Sinatra Establishes Himself as a Solo Performer Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After selling a million copies of “All or Nothing at All,” crooner Frank Sinatra proved that his box-office clout was greater than that of the bandleaders for whom he had fronted.

Summary of Event

The early 1940’s in the United States are remembered as the war years, with the “Free World” fighting against Germany, Italy, and Japan. Citizens sacrificed to buy war bonds and endured rationing. Entertainment, however, also flourished. Pinup model Betty Grable’s legs were insured for a million dollars. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope produced road pictures. Frank Sinatra, the pencil-thin crooner known as “the Voice,” added to the culture of these very serious times, causing bobby-soxers to swoon in the aisles at his concert performances. "All or Nothing at All" (Lawrence and Altman)[All or Nothing at All (Lawrence and Altman)] Jazz;vocalists Music;jazz [kw]Sinatra Establishes Himself as a Solo Performer (Sept., 1943) [kw]Solo Performer, Sinatra Establishes Himself as a (Sept., 1943) [kw]Performer, Sinatra Establishes Himself as a Solo (Sept., 1943) "All or Nothing at All" (Lawrence and Altman)[All or Nothing at All (Lawrence and Altman)] Jazz;vocalists Music;jazz [g]North America;Sept., 1943: Sinatra Establishes Himself as a Solo Performer[00910] [g]United States;Sept., 1943: Sinatra Establishes Himself as a Solo Performer[00910] [c]Music;Sept., 1943: Sinatra Establishes Himself as a Solo Performer[00910] [c]Entertainment;Sept., 1943: Sinatra Establishes Himself as a Solo Performer[00910] Sinatra, Frank Sinatra, Dolly James, Harry Dorsey, Tommy Evans, George

Frank Sinatra had a very good year in 1943. “All or Nothing at All” sold more than a million copies, and by September was number one on the music charts. Hefty film and radio contracts and sold-out stage and nightclub performances attested to Sinatra’s drawing power. No longer was he a mere vocalist doing refrains or an “extra added attraction” tacked on to some stage show headlining a big band and its leader. He now performed as a solo artist, earning more than a million dollars a year.

Legend has it that Frank Sinatra was an overnight sensation, but that is not true. Sinatra’s career developed slowly before his tremendous success beginning in the early 1940’s. During the 1930’s, Dolly Sinatra, his tough-minded mother, lined up singing jobs for him at Italian weddings, Irish political rallies, and social clubs around Hoboken, New Jersey. She even bought him a portable public address system and provided money for orchestrations for bands. Sinatra and his mother badgered music companies, song pluggers, local radio stations, musicians, and semiprofessional pickup bands for any chance for him to sing.

In the beginning, Sinatra’s voice was not promising. It was high, and some listeners thought it sounded terrible. Neither were his looks an asset. He stood 5′ 10″ tall, weighed 138 pounds, and had a 29-inch waist. This scrawny frame, his protruding ears, and his sharply angular face gave him an emaciated look.

In spite of these handicaps, Sinatra was determined to succeed as a singer. His first important break came when, as a singing waiter at the Rustic Cabin in Jersey Palisades, he was heard by Harry James. James had formed his own band in 1939 and was looking for a male vocalist. Sinatra signed on and toured with the band, but during their six months together, neither James nor Sinatra made much of a stir in the music world. Their August, 1939, recording of “All or Nothing at All” sold a disappointing eight thousand copies.

Frank Sinatra.

(Charles Granata/KEG Productions)

Sinatra joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in January, 1940. This provided an excellent showcase for the young singer. He was heard on Dorsey records and network radio and seen on the stages of important motion-picture theaters. He also appeared in several films featuring Dorsey’s orchestra, such as Las Vegas Nights Las Vegas Nights (Murphy) (1941), which introduced “I’ll Never Smile Again.” "I’ll Never Smile Again" (Lowe)[Ill Never Smile Again]

During this time, Sinatra learned how to play to teenage audiences, making it appear as though he were staring intently into the eyes of each girl in the audience, as if she were his inspiration, and seemingly baring his soul for her alone. He also learned to blend the power and softness of each song’s wording, creating an intensity and conviction in what he sang. Most important, Sinatra watched Dorsey’s seemingly effortless trombone phrasing, discovering that although Dorsey appeared not to be taking breaths, he actually was, through a tiny opening at the side of the mouth. Sinatra developed a similar technique for his voice, learning to sing six to eight bars of music without a visible breath. Because of his unusual breath control, Sinatra produced flowing, unbroken melodies in which he could slide gently from one note to another. His singing style made him unique—and marketable.

