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Sinatra: An American Icon

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Frank Sinatra
Ken Veeder/ © Capitol Photo Archives

American music history is populated with great vocalists who have interpreted human emotion, the world in which we live, and our dreams and hopes in the most elegant and memorable of ways. Jazz singers, pop crooners, blues belters, soul men and soul women—they’ve all made their mark on our collective music culture.

In the 20th century there is one name, however, that stands out just a little more than the other recording and performing greats we have known and loved. He was an artist of such uncommon talent that he was known simply as “The Voice.” His name was Frank Sinatra. He had the most rare of gifts: an immaculately sculptured voice of soul and strength, one rich in both tone and texture to go with the phrasing of a poet and an uncanny knowledge of nuance. He could turn a simple ballad into an emotional odyssey that ventured into the deepest part of our hearts, and he could celebrate a city and a people in way that drew us together like nothing else during good times and bad. Is there anyone in our town, as Sinatra liked to call New York, who doesn’t deeply identify with his classic take on “The Theme from New York, New York?”

This year we celebrate the Frank Sinatra Centennial with Sinatra: An American Icon, an exhibition curated by the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles. It examines one hundred years of Sinatra's legacy. Never-before-seen photos, family mementos, rare correspondence, personal items, artwork, and, of course, music make up the exhibit. Most of the pieces come directly from the Sinatra family and have never been on public display before.

Sinatra’s story is a long and complicated one. He came from Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River, and from humble Italian-American roots. He learned to sing mostly on his own. From the start, he reached for the stars and got there when few figured he would. Popular music’s first true teen idol, Sinatra began his career making girls swoon and fronting big bands during the years of the second World War. He made records and movies too, winning GRAMMY Awards and Oscars. He demanded the best from himself and everyone around him and got it almost always. When he sang the lyric, “I did it my way” from his hit song “My Way,” such words never rang more true.

But Sinatra was more than a singer and performer. His career is a study of artistic excellence; the quest for perfection never left him. Sometimes it haunted him. Learning how Sinatra made great music is nothing less than the unraveling of the mysteries of the creative process. Sinatra sang in the studio and performed onstage for a half century. Hundreds of songs, thousands of shows. Audiences adored him. Yet he wasn’t a saint. He hated the incessant attention given him, especially in the media. Gossip columnists made him crazy; they seemed to bring out the worst in him. He loved women and women loved him back. He could be demanding one moment, but a tender, giving philanthropist the next. To ease his mind and restore his spirit, he painted. He never sold a canvas; instead he gave away his work to friends and family and sometimes even fans.

From almost the beginning, Sinatra also had the silver screen in mind. His early films were fun and fluffy, but gradually he learned the art of acting and in 1953, he was cast as Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, based on the popular novel of the same name by James Jones. Sinatra won his first Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for his riveting role and he never looked back. Along the way he made numerous memorable films, including The Manchurian Candidate in 1962, a classic Cold War suspense thriller released at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is considered one of the best movies of that decade.

The 1960s was a busy time for Sinatra.He made movies, recorded albums, toured, and became a record company executive. Reprise Records, an affiliate of Warner Bros., became Sinatra’s label. He performed the role of talent scout and became a visionary from the business side of the music. He made records with his daughter Nancy and elevated the art of popular singing in the midst of the rock revolution with such as standards as “Strangers in the Night.”

Through it all, Sinatra never stopped singing, never stopped making music, either onstage or in the studio, and never stopped being Sinatra. By the time of his death in 1998 at age 82, he had won so many accolades and awards and had made his mark in American popular music so dramatically and deeply that there was no one who could step into the shoes of this “saloon singer,” the term he liked most when describing himself. “Just let me sing, baby,” he once said. And that’s exactly what he did. And everyone who heard him felt a little bit better about the world and themselves.

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