Where on earth do you start writing about this man and his music? In different periods of his life, he was both hated and adored. He sang with some of the biggest names in the business and recorded some never-to-be-forgotten material.
But what was the Frank Sinatra Genre? And what exactly made him the legend that he is?
Sinatra The Man
You could hardly say he was an imposing figure, and he wasn’t likely to stand out in a crowd. At five feet seven inches tall, he was quite a small man. In fact, we nearly didn’t have him at all.
He was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the family kitchen and weighed a whopping 13.5 pounds. The doctors were busy treating his mother from such a traumatic birth. No one realized young Francis was blue and not breathing.
His grandmother did and picked him up and ran the cold tap water on him. He screamed the place down, and Ol’ Blue Eyes had arrived. But he arrived with scarring on the left side of his face from the forceps delivery. This led to him being known as “Scarface” at school.
Say Hello to Martin
That was the name he was supposed to be given at baptism. The priest got it all wrong, and Frank it was. His mother decided to leave it at that.
I am certainly not going to write a history of the man. This is about his music, but he couldn’t seem to escape trouble, and it played its part in his career.
He became what some said was the most hated man in America during World War II for seemingly avoiding the draft. He couldn’t stand being in crowds, so the army wasn’t for him. While other men were fighting and dying, he was crooning their wives and girlfriends. It didn’t endear him to too many.
The “most hated” might be a bit rich given that there was this bloke called Adolf who wasn’t overly popular at the time either.
But let’s not dwell on all this, let’s talk about the singer. The singer who rose to fame, fell from grace twice and came back again. The man who idolized Bing Crosby. And then competed against him.
A man who suffered and hid mental health issues, loneliness, a violent temper, and several other personal problems. Yet, he was still able to give us great music. And, of course, a few notable film roles.
Where Did It All Start?
It was never easy for Sinatra. His father wanted him to study to get a proper job. But he wanted to sing. His mother recognized it and encouraged him as far as she was allowed to.
She got him into a local singing quartet, the “Hoboken Four.” That didn’t last long. He was serious; they weren’t. Nevertheless, it was the start he needed. He carried on the odd singing gig whilst he took a job as a waiter.
One Foot On The Ladder
He got a job with the Harry James Orchestra that gave him his first foot on the ladder. Not a bad gig at all at the time, where he did well. He did so well that he was spotted by one of the big band leaders of the time, Tommy Dorsey.
He joined Dorsey in 1940 and by 1942 was the big name, even eclipsing Dorsey himself. Soon it became apparent that he was the star of the show, and he went solo. The rest is history.
But, during varying periods, he covered a range of genres. Most of them. But was he a jazz singer or a pop singer? We need to remember that ‘pop’ is only an abbreviation of the word ‘popular.’ “Pop” music didn’t arrive with The Beatles. It was here way before then.
A Different Era
The music business was a different animal in those days. Of course, you still had the con-men and some individuals who would rip you off as soon as look at you. But it was just different.
Pop, or shall we call it popular music, was a genre that commenced somewhere towards the end of the big band era. Some say they think it started with the 50s rock n roll era. But surely it was before then.
In those days, there were professional songwriters, people who did it for a living. They were quite powerful people and often got to choose who sang their songs.
The Dorsey Era
The songs that Sinatra sang and recorded with Tommy Dorsey in the 40s were what you would call “popular” songs. So, here we have our first genre statement. He sang “big band” music fronting Dorsey, which you could also describe as being very “popular.”
Solo Singles Followed On
He started to release solo singles in 1942, but it was in 1944 that he made one of the first memorable Sinatra recordings. Bing Crosby had released “White Christmas” in 1942. The Sinatra version followed two years later.
What genre would you put “White Christmas” in? One of, if not the most popular song ever released by Crosby and covered by Sinatra. Perhaps the start of the Frank Sinatra genre?
The Columbia Years
This was a period in Sinatra’s career from 1943 to 1952. During this period, he recorded some jazzy songs as well as a range of what you might call traditional music. But, it would be hard to tie it down and define it all into one genre.
The interesting thing was the amount of work he put out. Both singles and albums. And, as always, across a range of genres. At the time, it could all be classed as popular music. Because popular is what it was.
To Capitol Records
He moved to Capitol Records in 1953, and this was the start of the period where he started to record some of the most loved Sinatra songs. “Three Coins In The Fountain,” “Love and Marriage,” and “It’s Nice To Go Traveling” were just a few. What genre would you apply to those?
They were traditional songs in terms of style and content. A little more adventurous in some ways than the big band singles. But, they would still fit in the ‘popular’ music section in the record store. Where else could they go?
It was the start of the 60s. Things were beginning to move in other directions, and not only in musical terms. There were some people just popping their heads above the parapet.
He had those as well. He was great friends with fellow Democrat and newly elected President JFK. He sought to use that and him, to his advantage. A few others, certainly not the man accused, put an end to that in 1963 in Dallas.
Maybe it was then that Frank started to get a little neurotic about the competition. He had lost a “big” friend, someone who could make him “untouchable.” That was a personal blow to him.
Over To Reprise
In 1961, he went over to Reprise Records and here followed an interesting period. Although for him, both personally and musically, a period of insecurity and unrest. He felt he was losing touch with his younger fans. Those that had just previously followed in their parent’s footsteps.
Frank carried on recording, but even he must have realized it was over. Chubby Checker came with his ‘Twisting’ fad. Frank tried to join in and recorded “Everybody’s Twistin” in an effort to look ‘hip.’ He shouldn’t have bothered.
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez arrived and very quickly secured an army of fans. They had a message, and the world needed it. Still does, but that’s another story.
Problems With The Competition
Frank always seemed to have problems with anyone he saw as a competitor. Bing Crosby was one. Even though he idolized him before he made it big, it turned a bit sour with the ‘king’ of the crooners.