Because of Sinatra’s delivery and his growing legion of fans, journalists began to pay more attention to Dorsey’s vocalist than to Dorsey as orchestra leader. Budding star Sinatra pressed for greater prominence of his name on billings. Dorsey became displeased, realizing that Sinatra was upstaging the Dorsey orchestra. Sinatra was equally unhappy, wanting to move on as a solo act. After bitter litigation, he finally bought out his contract from the Dorsey organization.

At the time, booking agents were not impressed by ex-band singer Sinatra, now detached from the famous Dorsey orchestra. When Sinatra found work at the Mosque Theater in Newark in 1942, however, he was heard by the manager of the New York Paramount. This led to Sinatra’s being engaged as an “extra added attraction” on the bill headed by Benny Goodman. The show opened on December 30, 1942.

George Evans, a master press agent, entered Sinatra’s career at this point. Evans happened to be at a performance where an excited girl threw a rose at Sinatra and another moaned. Evans saw the potential of sensationalizing Sinatra. He became responsible for some of the hysteria and bizarre behavior of Sinatra fans at the Paramount Theater, encouraging the establishment of fan clubs and courting press coverage of invented news events about “Sinatramania.”

Even Evans could not have foreseen what would happen once he tapped into the fans’ fierce adulation and hormones. Fans—dubbed “bobby-soxers” Bobby-soxers[Bobby soxers] because they wore ankle-length socks with saddle shoes—screamed, stomped, fainted, tore at Sinatra’s clothing, overturned cars, and ran under the horses of mounted policemen to get autographs or photos of “The Sigh Guy.” They collected his hair clippings, repeatedly watched his films, mobbed train stations when he arrived, and adopted his tastes in everything from ice cream to prizefighters. They sent hate mail to his critics and picketed vociferously. Shops around theaters sometimes boarded up their windows during his appearances, and the police considered him to be a traffic hazard.

An estimated two thousand fan clubs Fan clubs had sprung up by 1943, including the Bobby Sox Swoonerettes, the Bow-tie-dolizers, and the Hotra Sinatra Club. Some clubs had their own publications, providing advice on writing to Sinatra (who often received more than five thousand fan letters per week), distributing Sinatra buttons, featuring sentimental portraits of Sinatra’s family life, listing newly released records and scheduled appearances, and even inventing Sinatra cheers, such as “H and a U and a B, B, A; Hubba, Hubba, Frankie Hey.”

Sinatra broke house attendance records wherever he appeared, including the Hollywood Bowl in 1943. The Paramount Theater Paramount Theater in New York became “the home of swoon,” with Sinatra as the Sultan of Swoon. He appeared there four years in a row, for a record total of eighteen weeks. His appearance on Columbus Day, 1944, provoked a riot when the girls inside the theater refused to vacate their seats to make room for the next wave of girls. Police officers had to pry them loose.

In 1943, Columbia Records Columbia Records signed Sinatra, wanting him to rerecord “All or Nothing at All,” but a musicians’ strike prevented the recording. Because Sinatra could not refurbish the song, Columbia rereleased the old Harry James 1939 version. The neglected record that had sold eight thousand copies in 1939 became an instant classic in 1943, selling more than one million copies and establishing Sinatra as a star with clout. Only Bing Crosby before him was able to achieve that kind of power without the backing of a name band.

Also in 1943, Sinatra signed on to radio’s Lucky Strike Hit Parade. Lucky Strike Hit Parade (radio program) With Sinatra’s arrival, the radio program shifted its longtime emphasis away from brassy bands to the Sinatra sound. Meanwhile, his films, such as Higher and Higher (1943) and Reveille with Beverly (1943), cleaned up at the box office.

Sinatra’s career as a singer and film star declined somewhat at the end of the 1940’s and during the early 1950’s. The bobby-soxers were approaching adulthood. Sinatra’s private life hit the scandal sheets, and his voice had deepened. To survive, Sinatra had to change. He rededicated himself to his career after winning an Academy Award Academy Awards;Best Supporting Actor as Best Supporting Actor in 1954 as the feisty Italian underdog Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953). He moved to Capitol Records, producing his finest works, and he launched successful nightclub appearances, concerts, and television variety-show performances, entering one of the most prolific phases of his career.

