(December 12, 1915 May 14, 1998) Frank Sinatra was a popular and highly acclaimed male vocalist and actor. Renowned for his impeccable phrasing and timing, critics place him alongside such artists as Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles as one of the most important, popular and influential musical figures of the 20th century.
Sinatra had a larger-than-life presence in the public eye and, over a seven-decade career in show business, became an American icon. His brash, sometimes swaggering attitude was perhaps best embodied by his signature song "My Way", and more generally by his frequently gutsy cinematic performances. He also garnered considerable attention due to his alleged connections with the Mafia.
Early life Frank Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1915. He was the only child of a quiet Sicilian fireman, Anthony Martin Sinatra (1894-1969). Anthony had emigrated to the United States in 1895. His mother, Natalie Dolly Garaventa (1896-1977), was a talented, tempestuous Ligurian, who worked as a midwife, Democratic party ward boss, and part-time abortionist. Known as "Hatpin Dolly," she emigrated in 1897. Although it is part of the Sinatra folklore that Frank had an impoverished childhood, he was actually brought up in middle-class surroundings, due to his father's secure job as a fireman and his mother's strong political ties to the Democratic Party in Hoboken.
Following his teen years in New Jersey, Sinatra was interested in serving his country during World War II. But on December 9, 1941, close to his 26th birthday, Sinatra was classified as 4-F at Newark Induction Center, due to a punctured eardrum he suffered from a difficult forceps delivery. This allowed Sinatra to pursue entertainment, rather than being enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
Early career In September of 1935 he appeared on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour as part a group called the Hoboken Four. The group won the show's talent contest and toured with Bowes. Sinatra then took a job as a singing waiter and MC at the Rustic Club in Englewood, NJ. In 1939 bandleader and trumpet player Harry James heard Sinatra on the radio. James hired Sinatra and the two recorded together for the first time on July 13, 1939. Sinatra as caricatured by Sam Berman for NBC's 1947 promotional bookAt the end of the year he left James to join the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, where he rose to fame as a ballad singer. His first and biggest hit with the band was 1940's "I'll Never Smile Again," which spent several weeks at number one on Billboard magazine's then-new chart of America's top-selling records. His vast appeal to the "bobby soxers," as teenage girls were called, revealed a whole new audience for popular music, which had appealed mainly to adults up to that time. (The complete span of his career with Dorsey was released in the 1994 box set The Song Is You.)
It was as a featured singer with Dorsey that Sinatra made his earliest film appearances, such as the 1942 Eleanor Powell/Red Skelton comedy, Ship Ahoy in which the uncredited singer performed a couple of songs.
In 1943, he signed with Columbia Records as a solo artist with initially great success, particularly during the musicians' recording strikes. Vocalists were not part of the musician union and were allowed to record during the ban by using a cappella vocal backing. Sinatra scored several hits during the strike, then enjoyed one of his biggest hits when the strike ended with "Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week." He also starred on radio programs during this period and was widely considered the nation's second-most-popular singer, behind Bing Crosby.
However, Sinatra's career began a decline in the late 1940s, as novelty tunes became popular with audiences, and Sinatra moved into his 30s, causing some loss of appeal to new teen-age audiences. He also strained his voice from overwork, and committed a series of public-relations gaffes -- including the punching of newspaper columnist Lee Mortimer -- that severely tarnished his public image.
Of this first phase of Sinatra's career, it can be said that it anticipated virtually every phase of what, in the 1960s, would be called "the youth movement." His sudden--and for many his alarming--appeal to teenagers became a topic of journalistic and even sociological comment. Later musical idols would pass through the same stages of massive initial appeal, decline, and retrenchment, but few, however, would manage to attract as many new audiences as Sinatra did. This became essential to any popular music career that aspired to longevity.
Post-war revival of career What might be called Sinatra's second career began as a full-fledged dramatic actor when he played the scrappy Pvt. Angelo Maggio in the eve-of-Pearl Harbor drama From Here to Eternity (1953), for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This role and performance became legendary at the time as the key comeback moment in Sinatra's career. Virtually overnight, his career recovered after several years in the wilderness.
The following year, Sinatra played a crazed, coldblooded assassin determined to kill the President in the thriller Suddenly (available freely online here). Critics found Sinatra's performance one of the most chilling portrayals of a psychopath ever committed to film. This was followed in 1955 by his portrayal of a heroin addict in Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm, for which he received an Academy Award for Best Actor nomination.
Musically, Sinatra reinvented himself with a series of complex adult albums featuring darker emotional material starting with In the Wee Small Hours. In 1953, he had signed with Capitol Records, where he worked with many of the finest arrangers of the era, most notably Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Billy May. By the early 1960s, he was a big enough star to start his own record label: Reprise Records. His position with the label earned him the long-lasting nickname "The Chairman of the Board".
The famous Sinatra comeback is the stuff of American legend, and, indeed, there seemed little in either his 1940s film career or his radio and television performances of the early 1950s to predict the dramatic success he would enjoy on screen in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the musical turnaround should not have been unexpected. At the very end of his Columbia recording career, in two performances in 1952 Sinatra had given advance warning of what would become the new sound he achieved in the 1950s at Capitol. In "The Birth of the Blues" it would be the sound of the new and "swinging" Sinatra: a hipper, tougher, more masculine persona than the sometimes boyish Sinatra of the 1940s. In "I'm A Fool To Want You" he anticipated the darker, melancholic sound of the great "torch" albums of the 1950s. Neither performance was sufficient to prevent Columbia from declining to renew his contract, in what must surely rank as one of the great errors in the business history of American popular music.
