The Kennedy Center

Frank Sinatra


Frank Sinatra
(singer, born December 12, 1915, Hoboken, New Jersey; died May 14, 1998)

The skinny, wavy-haired kid in the bow tie started out singing on a Major Bowes amateur radio broadcast. His career gained momentum in the Big Band era, under Henry James and Tommy Dorsey, then took off like wildfire at the Paramount Theater in New York, where he opened on Dec. 31, 1942. "Bobbysoxers" screamed in spontaneous delight, "jitterbugged" in the aisles, fainted left and right, crowded the stage door shrieking for his autograph, and spilled over into Times Square, snarling traffic to such a degree that a riot squad had to be called.

After more than 40 years and many musical trends and fads, Sinatra still stood as one of the most enduring performers in show-business history--even though he was no longer the skinny kid, and his audiences, though still enthusiastic, were more contained.

He was one of the world's most popular singers, whose hit songs were legion and who could still pack in audiences not only in casinos from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, but also in concert halls throughout the world--from London's Royal Albert Hall to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. He also distinguished himself as a dramatic actor.

From the days he was known as the "jive idol," he was called many things: "the Voice," "Chairman of the Board," "a working class hero," "a defender of underdogs" and a "humanitarian." Musicians considered him "a complete pro" and "a perfectionist." (He did 30 takes recording "Day In, Day Out.") They praised his "innate musicianship." He was also called "paradoxical, impetuous, mercurial," and "a performer who glories in the love of millions yet guards his privacy savagely and wages a private--often violent--war on the same press that has kept him in the limelight."

Although he grew up in the tenements bordering the Erie and Lackawanna railroads in Hoboken, young Sinatra knew no deprivation. As the only child of Anthony Sinatra, a boxer turned fireman, and his wife, Natalie (Dolly), an immigrant from Genoa, Italy, who had a full-time job as a chocolate dipper and was a power in local Democratic politics, he was lavished with more attention and material goods than his peers.

Before he quit Demerest High School during his sophomore year, at the age of 15, he sang in the band and helped form a glee club. After leaving school, he worked unloading trucks for the Jersey Observer and started canvassing local clubs and roadhouses for singing jobs, although his father wanted him to be a boxer. He went to Jersey City to see a performance by his idol Bing Crosby at Loew's Journal Square, and he vowed that he, too, would become a singer.

Using a public-address system, he sang at lodge dances for $3 a night, then won the Major Bowes amateur contest and a contract as lead singer in a quartet called the Hoboken Four. After touring with them for six months, Sinatra returned to Hoboken and worked at the Rustic Cabin, a nearby roadhouse where he waited on tables, acted as master of ceremonies, and did some singing. He also took on 18 New York radio broadcasts a week, having agreed to sing for no salary just to get his voice heard over the airwaves. But it was through the Rustic Cabin that he was heard by the right person.

Bandleader Harry James, lying in bed one night during a stand at New York's Paramount Theater, heard Sinatra singing on a dance-based broadcast from the Rustic Cabin. He looked up the unidentified vocalist and signed him. With the James band, Sinatra soon had his first recording hit, "All or Nothing at All."

Tommy Dorsey went to hear Sinatra singing with the James band at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago and hired him away at $125 a week. With Dorsey's orchestra, he made more than 80 recordings between 1940 and 1942. Among them were "I'll Never Smile Again," "Street of Dreams," "There Are Such Things," "Stardust, "Let's Get Away From It All," and "This Love of Mine."

It was in 1942, when he left Dorsey and struck out on his own, that he became the hero of the "bobbysoxers." It is said that the swooning first started at the Paramount when a teenage girl, who had stood outside the theater and seen seven shows without food, slumped over in her seat. After that, others began dropping in the aisles.

His recording of "Night and Day" was the first hit Sinatra made on his own. He became a featured vocalist on radio on "Your Hit Parade," starred in his own radio series, and got his first feature role in the Hollywood film "High and Higher," all in 1943. Other films followed: Anchors Aweigh, 'Till the Clouds Roll By, Miracle of the Bells, On the Town, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and Step Lively.

He won more recognition for his performance in the film The House I Live In, a short subject which won him a special Oscar in 1945, and scored another recording hit with "Nancy with the Laughing Face."

After a career slump, during which many considered him a has-been, he campaigned hard in 1953 for the role of the defiant soldier Maggio in From Here to Eternity, which won him an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor and a place at the top once more.

There were more films: Guys and Dolls, Suddenly, High Society (with Bing Crosby, 23 years after Sinatra had first seen him in Jersey City), The Tender Trap, Pal Joey, The Manchurian Candidate, Von Ryan's Express, None But the Brave, Tony Rome, The Detective, and Lady in Cement.

He was nominated for another Oscar for his role in The Man with the Golden Arm. Among the hit songs he recorded during this period in his career were "Young at Heart," "Love and Marriage," "The Tender Trap," "How Little We Know," "Chicago," "All the Way," and "High Hopes." Between 1959 and 1966, he won seven Grammy Awards.

Although he had done a number of acclaimed television specials, including "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music," which won a Peabody Award and an Emmy Award in 1966, Sinatra was more popular with the concert hall audience. In 1975, some of the people who once paid 40 cents to hear him at the old Paramount Theater paid as much as $40 for an orchestra seat at New York's Uris Theater.

He took a fling at retiring in 1971, but was back again two years later, at the trade un which he had worked for the better part of a half a century. He continued to make a number of motion pictures: Dirty Dingus Magee (1970), The First Deadly Sin (1980), and the made-for-television film Contact on Cherry Street (1977). The songs kept spinning out: "It Was a Very Good Year," "Strangers in the Night," "My Way," "New York, New York" (a number from his three-record set Trilogy, and, in 1981, his first "saloon song" album in 20 years, She Shot Me Down, including such songs as "And I Love Her," "Monday Morning Quarterback," and "Long Night."

Paradoxical to the tough image he had been known to display, his generosity was legendary. His philanthropies included raising $1.2 million for handicapped and orphaned children on a world-wide singing tour in 1962. He won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1970. He was also honored for his contributions to the music world and his humanitarian efforts in November, at an "All Star Party for Frank Sinatra," a celebrity tribute supported by the Variety Clubs International, the "show business charity" which annually creates a new wing at a children's hospital in honor of the recipient.

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