On Frank Sinatra's Hair

This hair piece is meant as a tribute; though it might seem to be taking toupée-shots at Sinatra, it's not. I don't really know how to write about Sinatra's voice, especially its miraculous musculature in the 1950s during the Capitol Records years, in a way that will make you enjoy it anew. (Besides, why not just listen to the recordings again, if that's what you want?)

The "normal" topics about Sinatra, especially the Rat Pack gossip, have been covered in the same static ways for so many years that they are complete clichés and lead us away from the mystery of the man, not deeper into it.

Sinatra's style in singing and in life was---at least in his greatest period, the 1950s---anything but clichéd. It was deep and dangerous, with a mix of bravado and tumult, fire and darkness, iconoclasm and knowing respect and synthesis. For Sinatra's cultural range was a wide has his vocal one---and has not been matched by any other white singer of this century.

In writing about Sinatra's hair I want to focus on something that seems trivial or a joke but isn't; I want to take another angle towards viewing how Sinatra's own sense of himself, his self-portraiture, changed over the years. And I will do this hair piece by not writing about the toupées (though Sinatra had hundreds, plus a special assistant to carry them all around with him in a special case and fit them properly). My sources: reams of photos distributed in all the "tribute" editions of magazines and journals, etc., that followed the singer's death in 1998.


Here goes:

An aura/halo of white around Sinatra's head---an early promo shot, with Sinatra at an upright piano. The photo was placed on a yellow-paper pad like the kind a high school student (many were fans of his in the `40s) would buy. The glow accents Sinatra's wavy hair profile --- his "ethnic," Italian hair.

Of all the young Italian American singers rising to fame from America's cities in the `40s and early `50s, only Sinatra refused to change his name. (Tony Bennett was Tony Bennetto, for example, and Dean Martino became ... you see the pattern: "other" white Americans apparently had problems with last names ending in vowels.) The exception might be Mario Lanza---also, like Sinatra, huge in the `50s, and with a crossover audience too that included a wide range of non-Italian American fans. But Lanza's repertory of songs wasn't quite as American as Sinatra. His voice had strong roots in the Italian bel canto operatic tradition and showed it; he didn't have what Sinatra made his signature---the slangy sassiness and hipness, the mixture of spoken and sung, the jazz-influenced ways of experimenting with being behind or ahead of the beat and sliding up to or off of a held note to make it more expressive.... Lanza risked less keeping his Italian name, since his music was indisputably Italian first and "American" second; Sinatra keeping his name while singing in a style that was unprecedented yet also clearly not Italian but American, risked much more---especially in the 1940s, when the U.S. was at war with the Axis, including Italy.

"a dark vocal edge that was at once appealingly uncertain---an accidental virtue of his pitch problems ---and implacable."

---Gary Giddens,
"The Last Crooner: Frank Sinatra, 1915-1998,"
Village Voice, May 26, 1998, 48-53.

Sinatra was
"a primary color in the postwar U.S. palette...."

"white America's last completely satisfying definition of masculine style---to somewhat disconcerting effect...."

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

 
 To the left, a Radio Album magazine head shot from the 1940s, with just a wee bit of curl out and down.

 

Then there's . . . .

 The discreet ethnic curl in the shot above sometimes just got looser. This shake-down complements Sinatra's wise-cracking, confident, asymmetrical grin---hair combed back, comb-teeth-rows shining in the light, but also a curl loose and dangling just slightly on the forehead to cause trouble. A proper style but also loosened and shaken up a bit---or a lot:

(to da right)

and in the '60s?
 The TV Guide shot to the left is from Sinatra's later tough-guy period, after he switched from Democrat to Republican (after '65) in anger over what he felt were personal slights by JFK (whom he campaigned for in 1960) and his brother Bobby. He also may have switched loyalties because that's the way the power began to flow---especially in California, with Reagan ascendant. Sinatra's late '60s hairstyle is now principally a toupée, slightly silvered, and it is combed forwards, not back, on the front and sides. It is Sinatra's Roman senator look, tough and ruthless as armor-plate.

And yet... he's also wearing a wide-wale corduroy jacket and gold "love beads." Off-key, dissonant notes....

A prelude to what follows:

 Las Vegas shows eventually embalmed the styles of two performers---Sinatra and Presley. (James Newton and Liberace came to Las Vegas with their performance styles already embalmed, though at least Liberace could wink about his dilemma.) Here is a pix with Elvis, who was invited to appear on Sinatra's TV show after his return from the Army in 1960 [see above clip shot].

Elvis takes the swoop of Sinatra's hair to a new level, or rather a new height--- pompadour. And in the process he changes it somehow, by being extreme, from hick to hip. Sinatra's own hair, at this point, is combed like Presley's but never looks thinner than when he stands next to the younger man with a different, younger audience---an audience as young as Sinatra's once was. Sinatra becomes pals with Elvis at the moment when Elvis' pompadour is highest but when Elvis' own sense of what to do with his music is beginning to collapse.

In the long run, how well does Presley's career compare with Sinatra's? Remember John Lennon: "Elvis died when he went into the Army." Left unsaid: to be reborn as a martyred saint, helping some white southerners and others cope with suffering in living in contemporary America---suffering that they would find unspeakable without him.


Sinatra will never have an afterlife as a martyr. That's his strength, and his weakness. There's a mug shot of Sinatra I've seen somewhere, from the 1930s I think, complete with arrest number and date and the mug-shot's requisite low-lidded look. But what was really striking was the shock of hair, tumbled over Frank's forehead. Not posed, but in retrospect it's remarkably Elvis-like and with an air of punk spunk that no `40s publicity shot would allow (yet it gets smuggled in somehow).

paisan

vs.

bad ole boy

Continued