In The Beginning There Was Francis…
Francis Albert Sinatra, born on December 12, 1915, in an upstairs tenement in Hoboken, New Jersey, would grow up to be a force to be reckoned with in America’s music industry. No one knew that yet and his birth certainly didn’t signify that kind of success. He weighed 13.5 pounds at birth and had to be delivered with forceps, an instrument shaped like tongs. This resulted in permanent damage to the left side of his head, ear and neck and perforation of his left eardrum. The scars would remain for the rest of his life, and once he became famous, he insisted on being photographed only from the right side. His parents, Italian immigrants Natalina “Dolly” Garaventa and Antonino Martino “Marty” Sinatra never had another child. Their entire lives, particularly his mother’s, would be invested in their son and his future. Dolly always saw to it that Francis had the best apparel, so that he always appeared fashionably dressed wherever he went. However, she was never easy on him. Later in life, his daughter Nancy made the following comment.
“They’d fought through his childhood and continued to do so until her dying day. But I believe that to counter her steel will he’d developed his own. To prove her wrong when she belittled his choice of career … Their friction first had shaped him; that, I think, had remained to the end and a litmus test of the grit in his bones. It helped keep him at the top of his game.”
—Sinatra’s daughter Nancy on the importance of his mother Dolly in his life and character. Courtesy of Wikipedia
Another Strike Against Him
The scarring at birth of Sinatra’s face was compounded with a childhood operation on the left mastoid bone. The mastoid is the large bony prominence on the base of the skull right behind the ear which contains air spaces that connect with the middle ear cavity. On top of all this, in his adolescence he developed cystic acne, a particularly nasty skin condition, adding to the scaring already present. It was not a promising beginning and certainly doesn’t sound as though this person could possibly become a famous, suave, romantic singer, sought after by hundreds of thousands of women.
When he was a kid, he earned a few nickels while singing from the top of the player piano in his parent’s tavern. Because of his mother’s efforts, he was known as the “best dressed kid in the neighborhood.” As he grew he remained thin and small which caused a myriad of jokes about his skinny stature, even as he mesmerized young girls in his audience. He never grew beyond 5 feet 7 inches tall, and after finding success in the music field in later years, wore lifts in his custom made shoes to appear taller.
Answering His True Calling
Growing into his teens, he idolized popular singer Bing Crosby. His uncle gave him a ukulele for his 15th birthday and he began performing at family gatherings. He never finished high school as he was expelled for “general rowdiness.” To please his mother he enrolled in business school, but left after 11 months. He found he could not tolerate organized education. He delivered newspapers for a time, and then went to work as a riveter at Tietjen and Lang Shipyards. But those mundane jobs weren’t for him and he knew it.
Learning To Improve His True Trade
When performing at local social clubs and singing for free on the local radio station, he began to realize his true talent and quickly learned how to improve. It all went into a sort of “internal bank” tucked away in his mind. He realized he was learning what it took to please an audience. Then, realizing he needed more polish, he took elocution lessons for a dollar each from vocal coach John Quinlan, who was impressed by his vocal range. Quinlan helped him to get the New Jersey sound out of his voice and put in the polish needed to reach a wide audience.
Desired To Be “Better Than Bing Crosby”
Sinatra had an odd ability; though he never learned to read music, once he heard a tune, he could instantly sing it perfectly. He helped form a group called “The Hoboken Four,” and they performed on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour on radio, earning them the top prize. Each of the members got $12.50 and it was obvious even then, that this was his true calling. He idolized then top entertainer, singer Bing Crosby and wanted to become “better than Bing Crosby.” Then he landed a job at a roadhouse singing for $15 a week, and his future grew brighter with each step forward.
“So Big That No One Can Touch Me”
Sinatra’s break came in the person of a fellow radio performer, saxophonist Frank Mane, who arranged for him to audition and record “Our Love,” his first solo studio recording. From that, along came bandleader Harry James who gave him a job with his band, paying him $75 a week, a big step up for Sinatra. But from 1939 to 1942, Sinatra became increasingly frustrated with feeling he was stagnating in the James orchestra. He wanted to be “so big that no one can touch me,” and felt he was not moving forward quickly enough. Eventually he made the decision to leave the James group to become lead singer for the Tommy Dorsey Band, earning $125 per week.
