Frank Sinatra is dead. The legendary singer and Oscar-winning actor suffered a fatal heart attack last night (Thursday, May 14) at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 82. His wife and family were at his bedside.
Sinatra, who last made an appearance on stage in 1995, had been in poor health for some time. In November 1986, he underwent an emergency operation to remove a foot-long section of his large intestine. In March 1994, he collapsed onstage from heat exhaustion in Richmond, Virginia, halfway through ‘My Way’ and was hospitalised briefly.
In November 1995, musicians spanning a half-century from Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen joined together on stage to celebrate the singer’s 80th birthday.
Sinatra was hospitalised again on November 1, 1996. Although his publicist insisted he was only suffering from a pinched nerve, there were reports that he was also being treated for pneumonia and heart problems.
Two months later he was again in hospital, his doctor saying he had suffered an “uncomplicated” heart attack. A private funeral is planned.
Here, Gavin Martin, NME‘s media editor, pays tribute to ‘Old Blue Eyes’ and | remembers what made the man great…
FRANCIS ALBERT SINATRA (1915-1998)
In 1958, when rock’n’roll had begun to make its mark on American culture, Frank Sinatra set himself up as one of the new music’s most vociferous opponents. For him it was “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate and vicious form of expression it has ever been my misfortune to hear”. After spending nearly two decades revolutionising the art of popular singing he was in no mood to be knocked off course. Certainly not by “cretinous goons” pedalling “phony almost imbecilic reiterations” fostering “negative and destructive reactions in young people”.
Sinatra was a tough-talking creature of transcendence, his whole artistic life had been purely aspirational – yearning to define a world much grander, much more alive than that which he’d been born into – the only son of Italian immigrants in the working class neighbourhood of Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1915. Onstage and in recorded performance he sought refinement, instinctive grace and poise; rebellious postures, arrogance and degeneracy where, at least in the field of artistic expression, anathema to him. The irony was of course that the things Frank had fought for and would continue to fight for – artistic autonomy, respect for an often denigrated musical form, emotional clarity and honesty between himself and his audience – would be sought by future generations of rock n rollers.
As the years progressed Sinatra grouped the Rat Pack around him, asserted himself as an actor of real depth and class, sang the song of the heartbroken drunk and the failed romantic begging for another chance. He was transformed into the cosmic voyager of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ and ‘Lost In The Stars’ or the dreamboat of ‘Come Fly With Me’ – eventually the songs spoke directly to the indistinguishable area between the myth and reality of Frank The Voice, The Chairman Of The Board, Saloon Bar Supremo, Friend Of Gangsters And Presidents. In the process he became a musical and iconic role model like no other this century.
Sinatra produced a body of work which continued to grow and resonate over six decades – the legacy he leaves is one of honour, masterful integrity and keen intelligence. Forget his often suspect and changeable politics, the innumerable instances of personal hubris and wig-wearing vanity, the bad temper, the mob connections, the ugly misogynistic outbursts and off-hand violence. Great artists are not and never have been guaranteed to be great blokes. In his music, leading the orchestra, catching the ryhthm with a dancer’s grace, holding the notes, stretching the lines with ease, never losing his impeccable diction, or a natural actor’s way with language Sinatra bled meaning, poured a lifetime’s experience and soulful absolution into hundreds of songs written.
His mother had been a backstreet abortionist and he himself bore the signs of a painful forceps delivery. At first he followed his semi-pro father into the boxing ring but his talent for singing was too good to be confined to collecting pennies on the neighborhood street corner. He swam for long periods underwater at the local swimming pool to expand his lungpower. Then as the war years had unfurled Sinatra stepped up, the skinny kid at the big band microphone stand.
Quickly he asserted himself – a pint size genius, a performer loaded with charisma who could take a song and reveal the world of loss, love, turmoil and anguish within. In very short time he had used and laid the big band system to waste – emerging as The Singer, The First Teen Idol, a movie star, White House guest – but always looking for something more, something beyond the first wave of teenybop/bobbysoxer swooners he attracted, he sought to capture the real sense of drama and tragedy that existed in everyday lives.
When his first flush of success with producer Alex Stordahl came to an end, Sinatra experienced lean years and record company indifference following his refusal to work with substandard material. There was accompanying personal upheaval and despair over his divorce and troubled relationship with Ava Gardner. He brooded and drank and, it is said, at times came close to suicide. In 1953, Sinatra was put to the test – securing the much coveted role of Private Di Maggio in From Here To Eternity and a contract with the fledgling Capitol Records.
Strong arguments were made against him getting either contract but his Di Maggio won an Oscar and his deal with Capitol produced a series of concept albums which brilliantly utilised the potential of the newly-launched long playing record. This Sinatra carved his own legend – the sepulchral, tear-stained balladeer of ‘Only The Lonely’, zestful, confident and bedazzling on ‘Come Dance With Me’, sublime and luxuriant on ‘Nice ‘N’ Easy’ or as the ghost figure haunting the eerie intense strings on ‘Where Are You?’.
No-one went as far as Sinatra in respecting and utilising the talents of the musicians and writers around him, such as Sammy Cahn, Cole Porter and Jules Styne. And no-one defined their relationship with an array of distinctive producers and arrangers – Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins – so precisely, or to such marvellous ends. In one unusally candid interview, he explained his ability to explore extremes thus: “Being an 18-carat manic depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions I have an acute capacity for sadness as well as elation”.
In the years ahead he worked with many of the jazz musicians he loved – Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Latin maestro Antonio Carlos Jobim, acted in classic movies like The Manchurian Candidate, Some Came Running and as a junkie in The Man With The Golden Arm – and recorded a classic, 50th birthday concept album ‘The September Of My Years’. Assuming the mantle then of an unspeakably wise emperor of song, performing over the globe improvising and deepening the themes of his ’50s records – on a good night allowing those dark truths to take hold of himself and his audience.
There were many documented ugly spats with photographers and journalist; less well recorded where the instances of generosity and humility. In 1978, when a reviewer on NME acknowledged the quality of his performance at The London Palladium, the scribe received a thank-you letter and an invitation to visit Sinatra’s Palm Springs hideaway. In his penultimate decade he became a mascot for the Reaganite Republicans banging the gong at charity functions, drawing angry commentators to note the inappropriateness of a man with such well-documented underworld associations being so closely identified with the White House.
Indeed it was sad to see Sinatra – who had once marched on Washington with the civil rights campaigners – in hock to a failed actor and ugly tyrant like Reagan. But he was looking for a sort of closure on his legendary status, his ego would not have settled for anything less than a place at the White House table. Unpredictable as ever, he even befriended rockers; U2’s singer Bono recalls nearly nearly being sent into a coma after drinking one too many of Frank’s special cocktails from a goldfish bowl-sized glass.
Sinatra’s legend grew unpredictable, larger than life, always unknowable, revealing himself only in the music. In truth the recent ‘Duets’ set barely ranked with his greatest work but the 1980 triple ‘Trilogy’ yeilded the anthmeic ‘New York New York’ and was grandiose and audacious to match his status. But until very near his demise his live performances were touched with majesty. Meeting him for the first time just before his 80th birthday party, fellow New Jersey son Bruce Springsteen was pleased to find Sinatra was “still well acquainted with the sort of language that made the garden State famous.”
And so he came to an end, the same mass of contradictions that he’d been all along. Remarkable and unbeatable, funny and cantankerous, angry and generous. A guy who talked and acted tough but nurtured a wounded, tender longing. A man who fought many demons but sang like an angel from saloon bar heaven.