The Life of Frank Sinatra, Part 1
Originally Written and Compiled by: Gary Cadwallader for Seaside Music Theatre With special thanks to MaryAnn Eifert for research materials.
The Voice. The Sultan of Swoon. The Chairman of the Board. Ol' Blue Eyes. The Greatest Singer of the Popular Song. These are all nicknames for one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century, a man whose career successes spanned more than 50 years, enjoying popularity with each successive generation. The following is a condensed biography of one the most colorful and interesting men of the last 75 years.
December 12, 1915, Hoboken, New Jersey: Francis Albert Sinatra (some say he was born Sinestro) was thought to be stillborn until his grandmother doused him with cold water. His birth had been difficult. The doctor unable to extract the baby from his mother, pulled on the baby with forceps, injuring the baby's ear, cheek, and neck, producing scars he would bear the rest of his life. Baby Francis fought for his life that first day and won.
Francis was born the son of Anthony Martin Sinatra, a struggling boxer (known in the ring as Marty O'Brien) who had emigrated from Agregento on the island of Sicily, and Natalie Catherine Garavente (called Dolly), a saloonkeeper known as an aggressive, strong-willed woman from Genoa.
Hoboken at the time of Sinatra's birth was rich, not only with Italian immigrants, but also with Irish immigrants and Jews from Eastern Europe. It was a tough town in which to grow up, and fighting for survival was a way of life. Frank, as he was now called, grew up an only child, learning to defend himself on the streets while at the same time being pampered by his doting, but tough, mother. Frank's father, now earning a decent, livable salary as a firefighter, moved his family to Garden Street, a more modest, middle-class Hoboken neighborhood. Frank became known around town for his always new, always fashionable clothing, and was the envy of his friends for having a bedroom of his own, an almost unheard of luxury at that time.
Throughout the 1920's, Frank loved listening to the family radio and especially loved the songs sung by Russ Columbo (1908-1934). When he took an interest in singing himself, Frank's mother paid for voice lessons (against his father's wishes, for singing lessons were for sissies). After entering Demarest High School in 1931, Frank began singing in the school choir, at dances, and at parties. He attracted a great deal of local attention and the applause and praise gave him the confidence to perfect his craft. When he saw a 1933 Jersey City concert by superstar crooner Bing Crosby (1904-1977), Sinatra felt empowered to follow in his new idol's footsteps. At the time, Frank had been working for his godfather, Frank Garrick, as an assistant at the newspaper, The Jersey Observer, but became uninterested in mundane work and school. He decided to quit school at 16 in 1934 to pursue a singing career, but before he could 'make it big' he needed a paycheck, which was hard to come by during the Great Depression. His post-schooling odd jobs included working in several different shipbuilding yards, and unloading crates of books at a publishing company in nearby Manhattan.
During this time, Sinatra purchased, with the help of his parents, a small portable sound system and some band arrangements of popular songs. These gave him the opportunity to do some important "one night stands" with orchestras in small clubs and roadhouses. Also at this time Frank auditioned for the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a local New York show (from the Capitol
Theatre) that was heard nationally over the radio. First prize was a place on a national tour produced by Bowes, and great national coverage. Sinatra passed the audition. Also making it past the auditions was a trio of local Hoboken boys who hung out at Frank's mother's saloon. Jimmy Petrozelli, Patty Principe, and Fred Tamburro wanted to perform as much as Frank did, and after their Amateur Hour audition, Bowes decided to put the two acts together and call them The Hoboken Four. They all agreed and the following Sunday the quartet sang the Bing Crosby/Mills Brothers 1932 hit, "Shine." They won big, and became a unit in the Major Bowes touring unit.
Sinatra left the tour after making his motion picture debut in the short, Major Bowes Theater of the Air, and went back home to Hoboken. He was now dating Nancy Barbato of Jersey City, New Jersey, and he auditioned for a job at the Rustic Cabin, a restaurant in Englewood, New Jersey. He was hired to serve as maitre d' and sing with the band. The Rustic Cabin was connected by radio hookup to WNEW in New York, and the restaurant's orchestra could be heard on the air every night on "The WNEW Dance Parade." In between seating people, Sinatra would sing a number or two and made about $15 a week plus tips. He worked at The Rustic Cabin from 1937-1939.
