Perhaps the most important vocalist of the twentieth century, Frank Sinatra is rivaled only by Bing Crosby in his contribution to American popular song. His smooth voice and uncanny sense of rhythm coupled by his tough-guy personality and deep sense of humor won him the adoration of jazz fans and the general public alike. Nicknamed Ol’ Blue Eyes and the Chairman of the Board, he is remembered today more for his classic work of the 1950s and 1960s than for his big band days.
Born in 1915 and raised in New Jersey, Sinatra dropped out of high school to pursue a singing career. As part of the Hoboken Four, he won a contest in 1935 on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and went on tour with the show. He was part of the same Bowes unit in 1937 as future Glenn Miller singer and Modernaires associate Paula Kelly, who was touring with the Kelly Sisters act. Sinatra then found work as a singing waiter and Master of Ceremonies at the Rustic Cabin nightclub in Englewood, New Jersey, where he received broadcast time.
The story goes that vocalist Louise Tobin, then wife of bandleader Harry James, heard Sinatra sing on the radio one night in 1939 and alerted her husband. James liked his voice and hired him for his new orchestra. Sinatra joined the band in June. A disastrous tour, however, soon left the group in financial trouble and struggling to complete an engagement at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago in January 1940. Tommy Dorsey happened to be in town at the same time and unhappy with his then male vocalist, Allan DeWitt. He offered Sinatra a job. With Sinatra’s wife expecting and the band’s future uncertain, James let him go.
Sinatra quickly become Dorsey’s star attraction. He remained with the band for more than two-and-a-half years, charting 16 Top Ten hits, including the classic number one “I’ll Never Smile Again.” He earned first place in Billboard magazine’s 1941 college poll for best male band vocalist and second place in 1942, barely edged out of first by Ray Eberle. He was back in first place for 1943. In Down Beat magazine’s 1939 poll, Sinatra had placed twelfth in the category of male vocalist, this while he was still with James. In the 1940 poll, after a year with Dorsey, Sinatra ranked third, behind Bing Crosby and Eberle. In 1941, he placed first, edging out Bob Eberly. He maintained that position in the 1942 results with a commanding lead over Crosby.
Even during his early days, Sinatra’s well-known personality showed itself. In mid-1940, he beat up Dorsey drummer Buddy Rich, who was bigger than him. The reason for the fight wasn’t given, but Rich’s behavior was often criticized by his bandmates. It wasn’t the only time Rich suffered a beating while with the band.
In early 1941, shortly before a show in Hartford, Connecticut, police arrested Sinatra for jaywalking. An officer yelled at him to stop, but Sinatra kept walking, yelling back “I’m already half across now.” The officer promptly arrested him and took him to jail. Sinatra told police that he was a “figure of national importance” and was due on the stage any minute, to which police replied that he should call another “figure of national importance” down to the station for help. Bobby Burns, Dorsey’s then band manager, soon arrived, and Sinatra was let go after buying a ten dollar ticket to a police benefit. He made the show on time.
With his popularity soaring, Sinatra began to consider a solo career. Rumors frequently circulated, as early as mid-1941, that he was leaving Dorsey, but Sinatra was cautious in his decision. To test the waters, he recorded four songs under his own name in early 1942 on the Bluebird label, with Axel Stordahl conducting. The reviews were encouraging, and confident in his chances of success, Sinatra resigned from Dorsey in September, leaving on the 10th after a concert in Indianapolis. Under the contract Sinatra signed with Dorsey upon joining the band, Sinatra was handled by Dorsey’s personal management office, and Dorsey was thus entitled to a share of his solo earnings, something Sinatra later came to regret. Dorsey had the same agreement with other singers he employed, including Jack Leonard, Connie Haines, and the Pied Pipers. Dick Haymes replaced Sinatra in Dorsey’s band.
