Tim Sanders discovers the radical Sinatra.
'Regrets, I've had a few...' though reading this little gem of a book is not one of them. How great it is to read that 'Ol' Blue Eyes' Frank Sinatra was not just a right wing Mafioso crooner, but that he was, in his early years, a red!
In this new biography Martin Smith pays tribute to Frank Sinatra's contribution to modern music. As he says in the introduction, 'It's worth remembering that before the Beatles and before Elvis Presley, there was Frank Sinatra.' He weaves a fascinating picture of Frank Sinatra's life, the pressures he was subjected to and the changes in American society in the second half of the 20th century.
Sinatra was born into hard times, the son of Italian immigrants, in Hoboken, New Jersey. But mass immigration and industrial expansion were transforming American society. Sinatra's father's bar in 'Little Italy' prospered in the years of Prohibition. It was in the family 'speakeasy' that the adolescent Sinatra first sang in public.
Sinatra grew up in an atmosphere of racial intimidation and bigotry, frequently taunted as a 'wop' or 'dago'. It was this and his mother's influence - she was a local Democratic activist - that gave him a burning hatred of racism which stayed with him in later years.
Martin gives an excellent account of the rise of Sinatra as a performer and how his rising popularity coincided with the development of youth culture. In the pre-war years many children started work at the age of 12 or 13. By the Second World War the leaving age had risen to 15 or 16, and more working class people were going to college. This, combined with more spending power, saw the emergence of teen idols of which Frank was one of the first. He made his solo debut in December 1942, and by 1947 was America's biggest selling artist.
The 1930s and 1940s were a time of both terror and hope - the terror of fascism and the hope of a better world brought about through struggle. The cause of the Spanish Republic became a rallying cry for progressives throughout the world, as did the mass strike in France. Sinatra's politics took a sharp turn to the left, and he became, as Martin puts it, 'a champion of the poor and the oppressed'. In the US there was an 'alarming growth of spontaneous rebellion' and President Roosevelt was forced to introduce the 'New Deal'. Wages and prices were fixed, unemployed workers put to work on massive building projects, and it even became easier to join a union.
Culture and politics 'became entwined'. There was an unprecedented outpouring of creativity, including from such greats as Orson Welles, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, John Dos Passos, Woodie Guthrie and Paul Robeson. This artistic movement became known as the 'Cultural Front'. Working class audiences were able to see live theatre, many pamphlets were produced and murals were painted on the side of public buildings.
These were exciting times and, as Martin explains, 'Sinatra was a child of this movement: many of those involved in the Cultural Front influenced Sinatra's artistic and political ideas. Sinatra may have arrived late to the scene but his political and musical contributions also helped shape this movement.'
There is a good account of the many times Sinatra spoke out against racism and injustice. The beauty of this book is that it is full of those 'well, I never knew that!' type of moments. Like the time when he took on a school hall full of 5,000 angry students and parents protesting against racial integration in Gary, Indiana. 'No other major recording star of the period laid his reputation on the line in such a fashion.'
After the Second World War the US left was in retreat. The McCarthy witch-hunts crushed the CPUSA and Sinatra, like many others, was isolated. Though still opposing racism, he was moving to the political centre. By the early 1960s he was immensely rich, and leader of the so called 'Rat Pack' - a group of wildly hedonistic celebrities. These were the 'dream come true' years for Sinatra. He was even close to the gleaming new president, John F Kennedy. But as Sinatra's talent appeared to be declining his connections with the mob and radical past started to be a problem. Kennedy did not want to be seen with a red and a mobster.
It is impossible to define the point at which the man who said in 1946 that 'America's biggest thorn is poverty... every kid should have his quart of milk a day', then became the man who in 1970 said, 'Reagan is an outstanding candidate... a very honest guy who believes in what he does.' There is in fact a gradual disintegration; circumstances change; the pressures of stardom and the ebb and flow of class struggle all have an impact.
Martin describes this process with compassion and insight. He celebrates the artist's triumphs and explains his failings. He doesn't shrink from the mistakes Sinatra makes - his weaknesses, his connections to the Mafia and the consequences they had on his life, politics and career. But at the same time he recognises the greatest of Frank Sinatra and the impact he had on millions of people around the world. This is a must read book for the summer.
Frank Sinatra: When Ol' Blue Eyes was a Red