BUFFALO, N.Y., Dec. 12 (UPI) -- Frank Sinatra never learned to read sheet music but somehow it didn't matter.
When he died in 1998 at age 82, he left a body of work which included songs, films, television specials, reputations honorable and controversial, memories and an assortment of cultural upheavals. He was born 100 years ago today, in Hoboken, N.J., and the world is concluding a year of testimonials including memorial concerts, museum exhibits, television specials, books, album releases and renewed interest and acclaim.
It was a very good year. Enterprises as varied as the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Giants and CBS Television are among the hundreds who have paid tribute, as have Sinatra impersonators, a current growth industry in the world of male jazz singers.
In a way, Sinatra's legacy was of the material against which pop music's rebels rebelled. He was the guy in the swinging bachelor pad, the hard-drinking macho caricature, the singer who put the song first and almost casually made the singer important. The songs were almost always about love and longing; no politics, overdubs, revolution, synthesizers here. When they were patriotic, they were thoughtful, like "The House I Live In;" the accompanying 10-minute film from 1945, a forerunner of the MTV video, makes it clear the song is about American tolerance.
He referred to himself as a saloon singer, another element of popular culture seemingly gone from the modern music business. Take the saddest song you know and compare it to Sinatra's lament, "One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)," which he recorded in 1947 and several times thereafter; beauty and melancholy, exquisitely filtered through regret. They don't write 'em like that anymore, largely because no one like Sinatra is around to interpret them. Rockers tend to write their own material -- there's more money in being both a performer and composer of a recorded work -- but Sinatra relied on Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and others of his generation and prior generations, for brilliant words and music.
Frank Sinatra was not always rich, famous, argumentative, surrounded a by loutish vulgar posse; he was a skinny Jersey boy, a child of Italian immigrants who never Anglicized his name. He sang in his father's saloon, and later, in a quartet called the Hoboken Four, which won a few bucks on Major Bowes' Amateur Hour radio show. A steady gig at a steakhouse led to singing on New York City radio, then Harry James' band, then Tommy Dorsey's. As a soloist, he became America's first teenage idol (already established crooner Bing Crosby appealed to a wider swath of America).
With the 1950 death of his publicist and close friend George Evans, and reports of womanizing and an erratic temper, Sinatra's career crashed. Las Vegas appearances kept him afloat, but times were changing. This guy learned a few things about singing the blues.
His appearance in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity brought the spotlight back, as did a recording contract with Capitol Records and introduction to arranger Nelson Riddle. The musical fireworks began when Sinatra and Riddle collaborated, and some of Sinatra's most memorable work comes from this relationship. Each a perfectionist, each ready to deliver precisely what was called for; listen to the joyous "You Make Me Feel So Young," which opens the unfortunately-titled 1956 album "Songs for Swingin' Lovers," and note comparisons to bass lines and horn blasts of records from Motown, ten or more years later.
Sinatra's bounceback career came with the arrival of the 12-inch LP, or long-playing record album. It was a perfect union; fifty or so minutes of available recording time was ideal for the Sinatra style; his first LP, the 1955 In the Wee Small Hours, historically regarded as the first concept album, presented him as the ruined, misery-soaked keeper of a broken heart. Come Dance With Me!, released in 1959, stayed on the Billboard hits list for nearly three years. An audience who never knew him as the Hoboken kid found the soundtrack to their lives.
He founded his own record label after leaving Columbia in 1959, Reprise Records -- that's the sort of thing people like Jay-Z and Madonna do in the 21st century -- and later sold it for $60 million. The durable "My Way" and "That's Life" came before a short-lived retirement. There followed occasional concerts across America and television specials, the theme from "New York, New York" and the 1981 album "She Shot Me Down," another critically-acclaimed album of barstool regrets.
What never appears on the records is his lifelong demand for racial equality, the respect he was given by jazz musicians although actually a pop music singer and that take-me-or-leave-me nonchalance which occasionally spilled over into fistfights and lawsuits, another part of the puzzle of success for which rockers can thank him.
This was an American original. You can make a long career out of paying attention to the details and staying true to one's path. Show business is clearly a rough line of work, and the overwhelming majority of its practitioners are barely remembered, let alone revered on the occasion of a centennial and 17 years after death. You need not be reminded, Frank Sinatra did it his way.