Sinatra: the man, the legend, the final bow

by Kenneth A. Longo | 5/18/98 5:00am

Whether it was crooning on stage with a smoke in one hand and a bottle of scotch in the other, or throwing patrons through plate glass windows at the Sands, Frank Sinatra (emphasis on the Sin-) personified style. Hoboken's son had flaws. Too much drink. Too many women. A volcanic temper. Excess.

But it was the pain from those years of abuse and loss that powered his musical phrasing -- his tonality, his vocal energy. Hear Sinatra sing "Send in the Clowns," and you envision him sitting in a dark room brooding over Ava Gardner, 20 years after their divorce. Listen to "My Way," and experience Sinatra's theory on how a man can overcome life's challenges by sheer force of will. It's like reading the Ten Commandments, baby.

Sinatra never apologized for his lifestyle. Whether he was shacking up with Bacall while Bogey was on his death bed, beating line cooks senseless for failing to make his pasta "al dente" or fraternizing with Gambino crime bosses, Sinatra had no interest in amends.

The stage was his confessional; the audience his priest. Donning a tuxedo, passing through velvet curtains, Sinatra infused a room with both his voracious libido and the tenderness of a skinny street kid from New Jersey. Mighty, yet fragile, seeking absolution, acceptance, vindication.

His career had peaks and valleys. After crooning successfully during the big band era with Tommy Dorsey, he earned the deified nickname "The Voice." Sinatra petered out in the 50s: a receding hairline and cracking vocal cords couldn't sell records. Elvis was the new King. But the Chairman of the Board refused to throw in the towel.

An intense lobbying effort in Hollywood won Sinatra the role of Maggio in "From Here to Eternity." His head-turning performance would earn him an Oscar in 1954, and revitalize his career. (This episode lives on in Tinseltown mythology as the famous equine "head in the bed" scene from "The Godfather.")

Soon after, he started his own record label, Reprise, and, true to form, fought back through collaborations with the likes of Henry Mancini and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Despite the onslaught of Rock and Roll, Sinatra never altered his style, or lost his potency. To listen to his rendition of "The Girl from Ipanema" from this period is to be blown away.

Sinatra was untouchable. In an age fraught with political correctness, Sinatra burned on, an anachronistic flame in the night. In the film "Ocean's Eleven" (1960), Sinatra played a modern day Robin Hood, his band of Merry Men composed of his fellow Rat-Packers: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and the indispensable moll, Angie Dickenson. Never were drinking, gambling and unadulterated swindling so fashionable. Somehow, the icy blue cool of Sinatra's eyes, the easy smile, the swagger, made it seem so right.

He shook the hands of presidents from Roosevelt to Clinton, organized Kennedy's inaugural ball in 1960, and was almost considered for sainthood by the Roman Catholic church. Contrast these images with the infamous photo of Sinatra smiling, arm in arm, with underworld crime bosses, and you get a sense of the complexity of this man. But for some reason, you can't bring yourself to despise him for it.

In the end, despite his ambiguities of character, Sinatra was a man with a tremendous gift: through his voice he loved his audience, and made them feel loved. Throughout his tumultuous life, Sinatra always returned to the stage, libation and microphone in hand, to engage you. He seduced you with words and made you cry at slight inflections of tone. Each performance was a mantra: I've been there, I've felt the joys and the sorrows as you have, and baby, tonight we're going to share it.

Indeed, at the end of each engagement, Sinatra thanked his audience for listening to him, in a sense acknowledging their symbiosis. He recognized the importance of his listeners. "An audience is like a broad," he once reflected. "If you're indifferent, Endsville."

Sinatra finally landed in Endsville on Thursday, May 14, at the age of 82. The cause of death was a heart attack. An onslaught of cliche reminiscences has predictably ensued. President Clinton remarked, "I think every American would have to smile and say he really did do it his way." True enough. But those who really want to remember Sinatra are probably smoking a fine cigar, sipping an aged bourbon and listening to "Summer Wind" under dim lighting.

No smoke-filled room will ever be the same.