Friday, July 26, 2013

Smooth baritones of summer: problems with Sinatra

As far as our era is concerned, Sinatra is the baritone if not the singer. Anyone who sets out to be a serious male singer of standards tends to take Sinatra as a role model. Actually, that understates the problem. As Mark Steyn said somewhere, we have a whole generation of crooners who more or less do karaoke versions of standards as sung by Sinatra.

That's a problem and not just because it's a sterile approach. It's a problem because there are aspects of Sinatra's style that are being absorbed uncritically.

Sinatra had three careers. He had a career in the 1940s when he sang mostly for women alone at home while their husbands and boyfriends fought the war. We think of performances like "I'll Never Smile Again" when we think of that period. He had a career in the 1950s when he sang mostly for men adjusting to the social changes that came after the war. We think of the great concept albums he did with Capitol records when we think of this career. Finally, he had a career as a swaggering, swinging very male man in his final decades. We think of an awful lot of tripe such as "My Way", "This Town" and "New York, New York" when we think of this career. *

One problem here is that that last phase of his career tended to establish his persona for the baby boomer generation. Sinatra reported hated the Doors song "Light my Fire" and that is all well and good but Jim Morrison learned to sing by imitating Sinatra and he learned well. With albums such as 1966's That's Life Sinatra started to get blustery and assertive where he had been subtle and unafraid to show vulnerability.

And then he did something worse. In 1967, the year that the Doors music became so painfully popular, Sinatra recorded this awful song. It's not just the awfulness of the song, it's the way he sings it. Jim Morrison developed his style by copying Sinatra and here we see Sinatra debasing his by copying Morrison.

* There was lots of good stuff as well in this period but most of it, think of the album September of My Years, succeeds because it is a throwback to what he was doing in the 1950s. The sole exception is the Jobim stuff he recorded. Sinatra's versions of the big bossa nova hits are the only ones that do anything more than simply copy the Brazilian originals. He was on the edge of developing a new style that could have been the beginning of something great. Sadly, Sinatra wasn't willing to work as hard at that point of his career as he did in the 1940s and 1950s. Then again, who can blame him. Why should he have?

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