Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Of Sinatra and Soul

This Tuesday night, as so many times before, a capacity crowd will gather to hear a singer at Nassau Coliseum, but for once there will be a difference--the singer's music will have only an adversary relationship to rock and roll. Even Johnny Cash, a previous coliseum headliner, has roots in rock--his career, like Elvis Presley's, began at Sun records in Memphis--but Frank Sinatra is of another time. At 58, he survives as the most credible and powerful representative of the era of swing and big bands, an era claimed by those who lived through it as the richest in the history of American popular music.

That will seem like an odd way of putting it to older readers who recall that it was the lead singers, led by Frank Sinatra, who caused the swing bands to decline during the years of World War II. Sinatra was already the most popular singer in the country when he left Tommy Dorsey's band in September, 1942, a major display of arrogance at a time when big bands were identical with popular music. Soon Sinatra was a heartthrob, of a magnitude equaled previously only by Rudolph Valentino and imitated but never duplicated by other lead singers--Dick Haymes, Perry Como, Vaughn Monroe, Frankie Lane. As popular heroes, bandleaders who weren't singers were on their way out.

But if older readers find one part of my formulation odd, rock and rollers like myself will no doubt find the whole notion of taking Frank Sinatra seriously positively bizarre. The party line is quite clear--the pop music that preceded rock and roll, a music epitomized by Frank Sinatra, was vapid, stylized, dead on its feet. Wasn't it?

My answer to my older readers is simple enough. At worst, Sinatra was an agent of history. Eventually, some singer or other would have powered the public's turn away from predominantly instrumental ensemble music. Anyone who cherishes the big bands should thank the spirit of Glenn Miller that the singer was Sinatra, an instinctive musician who preserved and reinterpreted what was best about them, rather than, for instance, Vaughn Monroe. And since there is no cosmic law that either genius or popularity must be durable, they should thank their stars that Sinatra continued to do energetic work in this tradition well into the '60s, and not get too mad at me if I suggest that, at least temporarily, his artistic power seems to have flickered out. He has clearly had the most remarkable career of any popular singer in history.

My answer to my contemporaries is the rest of this piece, which began when I was a guest on Leon Lewis's phone-in show on WMCA last December. I had given my usual rap about Elvis Presley as an unprecedented cultural phenomenon, and it caused a surprising amount of static. No less than four listeners complained that the Presley phenomenon was a (probably inferior) version of the Sinatra phenomenon. I began to wonder. I knew the Sinatra of the '40s had created adolescent hysteria, but I had no idea what it was like. I knew that authorities as reputable as B.B. King thought the mature Sinatra soulful, as did I, but I'd never figured out why. So for the past month or so I've been reading, talking and listening. My conclusions are obviously tentative, exploratory and nonauthoritative, just an attempt to talk about American music as a continuum, and perhaps learn something from history.

There had been singing superstars before Frank Sinatra did his solo at the Paramount in late 1942, notably Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby, but Sinatra was something different. In terms of celebrity, his only rivals really are Elvis and the Beatles. It would be an exaggeration to say that he made Elvis and the Beatles possible, but he did make them conceivable. Before Sinatra, it had never occurred to anyone that a singer might be worthy of the sort of intense, hysterical, all-pervading sympathy that has since become so familiar. Even as the relatively thin timbre of his voice was compared invidiously to Bing Crosby's effortless baritone, he focused the emotions of a generation. He was the first.

But the sense of generation that Sinatra inspired was much different from that which later surrounded Presley and the Beatles. It was focused, but it couldn't be polarized, because there was a war on, a war people believed in. With Fascists marching through Europe and bombing the Pacific, it must have been pretty hard to convince yourself that a Bing Crosby fan was your worst enemy, even if she did happen to be your mother.

Sinatra became a star because of his natural sex appeal and musical originality, but once he got there, he found himself thrust into a symbolic role he hadn't anticipated--he was everybody's Young Man. His staunchest fans were girls in their middle teens, an immature group by the standards of the time, but they didn't feel miffed because Sinatra was a favorite of most young adults and a good many older ones. This broad age base was taken for granted. It seemed only natural that he should move directly from the Paramount to a Manhattan nightclub, and when later in his career he barred fans under 21 from his radio show because their screaming drove away home listeners, there was scarcely a protest.