The exposure was great for Sinatra's career. In 1939, he learned that trumpeter Harry James was leaving The Benny Goodman Orchestra and starting an orchestra of his own. Sinatra had publicity photos taken and managed to get them to James. James had heard Sinatra on WNEW and made a visit to The Rustic Cabin. He liked Sinatra's voice and immediately hired the young singer in 1939. Also in 1939, Sinatra married his sweetheart Nancy Barbato and set up housekeeping in Jersey City. Sinatra began his new job with Harry James & His Orchestra, but he wasn't with them for long. Popular bandleader Tommy Dorsey was losing his lead vocalist Jack Leonard, and Sinatra sang for Dorsey at a nightclub in Chicago. Dorsey liked what he heard and hired Sinatra. James, willing to let go of his singer for a bigger orchestra, ripped up Sinatra's contract and wished him well. Sinatra joined Dorsey in January 1940, and sang for him for the next two years.
In Swing Era, Gunther Schuller examines Sinatra's brief stint with Harry
James: "The arrival of Frank Sinatra" may have tipped Harry James's (1916-1983) approach in a populist direction. Though Sinatra's big success came [later] with Tommy Dorsey, there is no question that James had discovered a major singing and musical talent, and that his presence had a more than casual impact on his band's popularity. Of the early nine Sinatra sides (singles) "All or Nothing At All" is the most impressive, showing the then twenty-three year old singer as already the possessor of a rich, warm baritone voice with a relatively straight unembellished delivery. A moderate commercial success, the record became a big hit a few years later when re-released by Columbia and when Sinatra was already firmly established as one of the top popular signers of the land."
In June 1940, Nancy Sinatra gave birth to a baby girl, Nancy, Jr., while Frank was on the road with Dorsey's band. In November 1940, The Dorsey band was hired to appear in the film Las Vegas Nights starring Constance Moore and Bert Wheeler. The band, along with Frank, Jo Stafford and The Pied Pipers (all Dorsey singers) performed their major hit "I'll Never Smile Again" in the movie, which was Frank's first #1 single (for an extraordinary 12 weeks). The movie was a moderate success, but a critic said of Frank: "He sings prettily in an unphotogenic manner." The following year The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra also appeared in a second film, Ship Ahoy, starring Eleanor Powell and Red Skelton. Songs sung in the film were "The Last Call For Love" and "I'll Take Tallulah." Frank's other number one singles with Dorsey include "Dolores" (also from Las Vegas Nights), "There Are Such Things" and "In The Blue of the Evening."
Sinatra's star continued to rise as the singer became extremely popular. Billboard magazine, the nation's leading music and record periodical, named Sinatra the "Most Outstanding Male Band Vocalist." Along with his newfound fame, his voice became stronger and clearer as he developed a singing style all his own. Gunther Schuller on Sinatra's tenure with Tommy Dorsey: "Sinatra, after singing successfully with Harry James for about half a year, joined Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956). From the outset it was clear that here was an entirely new breed of singer. Already somewhat jazz-influenced, Sinatra brought a new type of free and natural phrasing to songs, which even Bing Crosby could not match in sensitivity and interpretive imagination. Subtle jazz inflections and a fine beat, even in slow ballads, characterized his singing. Like his boss, Tommy Dorsey, he had what musicians call 'natural time,' very little to do with metronomic time, but rather just a 'perfect feeling.' Unlike many singers of the time, Sinatra had remarkably good intonation (accuracy of pitch). And again it wasn't studied, learned intonation; he had a natural ear for it.
"But perhaps the newest feature of his singing was the sheer quality of the voice itself. After decades of colorless, lightweight, expressionless male voices - mostly crooning tenors - Sinatra's virile earthy baritone, with a rich bottom voice, was a startling departure from the popular norm".
"Sinatra learned much from Dorsey's [trombone] playing, especially in regard to breath control and musical line. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly those very talents in Sinatra that Dorsey found attractive in the first place. Sinatra's 'horn'-like approach was the perfect complement to Dorsey's highly vocal approach to the trombone."
Because of his growing fame, Sinatra decided he wanted to strike out on his own and try to become the first successful soloist since Bing Crosby. In a messy contract battle with Dorsey, Sinatra bought out the remainder of his contract and hired a manager, Hank Sanicola. His great fame was just around the corner.