Frank Sinatra was an only child who often seemed fearless. He could be as abrasive as he was brilliant, and he wasn’t always happy. Because Frank was brought up in a neighborhood where his was the rare small family, being an only child was sometimes uncomfortable. But it defined Sinatra and gave him opportunities his friends didn’t have. There were times when Frank had more than his share of adversity, but he dealt with it and revealed just how determined an only child can be.
When Frank Sinatra died on May 14, 1998 at the age of 82, millions of people around the world recognized that a musical icon had passed. There will probably never be another singer like Sinatra. His phrasing and sense of timing were impeccable and his delivery of lyrics so personal that listeners often felt that they were in the confessional with him. Like the music he sang, Sinatra was a complex man. His talent was dazzling and he was often the bad boy with the baby face. What an intriguing package!
Sinatra was a performer and entertainer par excellence, but that wasn’t all. He was a movie star and a businessman. He was a generous philanthropist, and often helped friends out of financial trouble without having to be asked. He was a man of great style and taste. He was a legendary lover and fighter. He had four marriages and was linked to some of the world’s most beautiful women. There were unsubstantiated rumors that the Mafia was instrumental in reviving his career when it lagged. Sinatra was also highly adept at manipulating his own image and didn’t mind sharing those images with the world – from rowdy “Rat Pack” swinger to concerned father. Sinatra was probably able to survive the stress of a monumental life in show business because he was an only child who learned to rely on himself from an early age.
Francis Albert Sinatra, the son of working class Italian immigrant parents, was born in Hoboken, New Jersey just before Christmas in 1915. It was unusual for Italian families to have an only child, for each baby was considered a blessing from God. Frank’s birth, however, was a difficult one and both he and his mother, Dolly, almost died. The baby lived, but his mother was never be able to have another child.
Because Marty and Dolly Sinatra had one child they were able to give him more than many other parents could offer their children. Dolly was the power house in her marriage. During prohibition she cleverly managed to get the money to buy a saloon which did well, and at the height of the Depression, the Sinatras lived in the best house in the neighborhood. Frank had his own bedroom and a charge account at the local department store. When other boys had empty pockets, Frank had money to spare and he treated his friends well.
Marty and Dolly expected their only son to be a high achiever, and like many only children Frank had an insatiable desire to be successful. Frank wasn’t a good student (he dropped out of school at 15 and took a series of odd jobs to keep himself out of trouble), but he knew what he wanted and was determined to get it. Ambitious and talented, Frank longed to be a great singer — on top in his own way. At eleven he was a scrawny kid in a bow-tie singing for pocket change in his parents’ bar, but he held on to grand dreams of becoming a vocalist, claiming that one day he would be more famous than Bing Crosby. Frank was single minded, and there are tales that he swam underwater laps in city pools to improve his lung capacity so that he would be able to sing eight bars without losing his breath.
In 1935 Frank entered a radio talent show called Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. He was paired with a singing-dancing trio called TheThree Flashes who were scheduled to perform. This impromptu connection now called themselves The Hoboken Four and took first place. This win led to a series of gigs playing with Major Bowes’ Traveling Show and some club and radio dates. Within a few years, Sinatra was regularly singing on radio and taking vocal lessons. He landed a $15.00 a week job as a singing emcee and headwaiter at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood, New Jersey. Much of this early success was due to Dolly’s initiative. She knew that her son had a unique talent.
One night Harry James, a former member of Benny Goodman’s orchestra, heard Sinatra on the radio. He went to the Rustic Cabin to hear Frank in person and signed him as a vocalist for his new band called The Music Makers. Sinatra agreed to a two year contract with James for a comfortable $75 a month. Then Frank married Nancy Barbato, his childhood sweethear t, and began a family that would include three children, Nancy, Frank Jr., and Christina (“Tina”).