All this new ‘talent’ was a threat to his status. You could say he was ‘genre-stuck.’ He didn’t have anywhere to go, he thought.
But then there was an explosion he could never have predicted that could be summed up in two words. The Beatles. Frank had to do something. He did, but it took him a couple of years.
Losing the edge…
He had made some great records by the standards of everybody else. But what many people saw as his forte, the big band, while not gone, was fading in mainstream music.
Suddenly there was a chart that was packed with the ‘new kids on the block.’ Frank wasn’t there, and he didn’t like that.
By now, he was struggling. The Frank Sinatra genre, whatever it was, had lost its glamor as the music mass market delivered a new standard. I sympathize with him.
Let’s be clear; he was a huge vocal talent, maybe the best male singer of his time. He must have wondered what on earth was happening when he saw people hit the top of the charts who could hardly sing a note. Whilst all the time he was struggling to make the top 100.
The frustration surfaced in his private life. But that is another story. He had to change how he was perceived, and that meant a genre change. But despite all of this turmoil, he was still one of the biggest ‘live’ acts in the world. It was basically nearly impossible to get a ticket to see Sinatra.
1965 – “It Was A Very Good Year”
Maybe his best for a while. He recorded that song with the same title. A great song, but a change of style, and dare I say it, genre for him. Written by Ervin Drake, it was a cover of a song by the Kingston Trio. It earned him the best male vocal award in 1966.
But it was the follow-up that re-established “Ole Blue Eyes” to a number one spot on the chart in both albums and singles. “Strangers in The Night” was an easy-listening pop ballad. But a very American easy-listening pop ballad. The tide had turned in his favor once again.
Was it a Genre Shift?
You could call it that. The arrangements, the recording, and even the musicians were more, shall we say, “up-to-date.” But it didn’t stop there. Another big one wasn’t far behind with “That’s Life.” Almost a return to the big band sound but with a modern feel.
The Motown Idea
We had the Motown Boys and Girls doing duets and singing together with Marvin Gaye at the front of it all. Did Frank think, why not me? He teamed up with daughter Nancy for “Something Stupid.”
Cheesy it was, but it was also a big hit for them. And there can be no arguments about what genre that was. This was “cheesy” pop at its best.
What Was Round The Corner?
A hit in ’67, another in ‘68, he wasn’t doing so bad. What would ‘69 hold? A little matter of “My Way.” This is interesting because it didn’t even make the top 20 in the US. It did better in the UK at number 5. But while it was only a moderate success, something else happened. He had found his anthem.
There had been a couple of his recordings that people always think about regarding him. But nothing like this. And to the end of his life, it was “his song.” A ballad, a pop ballad, but with all the big band influences included.
But, once again, he was struggling a bit to make the charts. And that is where he thought he would be measured against the rest. He didn’t need to worry about comparisons. He was Sinatra, end of subject. And love him or hate him, you couldn’t deny his status in the music world.
He teamed up with Nancy again for a couple more ‘modern pop’ efforts that failed, and he even tried a disco arrangement of “Night and Day.” I won’t discuss that. He had to admit that by the late 70s, it was looking dire for his single and album releases.
One Last Big Hurrah
He hit it right on the head for one last time when he recorded “New York, New York.” I have to admit that is my favorite of what was an extensive repertoire. After that, the singles and the albums just sort of stopped.
He did have one last aberration when he recorded a song with the singer of U2 of all people. Although why he did that is anyone’s guess. Maybe one last shot at being ‘hip’? I don’t know. He didn’t need to, he was already bigger than that ‘hip’ could ever be.
Where Does That Leave Us with His Genre?
It is still a difficult question to answer. I have tried to trace his career from a genre perspective across the years. In doing so, there seems to be a kind of a pattern.
When you consider Frank Sinatra’s career, it sits comfortably until the 60s, inside a certain style. We need to remember that what we know as ‘pop’ music has evolved. It didn’t just happen and was a steadily evolving process with changes and demand.
The Big Band Era
But we have to define this a little more before we start. The Big Band era was just the start of something we could call ‘American Pop.’ Or, in other words, popular music American-style.
The era of the Big Bands and Jazz orchestras was American Pop. That is what it was. Purely because they were the most popular mass-consumed music at the time, that, in the main, is what people spent their money on.
The arrival of rock n roll…
This ‘era’ lasted until the 50s. What he produced after the 50s, through the 60s, and even after can be quite easily classified into two comparable areas.
You might call some of it “Easy Listening.” And you might call other songs “popular music.” In my view, they are one and the same. The difference between easy listening and pop is that easy listening is just a bit, well… easier.
And those two together can be placed under the heading of “American Popular Music” because that is what it was. This style can find its roots in all of the following, folk, blues, Big Band, jazz, and pop. It evolved, and Sinatra evolved with it.
From One To The Next
If you want to break down the ‘American Pop’ culture into individual chronological segments, it would be:
- Big Band.
- Easy Listening.
They all overlapped, and they all took their lead from what went before. But it is all ‘American Pop.’ And that’s what Sinatra sang. His genre was American Pop, as it evolved through 30 to 40 years. And here is some of his music, starting with a trip back in time.
- Some Enchanted Evening
- Strangers In The Night
- My Way
- New York, New York
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Frank Sinatra Genre – Final Thoughts
He surpassed classification. Not many artists can cause so much trouble to identify their genre as Frank Sinatra. The reason for that is that he evolved with the times. But also because he was at a level higher than the rest of his peer group. Even when he thought he wasn’t. He was above being put in a box and given a classification.
Was he the architect of “American Popular Music”? I can’t say yes for certain. But, one thing I can say for certain, is that we will never see his like again.
Until next time, do it your way.