The Swoon King
The recording ban instituted by the American Federation of Musicians was in full swing by the time Sinatra emerged as a soloist. Though he was unable to record, he continued to tour and to appear on the radio, beginning on a new CBS sustaining series, Reflections, on the first of October. In late 1942, he filmed his first credited screen role in Columbia’s Reveille with Beverly, singing “Night and Day,” one of the tunes he had recorded solo earlier that year. His defining moment came during a live performance opening for Benny Goodman at the Paramount Theater in New York in January 1943. Young fans went wild over him. Girls swooned upon hearing his voice, and he was often mobbed by adoring fans. RCA Victor and Columbia capitalized on this phenomenon by issuing previously unreleased Dorsey and James vocal recordings which featured Sinatra. Signing with Columbia, he skirted the AFM ban by making several a cappela recordings.
Sinatra quickly became the hottest act in the nation. Touring in 1943, he filled stadiums and parks, breaking box office and attendance records everywhere he went. In mid-1943, he began appearing with symphony and philharmonic orchestras, bringing in much-needed revenue for these organizations that often operated at a deficit and younger fans than they typically would see. When Sinatra played the Hollywood Bowl in late 1943, they installed special “swooning stations” around the facility.
After his Paramount appearance, CBS moved Sinatra to their popular Hit Parade show. By mid-year, he was starring in his own variety program, The Broadway Band Box, which also featured Raymond Scott’s orchestra. In late 1943, he appeared in his first starring role in a Hollywood film. RKO purchased the rights to the play Higher and Higher specifically as a vehicle for Sinatra, though contractual obligations forced them to list two other stars above him.
Though Sinatra was flying high, his financial picture was far from rosy. Due to his previous contract with Dorsey, the bandleader owned 33⅓ of Sinatra’s earnings, and Sinatra’s manager, Leonard Vannerson, who was also Dorsey’s manager, owned ten percent. In addition, Sinatra’s booking agency, General Amusement Corporation owned a stake in the singer. Down Beat estimated that Sinatra only owned 46⅔ of himself. Other deals that Sinatra had made prior to his meteoric rise to fame in early 1943 also took chunks out of his paycheck. In mid-1943, Sinatra hired a lawyer and an accountant to help him straighten out his financial obligations. He offered to buy out Dorsey’s interest in him, eventually settling for over $50,000 to pay off all parties involved.
By 1944, Sinatra was commanding a massive $25,000 a week for theater appearances, more than most orchestras. He placed first in Down Beat’s 1943 reader’s poll for best singer with a commanding lead over Bing Crosby. 1944, however, saw the results reversed, with Crosby well ahead of Sinatra. The 1945 results were closer but with Crosby still in the lead, with 1946 again seeing Sinatra well on top.
Sinatra charted several hits during the mid-1940s and scored big at the box office, but by the late 1940s his career had stagnated. As the 1950s rolled around, his popularity was in decline. He continued making films and appearing on the radio, though in lesser roles. He also hosted his own television musical-variety program from 1950 to 1952. By the end of 1952, however, he was off the airwaves completely and without a film or recording contract, having left Columbia after a dispute over material.
Aiming to make a comeback, he tightened his belt and signed a less-than-desired contract with Capitol Records. Soon he was charting hits again. He also took a non-singing role in the motion picture From Here to Eternity and impressed the film establishment so much that he was awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He was back on radio also, in both a dramatic role, as detective Rocky Fortune, and as a singer.
Sinatra continued recording, making films, and appearing on radio and television throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1960, he formed his own record label, Reprise, though he still was under contract with Capitol until 1962. He was prolific in the studio, often releasing three albums in one year. By the early 1960s, the market was oversaturated with Sinatra recordings and sales slacked off. The changing tastes of the America music buying public also began to take their toll. Though Sinatra was still a best-seller, he charted less frequently in the late 1960s, finding it hard to compete with modern rock and pop artists. He briefly flirted with the youth market, to some success, but in 1971 gave in and announced his retirement.
Sinatra didn’t stay retired for long, returning to the public eye in 1973 with a gold album and a television special. This time around, though, he prudently decided to focus less on recording and more on live performance. Several years elapsed between album releases. He stayed out of the studio from 1984 to 1993 when he released Duets, on which he sang many of his old favorites accompanied by popular modern vocalists. It became his best selling album of all time. In 1994, he followed it up with Duets II.
His health declining in the mid-1990s, Sinatra retired for good in 1995. Frank Sinatra passed away in 1998, after suffering a heart attack, age 83.