After hearing about Frank Sinatra’s death, people around the world are reflecting on his music, his movies and his life. Entertainment Weekly general editor David Hajdu, who has been writing about Sinatra for the past 20 years, spoke with EW Online this morning to share some insight about the legacy of the Chairman of the Board.
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“How important was Frank Sinatra? Well, it’s May 15, 1998 — and no one’s talking about ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘Godzilla.’ They’re talking about someone who was bigger and tougher and more powerful than ‘Godzilla’ and a far more resonant cultural influence than ‘Seinfeld.’
“If you think of the 20th century as a time when the culture of celebrity introduced a whole wave of new standards and institutions, Frank Sinatra created, pioneered, innovated, refined and mastered every one of them. He was the first teen idol, the first entertainer to recognize the teen market and to address it directly. The root of his appeal during WWII was the eroticism of his singing, which answered a need on the part of women whose boyfriends and husbands had gone overseas during the war. He was the first crossover artist, the first singer who became a major movie star. And he was the first power player in entertainment: He started his own record label and his own film production company. Think about all of that. That makes him Leonardo DiCaprio, Elvis, Madonna and Tom Cruise all wrapped into one.
“How did he do all this? How did he succeed? This is a man who has an unequaled track record: He recorded during six decades, from the ’30s into the ’90s; he reinvented himself and succeeded during several different generations by virtue of good timing and unparalleled talent. And sometimes he got by on sheer force of will. All of those things, that’s what allowed him to rise above every other entertainer in the course of this century.
“A lot has been said about how Sinatra influenced a generation of pre-rock singers with his mastery of the microphone and the recording medium. Before him, singers sounded like Al Jolson, with big voices. He sang in an intimate way, on a one-to-one basis with the person who was listening to the radio. He pioneered a personal approach to song interpretation. We think of the songs he sang as Sinatra songs, even though he didn’t write them. Before Sinatra, the singer was in service to the song. He turned that upside down and put the songs in service to him, his personality and his point of view. In doing that, he set the stage for rock singers; he showed them how to put their own personal trademark on a song.
“The other detail that often gets neglected is that Sinatra crossed racial barriers as an artist. His music is a union of black and white music. People often give Elvis credit for breaking down the boundaries in his time, and that’s true. But Sinatra did it first. We just don’t hear about it because it wasn’t acceptable in the ’40s to acknowledge that swing was black music, invented by African Americans and played by African Americans and later adopted by whites. In the Tommy Dorsey band, Sinatra was singing to arrangements by Sy Oliver, an African American. He was one of the first to take that step.
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“One more thing: Prior to Sinatra, singers usually sang the current hits. He was the first to say that there’s a canon of great old pop songs. In the’50s, he was recording Irving Berlin songs from the ’20s. He looked on Tin Pan Alley as a body of classic work that deserved to be preserved. Now we all accept that idea, but he started it.
“Even beyond entertainment, Frank Sinatra embodies everything that defines America in the 20th century, good and bad. His scrappy, cocksure Americanism; his sort of ‘We’re better than the rest of the world, and if you don’t believe us, we’ll beat you up’ attitude, it all tied in with a kind of resourcefulness and smarts and a can-do spirit that speaks of America in his age.” <!–