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franks world

Saturday, December 12, 2015, marks what would have been Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1915, he rose from humble beginnings to become the greatest entertainer of the twentieth century. Anyone who delves into the so-called “Great American Songbook” owes a debt to Sinatra. He didn’t write the songs, but he used the force of his voice and his powerful personality to make them his own.

As a human being, though, to say that Sinatra was “flawed” is a bit of an understatement. He contained multitudes. He was tough and tender, mean and romantic, loyal and unforgiving, good and bad. He could turn his emotions up to 11 at the drop of a snap-brimmed hat, and there are many stories of one-time friends who crossed Sinatra and earned his everlasting hatred.

But with Sinatra, you have to take the good with the bad. It’s like the episode of “Star Trek” where the transporter splits the captain into two people: good Kirk and bad Kirk. Bad Kirk is a total dick. Good Kirk is a nice guy, but he lacks the balls to make the tough decisions a captain has to make. To be an effective commander, Kirk needs both sides of his personality.

Sinatra was like that. He was a smoldering cauldron of emotions: resentment, anger, envy, loneliness. He could also be incredibly giving, although always on his own terms. When the volcano inside him erupted in his ordinary life, the results were often not pretty. When he channeled that intense emotional life into his singing, the results could be transcendent. His artistry came with a price.

I can vividly remember when I became a Frank Sinatra fan. I was attending college in Los Angeles, living in an old apartment building on Vermont Avenue. My tiny room smelled of leaking gas and roach powder.

Shabby as it was, the place had its strong points. Right across from the front entrance was Benjy’s Liquor, and Benjy never carded. And the building had a big expansive roof, where I could sit on a late afternoon, watch the sun set over Los Angeles, drink the beer I had bought at Benjy’s, and listen to KROQ.

KROQ was Los Angeles’ “new wave” station. It played artists like the Plimsouls, XTC, Sparks, and Split Enz. It was not in the habit of playing Frank Sinatra. Yet one evening I was sitting on the roof, drinking a beer as the setting sun turned the sky the color of an orange popsicle, and the DJ played a song I recognized from my youth—the title track to Come Fly with Me. My Dad had the album. The song was brassy and upbeat, with muted trumpets kicking things off, and Frank singing about heading off to “llama land, where a one-man band, will toot his flute for you.” It hovered just the right side of self-parody. It also made me feel good hearing it. The next day I headed off to the used record stores on Fairfax Avenue and I bought a copy of the album. I still have it.

That was the beginning of my Sinatra fandom. The next album I bought was Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!!, an album so swingtastic it required three exclamation points in its title. I found out later that this was the last album Sinatra had done for Capitol Records. The story goes that Sinatra walked into the studio and told arranger Nelson Riddle to pick up the tempo for all the numbers, without even hearing them. The album does have a rollicking pace, and the original vinyl version clocks in at less than 30 minutes. It does swing, though.

After graduating from college I returned to the East Coast, and I began dipping into my dad’s Sinatra albums. He had a copy of A Swingin’ Affair!, another great collaboration with Riddle. Some friends of my parents had left it behind after a party. (Their name was still written on the album.) Once I moved to Boston, I started buying more albums. One of the first was a collection called This is Sinatra!, which introduced me to the brassy charms of “I’ve Got the World on a String,” still one of my favorite Sinatra songs, and one of the first collaborations with Riddle.

I also bought a copy of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! It was one of the cheap reissues that Capitol released in the early 1980s. I didn’t find out until years later that the label dropped songs from these new versions to save money, probably to make pressing them cheaper. Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! originally had 15 tracks. Mine had a mere dozen. Among the missing were “Pennies from Heaven” and “Makin’ Whoopee.” Even shortened, the album worked. The first time my future wife visited my apartment, I threw Swingin’ Lovers on the turntable. She was impressed by my savoir faire, or whatever it was. When we got married, our first song was Sinatra’s version of “More.”

All of which is a long way to say, happy birthday, Frank.

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