. If our men were struggling and in pain -- not to put to fine a point on it, if they were losers -- we brought them cups of consecrated chicken soup... We invested every fast-talking faithless womanizer we knew with noble qualities. We lived to be loved, possessed, conquered, and consumed.

But Harrison was ultimately amused by her younger self; she was more political twenty years later, but still had the same values, and she was still a Sinatra fan. ('Fifties women are incredibly loyal; they don't forget,' she wrote.) Men and women still dance around one another, looking for love; the goalposts keep moving, but it's the same old game. Sinatra may have been doomed to loneliness, but his art lit the corners of dark rooms for those who had to keep searching.

The recycling of Sinatra's work soon resumed. On the 10th anniversary of his death, in 2008, several DVDs of his least significant films came out, and a Reprise compilation of recordings called Nothing But The Best, which wasn't anything like the best, but mostly barrel scrapings. Here are this writers' suggestions for the best Sinatra CDs available in 2008:

The Essential Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (RCA/BMG, two CDs) An excellent selection from the complete five-CD set issued in 1994, including all the best tracks, such as 'East Of The Sun' and 'Everything Happens To Me'. The transfers by Jim Crotty and audio restoration by Bill Lacey are very fine.

The Essential Frank Sinatra: The Columbia Years (2003; Columbia, one CD) or Portrait Of Sinatra: Columbia Classics (1997; Columbia, two CDs); The Best of the Columbia Years: 1943-1952 (1995; four CDs): good compilations, depending on how much of the Columbia Sinatra you want.

Frank Sinatra: Best of the Capitol Years came out in 1992, and the 20 tracks really are a decent survey on one disc. But for the best of Sinatra's work, you really need several of the Capitol reissues of the original albums as described in Chapter five, starting with Songs For Swingin' Lovers. On Reprise, the most recommendable albums are September Of My Years and Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim.

It is an irony that in the 21st century Sinatra's best albums need to be remixed and remastered: there is no reason why Songs For Swingin' Lovers should not sound as good on CD as it did when it first came out over fifty years ago; the whole of September Of My Years should sound as good as the title track; and a 'Warner Communications Company' should be able to put all the Sinatra/Jobim tracks on one CD. But then Sinatra always gave us trouble. Perhaps he's not through with us yet.



A great many albums, especially compilations and live concerts, are not very well put together for reasons that are unclear in retrospect. Producer Charles Pignone, who worked for Sinatra Enterprises and attended 500 Sinatra concerts, has been making amends with boxes of previously unreleased material. While Sinatra was making disappointing albums, some of his live shows were outstanding; a box called Sinatra: Vegas was followed in December 2009 by Sinatra: New York (four CDs and a DVD), which is a banquet for Sinatraphiles. It begins with a reunion with Tommy Dorsey, three superb tracks from 1955; there is a semi-private concert (for employees of the United Nations) of six songs from 1963, accompanied only by Skitch Henderson on piano. The highlight of the box is a pair of complete concerts from 1974: April at Carnegie Hall and October at Madison Square Garden. The Main Event was a TV special and an album that was cobbled together from several shows; the October 1974 set here is from the night before the one chosen for the TV special, and the best of it all, according to Will Friedwald in the Wall Street Journal. There is also a 1980 Carnegie Concert on DVD and excerpts from two more shows in 1984 and 1990.

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