Eventually Sinatra quit The Music Makers and joined Tommy Dorsey’s swing orchestra, allowing him the opportunity to develop his own personal style and practice his signature phrasing. Suddenly he was all the rage, and I’ll Never Smile Again rocketed to the top of the charts. He bought himself out of Dorsey’s contract, recorded several solo songs, and became a national sensation. According to a top band vocalist poll conducted in 1941, Sinatra had achieved his dream of surpassing Bing Crosby’s popularity and was on his way to a solo career. From 1943-45 Sinatra, now known as The Voice, appeared as the star of the popular radio show, The Lucky Strike Hit Parade and debuted in a film called Higher and Higher. He had already made several cameo appearances in other films by the time World War II began.
Excused from the armed forces with a legitimate ear-drum puncture, he was nonetheless criticized for not serving his country. This was only one of many controversies that would be part of his life. By 1946 Frank had signed a five year film contract with MGM that temporarily put his solo music career on hold while he pursued singing and acting in Anchors Aweigh (with Gene Kelly) and On the Town. He won a special Academy Award for his role in the short subject film The House I Live In, which focused on racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance. Frank was ahead of his time in his support of civil rights. He once said, “I lived in a plenty tough neighborhood. When somebody called me a “dirty Guinea” there was only one thing to do…break his head. When I got older, I realized that you shouldn’t do it that way…Children are not to blame. It is the parents. How can a child know whether his playmate is an Italian, a Jew or Irish, unless the parents have discussed it in their homes.”
Frank devoted so much time to making movies that his musical popularity diminished, but he wanted to record again. Other problems also arose during this period. His 12 year marriage to Nancy ended in divorce, Shortly after, he married screen actress Ava Gardner, one of the most beautiful women in the world. The following year Frank’s vocal chords hemorrhaged and life with Ava became tumultuous. It looked like the 37 year old star might be in free-fall.
Although his relationship with Ava was unstable, it was Gardner who helped Frank revitalize his career with a role in the 1953 film From Here To Eternity for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Frank left Columbia Recording and signed with Capitol Records where he collaborated very successfully with music arranger, Nelson Riddle. Their creative union produced such hits as My Funny Valentine, My One and Only Love, and Young At Heart. While Frank experimented with new styles and recorded some of the best selling LP’s in music history, his acting career also blossomed. He starred in The Man With The Golden Arm, The Manchurian Candidate, Guys and Dolls, High Society, and Pal Joey, to name a few.
This was Sinatra’s comeback, not only musically, but also as a film star and performer. In 1958 Frank teamed up for the first time with another singer/actor, Dean Martin. They made Some Came Running together and became leaders of a group of stylish Hollywood figures which included Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. The “Rat Pack” played together, starred in films, and entertained in Vegas.
In 1957 Sinatra divorced Ava Gardner and dated some of Hollywood’s most alluring stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, and Lauren Bacall. Nine years later, and to the shock of everyone who knew him, he married actress Mia Farrow who was 30 years younger. The marriage lasted only two years.
By 1971 Sinatra decided it was time to retire, but retirement didn’t last long. In 1973 he was back with a television special and album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. A few years later he married Barbara Blakely Marx, a former dancer and the widow of Zeppo Marx. It seemed that Frank had finally found his soul mate. Perhaps buoyed by her support and love, Sinatra appeared on TV and films throughout the 80’s and launched a highly successful tour with Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli.
Sinatra held his fans’ attention with two recordings in 1993-94, Duets and Duets II. The music critic Pete Welding made this comment: “There can be little doubt that Sinatra is the single greatest interpreter of American popular song…The one performer who has raised what he refers to as saloon singing to a high art…he has enriched American music with countless superior recordings of many of the idiom’s finest songs.”
Known as The Chairman of the Board and The Voice, Frank Sinatra achieved his childhood fantasies and much more. He was a consummate professional. He won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and the Kennedy Center Life Achievement Award from the NAACP. For his accomplishments as a singer, actor, and humanitarian, he was given the Congressional Gold Medal. The once skinny, beloved only child led a full and meaningful life. In his own words, “You only live once, and the way I live, once is enough.”