Breathes there a man (or woman) with a heart so dead that it’s never been touched by a Frank Sinatra song? It’s a hard thing to imagine. America’s first genuine teen idol during WWII, ”Mr. Very Old Blue Eyes,” as author Will Friedwald affectionately calls him toward the end of Sinatra! The Song Is You, has found a way to leave an indelible mark upon each succeeding generation. Not to mention upon each generation’s tabloid press.
Everything about Sinatra has stirred controversy at one time or another — his politics, his friendships, his love life. Back in the old days, Friedwald shows, Sinatra’s FDR liberalism and racial tolerance made him the target of right-wing columnists like ”the dreaded Westbrook Pegler, the Rush Limbaugh of the ’40s.” His willingness to have his picture taken with the likes of Sam Giancana led to rumors — absurd, Friedwald assures us — that Sinatra owed his success to strong-arm tactics by the Mob. Then there were the dames, running the generational gamut from Ava Gardner to Mia Farrow. Not to mention Sinatra’s association with certain White House residents, the Kennedys and the Reagans.
So it’s heartening to see a book that’s almost purely, if not so simply, about ”one of the greatest bodies of music in all of American popular culture.” But even for those who share Friedwald’s opinion that Sinatra stands so far above musicians like Bono and Carly Simon as to make his recent Duets albums an act of self-sacrilege, the question is how many readers have the patience to slog their way through what amounts to a rave review in encyclopedia form.
”So much of our lives has been lived to the soundtrack of Sinatra music,” Friedwald writes. ”It’s hard to tell where our actual experiences end and those we’ve felt vicariously through Sinatra lyrics begin.” Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Nelson Riddle, Count Basie are all here, along with many lesser-known but equally important contributors to Sinatra’s art. True, the author’s sneers at virtually every living musician since ”The Pelvis” make him sound like a grouchy granddad. But that’s a minor irritant. More problematic is the combination of his pedantry and lumbering style. Friedwald rarely uses one adverb or adjective when a half dozen will do. The Sinatra-Billy May version of ”Luck Be a Lady,” he writes, ”became legendary, due to Sinatra’s swaggeringly jocular combination of a gambler’s flamboyance and the tight, even swing of May’s streamlined aggregation.” How’s that again? And maybe it’s useful having a track-by-track analysis of Sinatra’s ’60s album Ring-a-Ding-Ding! But do we really need a paragraph that seems to list every performance and TV sketch in which the singer used the phrase? More than 500 pages of this kind of thing will leave even the most devoted fan crying for mercy. C