Frank Sinatra, 1947In the 1950s and 1960s, this new Sinatra would become the most popular attraction in Las Vegas, the venue of choice for performers of his era as the rise of rock and roll began to reduce the market for their recordings. He was friends with many other entertainers, including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr, actor Peter Lawford, comedian Joey Bishop, and sometimes Shirley MacLaine. They formed the core of the Rat Pack, a loose group of entertainers who were friends and socialized together--and whose wild and unpredictable antics would dominate show business news for much of the period from 1958 to 63.
Sinatra played a major role in the desegregation of Nevada hotels and casinos in the 1960s. Sinatra led his fellow members of the Rat Pack in refusing to patronize hotels and casinos that denied service to Sammy Davis Jr. With the release of the film Ocean's Eleven (1960), the Rat Pack became the subject of great media attention, and this gave the Rat Pack, Sinatra in particular, the leverage he needed to force hotels and casinos to end segregation.
In 2001, Las Vegas named Frank Sinatra Drive, a new street parallel to Interstate 15 and Las Vegas Boulevard, in his honor.
Sinatra was close to the Kennedy family and was a friend and strong supporter of President John F. Kennedy. Years later, Sinatra's youngest daughter Tina would state that Sinatra and mob figure Sam Giancana had helped Kennedy win a crucial primary election in 1960 by helping to deliver the union votes.Sinatra is said to have introduced Kennedy to Judith Campbell, who had been a girlfriend of both Sinatra's and Giancana. Campbell allegedly began a relationship with Kennedy; eventually Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy became alarmed and told his brother to distance himself from Sinatra. This soured Sinatra's relationship with the Kennedy family and the Democratic Party, and by the late 1960s Sinatra had become a Republican and supporter of Richard Nixon, who became President in 1968.
Sinatra would lose his Nevada casino license in 1963 when Giancana was seen in the Cal-Neva Lodge casino, of which Sinatra was a part owner. Frank Sinatra as Maj. Bennett Marco in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962.Sinatra resumed his strong film work with the 1962 paranoid classic The Manchurian Candidate, in which he played the troubled, frequently blinking, but nonetheless resolute protagonist. In 1965's Von Ryan's Express, Sinatra added dimensionality to a World War II action role. His other film appearances during this time were either cameos or, as in the case of 1964's Robin and the Seven Hoods, critically-panned efforts to trade in on his image.
In the 1970s Sinatra staged a retirement and several comebacks, recording less frequently but continuing to perform in Las Vegas and around the world. It was a period during which, by taking to the road again, Sinatra sought to bring the great American songbook of the 1920s and 1930s to a much wider audience than the one that frequented the casinos of Las Vegas.
In 1981 Sinatra's Nevada casino license was reinstated after hearings by the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Indeed, journalist Pete Hamill wrote in his book, Why Sinatra Matters, that Sinatra was "the most investigated American performer since John Wilkes Booth."
"Sure, I knew some of those guys," Sinatra himself said. "I spent a lot of time in saloons. And saloons are not run by the Christian Brothers. There were a lot of guys around, and they came out of Prohibition, and they ran pretty good saloons. I was a kid. I worked in the places that were open. They paid you, and the checks didn't bounce. I didn't meet any Nobel Prize winners in saloons. But if Francis of Assisi was a singer and worked in saloons, he would've met the same guys." April 18, 1985: Frank Sinatra during a show at Tokyo's Budokan HallIn 1986, investigative journalist Kitty Kelley published a biography of Sinatra entitled His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra went to court to try to prevent it from being published, bringing a $2 million lawsuit against her because he believed that the book painted him in an unattractive light, and he accused her of misrepresenting herself as his authorized biographer. He later withdrew his lawsuit amid much publicity and the book went on to become number one on the New York Times best seller list and was a huge seller not only in the US but also in England, Canada, and Australia. Another Sinatra nemesis, the Hollywood gossip columnist Rona Barrett, came closer to a depiction of his character in her roman a clef, The Lovo-maniacs, which attempted a fictional insight into his complex personality.
Sinatra's singing career continued into the 1990s, most notably with his commercially-successful Duets albums on which he sang with other stars such as U2's Bono. He continued to perform live until February 1995, but by then the nearly 80-year-old singer often had to rely on teleprompters for his lyrics, to compensate for his failing memory.
Death A frequent visitor, property owner and benefactor in the Palm Springs, California area, Sinatra wished to be buried in the desert he grew to love so much. Frank Sinatra died at the age of 82 of a heart failure in Los Angeles, California, following a long battle with coronary heart disease, kidney disease, bladder cancer, and dementia. He had undergone surgery to remove part of his intestines in 1986, and had suffered a bad fall from the stage in 1994, while singing "My Way".
His funeral was held on May 20, 1998 at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills and at St. Theresa's Catholic Church in Palm Springs. Sinatra's last words were (according to his daughter Nancy Sinatra, as told to Variety senior columnist, Army Archerd): "I'm losing." Sinatra was buried a short distance east of St. Theresa's next to his parents in section A-8 of Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, a quiet, unassuming cemetery on Ramon Road at the border of Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage and near his famous Rancho Mirage compound, located on tree-lined Frank Sinatra Drive. His longtime friend, Jilly Rizzo, who died in a Rancho Mirage car crash in 1992, is buried in the same cemetery as is pop star, former Palm Springs mayor and United States congressman, Sonny Bono.
Legend has it that Sinatra was buried in a blue suit with a flask of Jack Daniel's and a roll of ten dimes which was a gift from his daughter, Tina, along with a card that said "Sleep warm, Poppa - look for me." The ten dimes were a habit dating back to the kidnapping of his son, Frank Sinatra, Jr. due to the kidnappers' demands that negotiations be made via pay phone. A Zippo lighter (which some take to be a reference to his mob connections) is purported to be buried with him as is a pack of Camel cigarettes. The words The Best is Yet to Come are imprinted on his tombstone.