An unacknowledged assumption of all this, I should add, is that Sinatra's followers were females, in need of a love surrogate in the male-deprived wartime crisis. Not that Sinatra didn't have lots of male fans, too, but for them, presumably, the standard role model was the GI. And so it turns out that Sinatra's generational focus was pretty soft. The only sense of community he created was among young women who knew they shared a passion unlike any shared passion preceding it.

A contemporary critic described Sinatra's vocal style as conforming "to the usual crooning standards--each phrase begun slightly behind the beat, with soft insinuating scoops and slides between the notes, and a dropping away of the voice after every line." On the surface this was true. Compared in retrospect with the inflammatory cross-racial innuendo of a Presley, Sinatra's musical threat was as mild as his generational stance. He had absorbed the best of the big-band tradition, which meant that he would always be most effectively himself when he strove for the subtle shade of difference. Good big-band music emphasized rigorous technical control, and so did Sinatra. It embodied the tiny distinction between swinging and pounding, and so did Sinatra. And just as Sinatra would almost always be at his worst when he went after the audience with a novelty or indulged his only propensity for clowning, the big bands that did the same (like Les Brown's) sound the worst today.

Yet, even in his earliest recordings with Tommy Dorsey, it is clear enough that Sinatra was not just another crooner. The most telling comparison is with Jack Leonard, the lead vocalist who preceded Sinatra with Dorsey's band and whose failed shot at a solo career gave Sinatra his chance with Dorsey. Leonard was a proficient, good-looking singer with a fashionably big voice, but he sounds like a cold fish. Sinatra doesn't. It's all very understated by today's blues-based standards, but there's definitely something warm, intimate, vulnerable in what he projects. In those early recordings, this vulnerability comes across as fresh and young in its way as the early Beatles do in theirs.

But as everyone learns, youth is not a permanent charm, and when it dissipates, you'd best have a back-up. Sinatra always did. From the first, he had the intelligence to study a lyric so that he could interpret it rather than mouth it. He adapted Tommy Dorsey's breathing technique on the trombone so that his phrasing could flow with the natural contours of a song. Like Billie Holiday, although not with the same audacious brio, he had the guts to change a banal melody by flatting a note here and there. And he paid meticulous attention to arrangements.

Sinatra's dedication to craft became legendary. It won him the respect of musicians, especially jazz musicians, as it attracted a large core audience that wanted to do more than swoon. Throughout the '40s and early '50s his voice deepened and his musical approach matured. But the hits did not keep on coming. Sinatra feuded with Columbia's Mitch Miller, the real kingpin of the silly pop music that rock replaced, and wrecked himself emotionally in a relationship with Ava Gardner. All the craft in the world can't keep a singer on top by itself anyway, and Sinatra's craft slipped temporarily. What makes his career so remarkable, of course, is that he came back. He got the famous part in From Here to Eternity, signed with a new record label, and was back up there. If he no longer dominated pop music--rock and roll was coming in--he achieved unprecedented mythic stature. For it was only in the mid-'50s, I think, that Sinatra really began to symbolize his generation in an active way.

If Sinatra had not sunk so low in the '50s, it's likely that today he would be something like Tony Bennett--a classy singer of unchallengeable credentials. His career in the '40s would establish him as a great phenomenon, and his survival would establish him as a great musician. But I suspect that what can only be called his soul, that self-possessed, melancholy loneliness that can cut through the night like the wind, would seem less compelling. And I also suspect that his current reign, which has lasted 20 years, has vitiated that soul once again. Sinatra has always recorded too much--in his first five years with Reprise, a label he formed on the same principles as supposed innovations like Apple, he appeared on 14 solo albums and nine collaborations. But his recent LPs, including his comeback shot, Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back, have veered between weak, appropriate songs and inappropriate travesties, like his version of "Mrs. Robinson" or "My Way."

It is possible to see ways out--Randy Newman once wrote a song called "Lonely at the Top" for Sinatra, but he refused to sing it because it mocked his stature, which was the whole idea--but since Sinatra doesn't feel trapped he isn't likely to try an escape. His old fans will be happy to see him Tuesday. And me, I've come across enough good music to last me longer than any time I'm likely to find for someone whose cultural experience is so different from my own. I think I'll play "Marie" now and then, though, for the sheer pleasure of it.

N'day, Apr. 7, 1974