Tuesday, September 08, 2015

“Frank: The Voice”– Book Review



This summer, I read Frank:  The Voice by James Kaplan – a biography of Frank Sinatra from the years 1915-1954.


Born in Hoboken, New Jersey a century ago, the teenage Frank Sinatra yearned to become a singer on the level of Bing Crosby; little did the adolescent know he would eventually go on to eclipse his hero by redefining the art of recorded music and making significant contributions to American culture.  The problem, of course, was that Sinatra was up against an almost insurmountable obstacle:  Himself.  Sinatra’s unpredictable behavior in some ways made him a success but also caused his downfall.  If not for a little luck and some assistance from unlikely sources, he would’ve been forgotten altogether long ago. 

Hired by bandleader Harry James after hearing him perform at New Jersey’s Rustic Cabin in the late 1930’s, Sinatra left less than a year later to be a singer for the vastly more successful band led by Tommy Dorsey.  Mingling with knowledgeable musicians, it was there that Sinatra found his craft and audiences (mostly teenage girls known as Bobbysoxers) in turn found him.  Expressing a unique sound different from other singers of that era, Sinatra came to be known simply as “The Voice”.  But as his career surged – he eventually left Dorsey to go it alone and soon wound up moving to Hollywood to star in movies – his personal life suffered. 

Wife Nancy Barbato, Sinatra’s childhood sweetheart, was forced to raise their children pretty much on her own; when Sinatra wasn’t working, he was carousing around town either drinking with the boys or picking up women – including fellow luminaries like Lana Turner.  Sinatra ultimately met his match in movie star Ava Gardner; once he left his wife, he married Gardner – a travesty of a marriage, making the gossip columns almost daily.  His career took a hit as a result; Sinatra couldn’t get work and owed a considerable amount of money.  Offered the part of Maggio in the screen adaptation of James Jones’ novel “From Here To Eternity”, his performance won him an Academy Award.  He had traveled a long and sometimes rocky road, but by 1954, Sinatra was back!


In the years since Sinatra’s death, I have read a great many biographies about the legendary singer; quite a few were rather good – the others probably could’ve been skipped.  The way in which they differed from James Kaplan’s “Frank:  The Voice” is that those other biographies were a comprehensive record of the man’s entire life while Kaplan’s book merely covered his personal and professional goings on up until 1954.  For quite some time, I procrastinated reading this book for precisely that reason.  Why did I want to read another book about Sinatra when it didn’t even finish the story?

Well, now I know my delay was a huge mistake.  The reason why Kaplan concentrated on this particular portion of the singer’s life is because previous books gave that period short shrift; thanks to the author’s extraordinary detail and impeccable research, fans of Old Blue Eyes learn a great deal more about Sinatra’s early career – including his studious approach and his erratic (and frequently obnoxious) behavior.  “Frank:  The Voice” contains a good deal of correspondence between Sinatra and colleagues whom he felt were against him when in fact they were looking out for his best interests. 

Another reason for my appreciation of this book is that it came on the heels of my having read the Ava Gardner biography, “Love Is Nothing” (reviewed here).  Although a good chunk of “Love Is Nothing” covers Gardner’s rocky relationship with Sinatra, “Frank:  The Voice” is significantly more inclusive of the nitty-gritty precisely because its focus is on the period of Sinatra’s professional life from the early 1940’s to the early 1950’s.  A good piece of work – not just a book, but a movie, a song, whatever – will always leave you wanting more.  By the very end of “Frank:  The Voice” when Sinatra collects his Academy Award, the reader is left feeling exactly that way.  Kaplan’s insightful, humorous and analytical writing adds considerably to the enjoyment; fortunately, a sequel will be published later this year, just in time for The Sinatra Centennial.   

Frank: The Voice: James Kaplan: 9780767924238: Books

ISBN: 0767924231
ISBN-13: 9780767924238

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