“You could almost feel the excitement coming up out of the crowds when the kid stood up to sing. Remember, he was no matinee’ idol. He was just a skinny kid with big ears. I used to stand there so amazed, I’d almost forget to take my own solos.” ~ Tommy Dorsey
Not Acceptable For Military Service
When war broke out in 1941, Sinatra was classified as 4-F, not acceptable for military service. The papers and radio news said it was because of his perforated eardrum. Others said he wasn’t accepted because he was “not acceptable material from a psychiatric viewpoint.” The girls screaming and fainting in the audience on December 30, 1942 at the Paramount Theatre in New York, didn’t care about the rumors, they just knew they were in love with this crooner. The phenomenon they created was dubbed “Sinatramania,” and it roared through a building like a freight train on a late run.
“I thought the goddamned building was going to cave in, I never heard such a commotion…all this for a fellow I never heard of.” ~ Comedian Jack Benny, at the Paramount Theatre, December 30, 1942
The Decline and Bounce Back??
In contrast to all this, the years between 1946-1952 his career declined, for varied reasons. He began to mature and change his style to appeal to a broader audience thus losing a new teenage following, and then his friend and publicist George Evans died of a heart attack. Evans had been largely responsible for orchestrating his public image. As if that wasn’t plenty to dampen his spirits, rumors of mob connections followed him and it became public knowledge that his marriage was over and that he was having an affair with Ava Gardner. In the social mores of that American era, these things were not taken lightly. Sinatra’s popularity began a steep decline. No one would have given odds on him rising to the top again. Yet like the legendary Phoenix, he would rise to even greater heights. He became one of Las Vegas’ premier entertainers, attracting a small following. Biographer Arnold Shaw said,“If Vegas had not existed, Sinatra could have invented it.” He bought into a Reno hotel/casino on the California/Nevada state line for a time, eventually getting out of the business due to rumors of mob connections.
And Then It Happened; The Role of a Lifetime!
He did everything he could to regain his lost popularity, taking a supporting role in a musical ” “On The Town,” in 1949, but when he got the role of Maggio in “From Here To Eternity,” in 1953, it was the catalyst to a whole new level of fame. He won that year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and his stardom from that point was assured. He became known as a “triple threat,” since he could act, sing and even dance in subsequent roles He would continue his rise through the Elvis era and the invasion of the Beatles. Never again would he lose his attraction for the public and is revered today by musicians, entertainers and the public. Not only that, but he is connected with specific songs that seemed written just for him; “My Way,” written by Paul Anka or “New York, New York!” written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, among others, and one which is engraved on the headstone of his grave.
When Frank Sinatra passed away on May 14, 1998 at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, the whole world felt the loss. The Empire State Building in New York was bathed in blue light the night after his passing. The lights on the Vegas “Strip” were dimmed in his memory and for a moment all action was suspended.
Francis Albert Sinatra was buried in Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, CA. Along with him went mementos from family members, including cherry-flavored Life Savers, Tootsie Rolls, a bottle of his favorite alcoholic drink; Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey, a pack of Camel cigarettes and a Zippo lighter.
The words imprinted on his grave marker read “The Best Is Yet To Come,” which is, appropriately enough, the title of one of his best-loved songs. That phrase is followed by “Beloved Husband and Father.” Even in death he was bigger than life, as significant increases in worldwide sales of his music were reported that month. I suspect that somewhere in an afterlife, Sinatra is now holding court as the “Chairman of the Board,” regaling members of his adoring audience with the chapters of his life and launching into his great songs. After all, it was always his true calling to sing and entertain.
His music will never grow old and even today, songs he recorded back in the 1940s are still popular and remembered by many. If you too, are a fan of Ol’ Blue Eyes, The Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, here’s your chance to own and enjoy some of his work in your own home. Check out the albums below, available from Amazon.