It Was A Very Good Year

Classic Arts Features   It Was A Very Good Year
 
As Lincoln Center and The New York Philharmonic celebrate Frank Sinatra's centennial, on December 3, we revisit 1943, when "The Voice" was on the ascendant and performed with this orchestra.

The summer of 1943 was a watershed for Frank Sinatra. The 27-year-old singer's solo career was skyrocketing, on the heels of a four-month run at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square and a newly minted contract with Columbia Records. It was time to explore new avenues, including a gig with the New York Philharmonic.

The Italian-American kid from Hoboken had made a splash as a teenager with The Hoboken Four on radio; signed with bandleader Harry James in 1939; had his first Number One record, "I'll Never Smile Again," in 1940, after switching to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra; and started recording solo in 1942, with singles such as "Night and Day."

That he was more than just another singer with the band had become apparent. Sinatra took his craft seriously, studying bel canto opera, working with a vocal coach to stretch his range and smooth over his Jersey accent, focusing on how breath control and phrasing could take song lyrics to another level. The crooner even took inspiration from Jascha Heifetz, saying that he was fascinated by how the violin- ist "could get to the end of the bow and continue without a perceptible missing beat in the motion," and by the idea of making his own voice sound like a musical instrument.

Already there was something different about Sinatra, "The Voice." His caress of a microphone, and a lyric, conveyed an intimacy and undercurrent of sexuality that made it seem as if he were whispering in the listener's ear. Sinatra had become the world's first teen idol. An army of devoted young and mostly female followers : clad in a uniform of sweaters, skirts, saddle shoes, and bobby socks : swooned, snatched up records, and formed thousands of fan clubs. Time magazine reported: "In various manifestations, this sort of thing has been going on all over America the last few months." Alarmed public officials questioned the morals of bobby soxers, and one vigilant citizen even wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover:

Dear Sir, The other day I turned on a Frank Sinatra program and I noted the shrill whistling sound, created supposedly by a bunch of girls cheering. ... I thought: how easy it would be for certain-minded manufacturers to create another Hitler here in America through the influence of mass-hysteria!

Hoover responded by opening a new file under the title "Francis Albert Sinatra, a.k.a. Frank Sinatra."

Sinatra appeared with the Philharmonic on August 3 at Lewisohn Stadium, the Orchestra's summer home in upper Manhattan. Program notes for the concert, titled "Music from the Motion Pictures and Broadway," focused on conductor Max Steiner's career in Hollywood and his Academy Award that year for the score to the Bette Davis vehicle Now, Voyager. Sinatra, whose credentials were not mentioned, was sandwiched between film music by Steiner, Alfred Newman, and Dmitri Tiomkin. His set list included "Ol' Man River," "Night and Day," "Embraceable You," "You'll Never Know," and "All or Nothing at All," the record that had topped the charts throughout the summer. The singer brought his own orchestrations, by Axel Stordahl, a close collaborator throughout the 1940s, and turned to thank "the boys in the band."

A New York Times review noted that the audience of 7,000 was mostly fans of Sinatra, "radio singing star," and their "gleeful whoops, loud laughter, and handclaps frequently almost drowned out the sad, sweet music of the singer." It concluded: "Mr. Sinatra's baritone had little real volume and little carrying power beyond what the amplifier gave it, and it was utterly inadequate in 'Ol' Man River,' but the singing was definitely unique in the matter of style and the singer's pleasant and friendly and somewhat dreamy per- sonality matched it."

Sinatra followed up on August 14 with his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut, at the Hollywood Bowl, foreshadowing the next phase of his career, in moviedom. (His first film, Higher and Higher, would be released in 1944.) Classical ensembles were not to figure large in subsequent engagements, although opera would remain a personal interest throughout Sinatra's life and he would often cite his admiration for operatic voices. If the program book for his first and only New York Philhar- monic appearance had actually included his biography, he would likely have been identified as "Francis Albert Sinatra, American baritone."

Rebecca Winzenried is Program and Publications editor at the New York Philharmonic.

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