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The Voice, The Spark, The Image

Sinatra's genius looms lively and large over multiple media

In a 1963 Playboy interview, Sinatra made one of the most revealing statements ever to issue from a pop supernova: "I don't know what other singers feel when they articulate lyrics, but being an 18-carat manic-depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradiction, I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation."

And as it turns out, The Frank Sinatra Reader's accounts of that side of Sinatra -- the romantic balladeer -- are fresher and more informative than those of his hard-swinging style and tough-guy persona. Indeed, audiences used to the huskier, more powerful voice of the '50s and later wouldn't recognize the reedlike instrument that once made bobbysoxers swoon. In a Time item from 1954, Sinatra talks candidly about the bad taste of Columbia Records' artist and repertory chief Mitch Miller, whom he blames for the near-demise of his singing career between 1949 and '52: "Instead of a real interest in the lyrics or the melody, all Miller cared about was gimmicks." Later, you can just picture him snapping his fingers when he says, "Everything's ahead of me, man. I'm on top of the world. I'm buoyant."

Also in the Reader is the most famous piece ever written about Sinatra, Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" (1966), which epitomizes a subgenre that could be called "Sinatra mood prose." It frames a consideration of the singer in his Chairman of the Board phase (roughly from the late '50s to mid-'60s) with a look at an eight-day period when the taping of the TV special Sinatra -- A Man and His Music had to be postponed because of ... a cold. Though overwritten and erratically reported, the piece contains a terrific vignette of Sinatra hassling writer Harlan Ellison at a private club and mercilessly telling him that the 1966 film he scripted (and Sinatra appeared in), The Oscar, is "a piece of crap." Joe Morgenstern's 1965 Newsweek story presents the clearest picture of how much authority Sinatra wielded at the top of his game -- it reports on the rumor that Jack Warner was grooming him to inherit Warner Bros. studio.

If you want some visual aids while listening to the albums or poring over the various Sinatra bios and guides, you might want to pick up Lew Irwin's Sinatra: The Pictorial Biography (Courage Books). While the text is error-laden, and you can't trust the reality depicted in the photos, they do have wonderful stories to tell -- whether fact or fiction. Most often, Sinatra is fiddling with a piano, jabbing at a music stand or seducing a mike. But we also see him hugging daughter Nancy with first wife, Nancy, at his side, and cutting wedding cake with his enduring love Ava Gardner. Hopscotch over the decades, and there he is at Kennedy's inaugural, then yucking it up with the Reagans.

In the coming weeks, movie channels will replay the Hollywood pictures; TV specials will portray Sinatra as a figure who influenced popular American culture for half a century. But in the end, it all goes back to the music. "The song is you," Sinatra sang in a number he loved so much he recorded it four times. Now, his songs are us.

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