on Frank Sinatra's Hair, continued

It's 1959, and Ella Fitzgerald is a guest on the Frank Sinatra / Timex TV Show. She sings a duet with Sinatra and also solos several times. She's not allowed to interact with any of the other characters and personalities in the show but is always off by herself, in her own space---a space which is partly marked as "black," not just a space marking her special stature as a singer.

But Ella's duet with Frank is different. Their singing is conversational, witty and warm, swinging and full of improvisations by both of them, especially her host; special lyrics have been written to show Sinatra's affection for other black women singers of the time like Lena Horne and Dinah Washington. Ella pretends to be jealous---until Frank ends the duet by singing how she's his favorite of them all. Even more remarkably, perhaps, their body-language throughout is smooth and relaxed and even swaying together; their shoulders even touch a number of times. (Remember, this is 1959 and all kind of hatred is loose in the land; Nat King Cole would be allowed to host his own show with guests of all races but then would be forced to have it withdrawn from TV after only a few broadcasts because national corporations didn't have the courage to keep sponsoring it.)

Remarkably, in his duet with Ella Frank never mentions the singer whom he once said had most influenced him---Billie Holiday. (With her influence, there was no way he would sound like Lanza. He cited Bing Crosby's influence too, and the way he learned to hold long phrases from Tommy Dorsey's trombone, but Holiday's influence is probably the most important: she taught him how to sing behind and before the beat, how to slide up to and beyond a note sometimes. She also taught him to mix the casual and the streamlined together to create a new style and---most important of all--- to find the depths of a song, not just its bright contours.) But in 1959 Lady Day was nearing the end of her life and had troubles with drugs and alcohol that probably made the Timex show's producers think her name too "dark" for TV patter. And besides, how might Ella Fitzgerald have been supposed to respond if Billie's name came up? For Ella had every technique in the book---but Billie had something beyond technique.

In a promo shot for the show with Sinatra and Fitzgerald together, does Sinatra's hair become "ethnic" again under the TV lights as it converges towards her "processed" hair? Judge for yourself
:
"Although a taste for coarseness sometimes denotes sophistication ... Sinatra was the flip side, revering sophistication as only a coarse man could. That would make him just another case study in horse-headed upward mobility if it weren't that, unlike most aspirants, he wasn't initimidated by prevailing definitions of sophistication; his version of classiness strikes a peculiarly native chord because it's an invented classiness, without a pedigree."

--- Tom Carson, "Primary Color,"
Village Voice, May 26, 1998, 53.

Then there is ethnicity as a joke: Sinatra dressed as an "Indian" at a party. After his (white) "All-Americanness" was indelible--- even with a tan:

Come back to Italian America.

All his life, Sinatra liked his scrambled eggs cooked with olive oil---for that is what he grew up with in Hoboken, New Jersey. He frequently visited South Philadelphia, especially a restaurant on Ninth Street, the heart of the Italian section, named Palumbo's---not to sing but to get some good pasta and "gravy" (marinara sauce) and hang with his pals and the locals. He certainly couldn't get those kinds of eats cooked that way in Atlantic City or Vegas, where he often performed. It's strange: after he became a star again in the mid-1950s he thought his career was too big to perform in places like South Philadelphia, but when he needed some food for his soul....

Shopping in the Italian Market in Philadelphia the week after Sinatra's death, May 1998, I found more than one shop piping out Sinatra songs into the street. His voice circulated amidst all the sidewalk stands holding broccoli, lettuce, potatoes, okra, hot and sweet peppers, fish-on-ice, etc. etc., plus the stands pushing hats, Brillo pads, cleaning fluid, T-shirts and shorts and videotapes. Under the tarps and corrugated metal awnings his voice, the Voice, mixed with the vendors' cries of "get your oranges right here! 6 for a dollar!" It held its own.

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Is it true that in his best movies Sinatra played characters very different from the guy with the Voice? Or should we say that in his best movie roles he explored some of the depths that gave the voice its timbre?

Put aside for a moment the confident swingers Sinatra played in many movies and consider the other kinds of parts he fought to get:
  • a doomed Italian American soldier with a dark and angry sense of humor (From Here to Eternity, 1953)
  • a heroin addict (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955)
  • a political hit man (Suddenly, 1954)
  • an Army intelligence officer who must deprogram an assassin (The Manchurian Candidate, 1962)

 

Compare these roles with Presley's movie parts, the shallowness and simpering narcissism with which Presley's "outcast" roles were scripted. And compare the directors with whom Sinatra worked (including Capra, Frankenheimer, and Huston) with those unknowns hired to shoot Col. Tom Parker's projects for his boy Presley. It's really no comparison.

Sinatra made career-risking decisions and had an instinctive sense for talent, especially difficult talent; Presley followed Col. Parker's lead moon-eyed, as if lead on by a pig's nose-ring. (To put down Presley in this way is not to knock the revolution he made in music in 1955-56, only to put it in perspective and to sing a song of sorrow.)



Also, think about this:

In a 1945 short called The House I Live In Sinatra sang the title song---about racial and ethnic tolerance. He later performed the song at JFK's inaugural.

Blacks, Jews, and Italians largely invented modern American "style" in pop culture in this century---especially in music and the movies. All were thought of as outsiders and despised by those who thought of themselves as representative Americans.

Blacks, Jews, and Italians claimed America by making their vision of modernity and new selves irresistably attractive, through the power of style. In doing so, they have both hidden their ethnicity and also redefined it, thus reclaiming the "ethnic" from being cast as negative, as poor, to being unforgettable, as a world of infinite promise.

Don't underestimate the power and wit of this as a retort. In the process, they have also redefined and reshaped what everyone thinks is most "American."

"One reason [Sinatra] did as much as Levittown to shape the mores of America's postwar middle class is that they'd never been middle class before. It took a peasant to teach the midcentury's new bourgeosie how to comport themselves as aristocrats. So long as we're stuck with class systems, America's incoherent version is better than the coherent kind."

---Tom Carson

"The way you wear your hat...."

Gershwin, via Sinatra....

 

Finally:
 Here's to you, Frank---a golden light for your long encore.

(The image is one of the 40,000+ cigarette lighters Sinatra gave away one year in the '40s to fans....)

An eternal flame with moiré patterns in the background....

***************
For more on Sinatra:

  • Pete Hamill's book Why Sinatra Matters
  • Gay Talese's essay "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold"

If you're new to Sinatra's music and/or you think Sinatra and schlock are the same thing, begin with the best of the best and watch yourself change your mind. That is, check out Frank Sinatra: The Capitol Years, [1953-62], 3-CDs.

[Summer 1998]

  

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