Significance

During the 1930’s, male vocalists tried to imitate Bing Crosby’s casual style of singing. During the 1940’s, they aimed at imitating Sinatra’s “natural” vocalizing, as well as following Sinatra’s lead in breaking away from big-band dominance. Sinatra’s chief competitors, including Perry Como, Bob Eberle, and Dick Haymes, soon became adept at using some of Sinatra’s stylizing techniques. For example, they realized that Sinatra achieved an amazing intimacy with his audiences through his expert handling of the microphone, making it an extension of his own vocalization to create suspense and tension or to suggest innocence and sincerity. Indeed, Sinatra’s recognition that the microphone was an instrument to be used by a vocalist, rather than merely a device to convey the voice, was at the heart of his success as a performer.

Sinatra’s competitors also picked up on his breath-control techniques, his ability to handle legato phraseology seemingly without breathing and seemingly without effort. Moreover, they could duplicate his excellent diction and, to some extent, even his shadings of vocal color, the articulation, rhythm, and nuances of words and music. No one, however, could duplicate Sinatra’s penchant for singing from the heart about his frustrations, disappointments in love, and hang-ups. As Sinatra sang, he instinctively became engrossed in the lyrics and music. He lived his songs, and audiences could feel his pain or ecstasy.

Gradually the smooth, silken voice and the bow-tie image of the young Sinatra gave way to a more “hip,” up-tempo, laid-back style. He was among the first to use twelve-inch LP (long-playing) albums, well suited for building moods. He sequenced new bouncy love ballads on such albums as Swing Easy! (1954) and Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (1956).

In an Ebony issue in 1958, Sinatra wrote that Billie Holiday Holiday, Billie had the greatest influence on his singing style during the 1950’s. He recalled listening to her vocal renditions in the 1930’s and being impressed by her spontaneous sound, the raw, human quality that she brought to her songs, in part sustained melody mingled with unexpected spoken phrases. He also noted the autobiographical nature of her songs, ones associated with her own drug and personal problems. These elements eventually surfaced in Sinatra’s own unique style of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Sinatra also acknowledged his debt to Mabel Mercer, particularly for her meticulous attention to the shadings of words. Moreover, Sinatra formed a stylistic bond with some of the jazz greats of the 1940’s and 1950’s, including Count Basie, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. All these kindred spirits interpreted their songs in a seemingly artless fashion, with a natural conversational ease, using slight rhythmic jerks of head and shoulders, finger snapping and hip swaying, bending and teasing the rhythms of words and music. The inimitable Sinatra always found his own style and interpretation, incorporating his animated storytelling powers and the introspective vocalizations associated with the highs and lows of his own personal life. "All or Nothing at All" (Lawrence and Altman)[All or Nothing at All (Lawrence and Altman)] Jazz;vocalists Music;jazz

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamill, Pete. Why Sinatra Matters. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003. Examination of the importance of Frank Sinatra to American culture and to musical and cinematic history. Bibliographic references and filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kahn, Ely J., Jr. The Voice: The Story of an American Phenomenon. New York: Harper, 1947. A Sinatra profile, appearing in The New Yorker, provides valuable data from a Sinatra contemporary on the young singer and on the strange behavior and adoration of his fans during the early 1940’s. Funny and revealing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelley, Kitty. His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra. New York: Bantam Books, 1986. Controversial biography of Sinatra clawing his way up the greased pole of entertainment, emphasizing the lurid and sensational. For balance, read Nancy Sinatra’s affectionate examination of her father’s life and times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pleasants, Henry. The Great American Popular Singers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974. Although only one essay focuses on Sinatra, the author juxtaposes Sinatra’s talents with America’s great singers in other essays. Because of Pleasants’s expertise in Western classical music, he can technically assess Sinatra’s music talents better than most.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pugliese, Stanislao G., ed. Frank Sinatra: History, Identity, and Italian American Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Collection of critical essays on Sinatra and cultural history, focusing on both American and Italian American culture. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rockwell, John. Sinatra: An American Classic. New York: Random House, 1984. Expands and updates Henry Pleasants’s assessment of Sinatra as the greatest American pop singer of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinatra, Nancy. Frank Sinatra, My Father. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. Thoughtful commentary from an insider of the Sinatra clan on how her father survived for decades in the brutal music world. The book tells Sinatra’s side of controversies surrounding him.

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