What makes New Orleans not only a musician’s town but also a place that produces musical families? Take the Marsalis family.
“I’m going to do it.”
“What are you going to do?”
My brother, Chad, had never done it before, but that did not stop him from putting his name on the list and paging through the well-thumbed booklet in our neighborhood bar.
Chad actually has a pretty good singing voice, but he had no intention of playing the moment straight. He picked “New York, New York” and did his best impression of SNL alum, Phil Hartman, doing Frank Sinatra. It had me laughing in the torn vinyl booth. It also caused one of the patrons to go right up to Chad, flip him off and storm out of the bar.
What is it with Frank Sinatra that causes so much emotion? As an American legend, how much of his life is real? For fun I pulled a Sinatra biography (James Kaplan’s Frank the Voice) from a library shelf. I randomly picked a paragraph to cite in this essay. All you need for prologue is Sinatra is parked in an open convertible in the middle of the desert with Ava Gardner. It’s two in the morning and they are sharing a bottle of Beefeater’s Gin:
“Frank reached across her, almost falling into her lap, and after fumbling with the latch for a second, opened the glove compartment. He handed her a dark heavy metal thing that smelled of machine oil. Ava cradled it in her hand, looked at it in wonderment. It was a snub barreled Smith & Wesson .38 Chief’s Special. Frank took another pistol just like it, squinting, aimed at the traffic light.”
Are you kidding? That’s the type of story that pushes a musician into a cartoon version of himself, but I don’t want to talk about Frank Sinatra. I want to talk about his voice.
If you knew nothing about Sinatra and the luggage that comes with the name, you would be impressed by the voice. He may be one of our greatest American singers for his ability to frame a song. When he sings he sounds like he’s having a conversation like it’s just you and him in a bar and there is no Rat Pack.
Sinatra picked up the nickname, The Chairman, but I think he’s more dynamic than one who shouts out orders in a boardroom. Just pick up one of my favorite albums, It Might As Well Be Swing. Through ten songs he ranges from confident and melancholic to petty and magnanimous. My favorite song is the Oscar nominated “More” from the thoroughly bizarre movie Mondo Cane. Sinatra’s voice is full at ease and buoyed by the restrained, yet dynamic horns of the Count Basie Big Band. They are a perfect match and have produced one heck of a sing-able album. I’m sure Sinatra wouldn’t mind if you sung along as long as you remember who’s in charge.