Sunday, August 21, 2016

“Sinatra: The Chairman”– Book Review



This summer, I read “Sinatra:  The Chairman” by James Kaplan, a biography of Frank Sinatra from 1954 until his death in 1998.


After Frank Sinatra wins the Oscar in 1954, can this change the momentum of his career or is he basically done at this point?


In the Spring of 1954, having secured his acting award for “From Here To Eternity”, Sinatra was sure that he was on the comeback trail.  Having been jettisoned by his former recording company, Columbia Records, he was in dire search for not only a new contract, but a new start as well.  Before long, it would be Alan Livingston of Capitol Records who would be willing to take a chance on Sinatra.  While the singer wanted to work with Axel Stordahl, the arranger with whom he had so many successes in his glory years of the 1940’s, Livingston played a hunch and paired him with an up and coming staff arranger named Nelson Riddle. 

Having spent the next few years re-establishing himself as the premier song interpreter of his time by working with Riddle and Billy May to produce hit singles and albums that were praised by both critics and the public alike, Sinatra once again found himself at the top of the world professionally.  As might be expected, however, his personal life was another matter entirely.  After many highly publicized separations and reconciliations with then-wife Ava Gardner, they finally divorced; although their tumultuous marriage was officially over, their passion was not – in fact, their life would intersect many times for decades to come. 

After leaving Capitol to form Reprise, his own record company, Sinatra found the business of running a label to be a challenge; as music tastes were changing in the early 1960’s, Reprise – adamantly against signing any rock and roll acts – relied solely on the performers that were more or less contemporaries of Sinatra.  He signed his Rat Pack buddies Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., among others and found that his dream company was hemorrhaging money.   Eventually, in order to save the label, Sinatra wound up selling it to Warner Brothers, in exchange for a movie deal.  Again, however, Sinatra’s personal life was considerably turbulent; as a notorious playboy, he had many romances – one of which culminating in a brief marriage to actress Mia Farrow. 

Through his many connections with organized crime, Sinatra was able to help get John F. Kennedy elected president of the United States; their close friendship ended when Kennedy rebuffed Sinatra.  In later years, Sinatra became a Republican, supporting candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  Following a brief retirement in the early 1970’s, he tried to make a comeback, but his time had clearly passed.  He remarried in 1976; with age, he slowed down and this marriage would prove to last him until his demise in 1998. 


About a year ago, I reviewed the biography “Frank:  The Voice” by the same author; it was considered the first volume in a two-volume set on the singer’s life.  Once again, Kaplan does not disappoint; just as Sinatra’s unique singing voice brought a new interpretation to old songs, Kaplan’s unique writing voice brings a new perspective on an oversized personality we all thought we already knew far too well.  Both Kaplan’s writing style and research prove to be what shines above all of the so-called gossip because he provides readers with substantial facts that either buttress or refute the various stories that have circulated throughout Sinatra’s life. 

One of the things that Kaplan appears to be trying to do is to get inside Sinatra’s head.  Without a doubt, this is something which sets this book apart from others who have attempted biographies of the star.  At the risk of sounding like the author is attempting to psychoanalyze his subject, Kaplan cites Sinatra’s behavior over the decades to draw conclusions that are quite credible, based on the evidence previously provided.  Another thing that enriches this biography is that there are an abundance of details that very often have gone either overlooked or omitted altogether in past biographies.   

Arguably, Kaplan’s best writing comes at the very end of the book when he describes visiting Sinatra’s gravesite.  After so many years of writing about this icon in the history of popular American culture, he sounds like he comes away a little disappointed.  There are no long lines wrapping around the site.  The letters have somewhat faded from years of being in the sun.  Perhaps the most egregious error of all is that in literature supplied by The Palm Springs Desert Memorial Park, The Chairman takes second billing to Sonny Bono, who is also buried in the same cemetery.  Is the disappointment Kaplan conveys due to the underwhelming gravesite of his subject?  Or is the disappointment in knowing that his fine work on this idol of millions has come to its inevitable conclusion?   

Sinatra: The Chairman: James Kaplan: 9780385535397: Books

ISBN: 0385535392
ISBN-13: 9780385535397

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