So What Makes Sinatra So Great?

He was coined the Voice for good reason: the man could sing

Frank Sinatra Metronome magazine November 1950 Wikimedia Commons

As a singer of that genre, I’ve heard the question before, but this time, I really thought about it. There are so many amazing singers, with voices that could perhaps eclipse his, yet only Sinatra stands in a class by himself. In truth, it’s kind of a loaded question. He was my teacher – of course, I think he was great. He taught me, along with countless others, the way a song should be sung. He practically invented a standard of interpreting the great American Songbook.

And yet, in a time when every minute, another American Idol is born, the question is still relevant. So what was it about that cocksure attitude with the matching voice that catapulted him into legendary status? To speak of Sinatra’s “unique phrasing” is a start in the right direction, but it’s more. Way more. Like most great artists, it’ s a combination of unique talents that define them. Muhammad Ali was a great fighter and was known for his fast hands and great reach. But to be the greatest, he had to combine that, with lighting quick feet (Ali shuffle), gazelle-like reflexes, and an endurance (Ali – Frazier) giving him the edge and making him the greatest. Here then, are my top five reasons Sinatra will always be the King

Frank Sinatra in 'Till the Clouds Roll By'
Frank Sinatra in ‘Till the Clouds Roll By’

1. Presence: You either got it or you don’t. When Sinatra walked into a room, you knew it. When he sang a song, you felt it. Just ask anyone who ever saw him live, from the Paramount Theatre as a kid, to a club date at the Sands, to a sold out show of 180,000 fans in Rio at age 64.

2. The Voice: He was coined the Voice, for good reason. The man could sing. His trained voice adopted to Italian Bel Canto singing- long flowing lines and seamless legato mimicking both a trombone and violin. One of his favorite songwriters Sammy Cahn said his voice was somewhere among a violin to viola to a Cello. Rich Harrington of the Washington Post said Sinatra became the sovereign interpreter of more than one love song breathing his ballads and learned how to swing an orchestra. His voice, had a controlled strength that could sustain a very light note, or belt one out too, all with that signature Sinatra vibratto. He paid attention to each word and each note and prided himself on clear diction. He didn’t touch a note, he grabbed it and sang it fully, without cheapening a song with unnecessary scats and fills to come off as a good singer. His voice alone did that. He could deliver the goods in a ballad, like Ol Man River, swing hard with Basies Fly Me the Moon, and play it soft with Jobims Girl From Ipanema. He didn’t just sing a song. He interpreted it. He experienced it, as only a man who had experienced loves lost and love found.

3. Phrasing: You knew I couldn’t escape this one. Yes, he knew how to breathe, thanks to long underwater laps, and even adopting Tommy Dorsey technique of sneaking in a breathe, to sustain a note a few more bars. And, yes, he practised scales and singing every day.

4. He surrounded himself with only top people: Writers Sammy Cahn, Rodgers and Hart, Jimmy Van Huesen, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, to name a few. And who better to take these singular dimensioned tunes and layer them in a way that complements, not overpowers, the singer. Enter, the Arranger.

Frank Sinatra in 1955
Frank Sinatra in 1955 Wikimedia Commons

In 1953, Sinatra was all but washed up after Columbia Records, dropped their one time most popular singer. Taking a chance, Capital signed him and musical history was about to be made. A hidden gem in the form of a house arranger was asked to score some new songs for Frank Sinatra. His name was Nelson Riddle. The rest, as they say, is history. His charts, packed with complex rhythms and subtle melodic motifs, created a strong backdrop that accentuated Sinatra all the more. Of course, he worked with the best on every level, from Billy May and Gordon Jenkins to Don Costa and Quincy Jones. He literally had his pick of the lot, and he was never afraid to try new styles, while always keeping in line with his style. His conductors and entire band were the creme of the crop, who relished the opportunity to play alongside the best.

5. He was an artist: No, not the ” artists ” fashioned by a PR And image consultants. A real actual artist. Sinatra was the first to create an actual long-playing record album, with a series of songs, all unified by a theme. He carefully chose songs to paint the picture he was trying to convey. From original studio sessions, Sinatra routinely mentions various details regarding mood, tempo, and certain musical accentuations he wished to highlight.

There are so many songs Sinatra covered but I’m choosing these in order to paint a colorful pallet.

1. New York, New York -Yeah he’s 64, and the voice is a bit weathered but age is no challenge for the chairman of the board Backed by a sick arrangement the 64 year old Sinatra nails this songs and owns it forever. It’s exciting 40 years later, and i never do a show without it.

2. Someone To Watch Over Me- Listen to the “Sinatra Cello.”

3. I’ve Got You under My Skin- Bamn! Nelsons shining moment. Legend has he finished it on way to the studio back in 1956. He needn’t have worried: upon the first run through, the band gave him a standing ovation.

4. I’ve Got The World On A String- It was this tune that first got Sinatra attention who upon hearing it said ” Who wrote that?”

5. My Blue Heaven- Sinatra, in a rush to finalize his Capital obligations, had Nelson play this Session at a faster pace, producing a race between voice and band!

6. It Was A Very Good Year- Lush Gordon Jenkin strings paint a picture of our man getting older, looking back. The stars were in alignment for this one. CBS even filmed it live in 65 with Cronkite.

7 One For My Baby- The saloon song for The Saloon Singer.

8. You’d be So Nice To Come To. Another classic tucked away on a 1956 album. Note the signature Riddle style of a slow buildup, accompanied by layering various horns, set against a sustained string and thumping beat to produce another great Riddle masterpiece.

9. Fly Me to The Moon- Quincy Jones and the Count reveal yet another dimension of Sinatra.

10. All The Way.

11. Don’t kill me. I know this is supposed to be a top 10 list, but come on! How can I leave out such classic tunes as That’s Life, My Way, Moonlight in Vermont, Come Fly With Me, That Old Feeling, Ol McDonald, River Stay Away From My Door, Love and Marriage, You’d Be So easy To Love, The Lady is A Tramp, The Way You Look Tonight, Baby Won’t You Please Come Home…

Source by Avi Ciment