Monday, 23 November 2015

Ol' Blues Eyes Is Back (Again)

This year has seen the celebrations of the Sinatra Centenary marking one hundred years since the birth of Francis Albert Sinatra in, as every quizzer knows, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Sinatra's meteoric rise to worldwide stardom happened over  just a few months between the autumn of 1942 and the spring of 1943 and coincided with the Golden Age of US radio.    

Frank's musical ambitions were set a decade earlier in 1933 after watching a well-known crooner in concert. "I saw Bing Crosby tonight and I've got to be a singer", he told his parents. Most of his early performances were in local talent contests but by September 1935 he made his first broadcast whilst singing as part of The Hoboken Four. The show, at New York's Capitol Theatre, was carried by one of the local radio stations.

His time with the singing group was brief and he was soon back to touring the clubs and theatres. But he realised that he'd only make the big time with radio exposure so he'd offer to sing for free whenever a station had a vacant spot. WNEW provided him with a number of opportunities but seemingly only WAAT in Newark paid him a fee - the 70 cents bus fare home.

His break came when he filled a vacancy for a singer and compere at the Rustic Club, a local roadhouse on Route 9W in Alpine, New Jersey. Quickly building up a repertoire of songs and a neat line in audience repartee, Frank's shows were wired into the local stations. The Rustic Club's management relished the publicity and upped his weekly wage from $15 to $25.

Those early broadcasts proved invaluable. In the summer of 1939 Benny Goodman's former trumpeter, Harry James, was establishing a new band and was looking for a vocalist. Hearing one of the Rustic Club shows James asked who this kid was. Young Frank was signed up just days later. His first performance with Harry James was on 30 June and he cut his first record just a fortnight later.    
Sinatra's time with James was brief, by January 1940  he'd been poached by Tommy Dorsey and was touring, recording and regularly appearing on the radio. With Dorsey he honed his craft and learnt his distinctive musical phrasing, though he was still unnamed on the records they released with their generic credit to "with vocal chorus". Ambitious to the last he eventually flew the Dorsey coop in September 1942.

It was Marnie Sachs at Columbia Records who found Sinatra his first solo break, a twice weekly slot on CBS titled Songs by Sinatra. Next he was the "Added Extra Attraction" on the bill of a New Year's Eve Benny Goodman show at the Paramount Theatre in New York. The screams that greeted the scrawny young singer stopped Goodman in his tracks. A star was born. It was the start of the infamous bobby-soxers period. Time magazine proclaimed that "not since the days of Rudolph Valentino has American womanhood made such unabashed public love to an entertainer".

The impact of the Paramount shows, which eventually ran for a recording-breaking eight weeks, was immediate. In January he negotiated a film contract with RKO and was then signed up to replace Barry Wood on the weekly networked Saturday night concert show, Your Hit Parade. By February the programme had doubled its audience.

Sinatra's fame was also spreading across the Atlantic. He'd first appeared on BBC radio in 1940 when it broadcast a recording of a Harry James show. But in 1944 the General Forces Programme relayed a joint production with NBC called Atlantic Spotlight that featured Frank. From December 1944 to May 1945 the BBC also carried the Your Hit Parade shows, though it just billed them under the name of the show's musical director as Mark Warnow and his Orchestra.

By 1947 Frank was earning $12,000 a programme even though his career was now on the wane. The mainly Republican press laid into Sinatra; they frowned upon politically committed stars, his private life came under the spotlight, especially his dalliances with actresses like Lana Turner, and there were verbal and physical punch-ups. Even his radio appearances were coming under fire with Metronome describing them as "alternately dull, pompous and raucous". He gave up the shows in May 1949 fed up with both the songs he was given to sing and the style in which he had to sing them.

Frank starred in a  number of other US radio shows in the early 1950s, these are listed in this Wikipedia entry. Meanwhile, in the way that Sinatra would continue to make several comebacks during his lifetime, by 1953 his fortunes had revived: he signed up with Capitol Records and established his superb musical relationship with Nelson Riddle and Billy May and there was a successful tour of Britain.

That British concert tour led to a couple of appearances that summer on the Light Programme's Show Band Show as well as an interview with David Jacobs on his Radio Luxembourg show Portrait of a Star - David recalls this meeting in All or Nothing At All below. Apart from a 1954 disc jockey show on NBC that seems to the end of Frank's radio career. After that its programmes about the man himself, some concert recordings and film reviews and soundtracks (see the BBC's Movie-Go-Round for instance).

I mention all this as tonight on BBC Radio 2 Paul Gambaccini explores Sinatra's US radio career in Frank and the Golden Era of Radio. It's part of a season of Sinatra Centenary programmes to be broadcast between now and the middle of December.

From my own archive I've chosen three programmes:

Firstly, on the occasion of Frank's 70th birthday, comes this appraisal of his life and career from American novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal, All or Nothing at All. It aired on BBC Radio 4 on 8 December 1985.

Secondly a programme presented by the British DJ that knew the man himself, David Jacobs. This is the first edition of a 13-part series titled Frank Sinatra: The Voice of the Century. It was broadcast on 4 October 1998.

And finally all I have of a 3-part series written and presented by Benny Green, Sinatra! A Man and his Music. This was first broadcast in December 1985 but my recording comes from a November 1986 repeat.

Reference: Frank Sinatra by John Howlett (Plexus, 1980)

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