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Goodbye, Ol' Blue Eyes

Published May 16, 1998
Updated Sep. 13, 2005

Frank Sinatra is dead. He was a heavenly singer. He was a hell-raiser of a man.

Magnetic and mercurial, Sinatra transformed popular music _ and then dominated it. He electrified and sometimes shocked legions of fans. He influenced American culture, politics, race relations.

Sinatra was the most commanding and creative singer of his time. He also was the most popular and evocative. He could fly you to the moon. He could help you learn the blues.

Frank Sinatra was pronounced dead at 1:50 a.m. Friday in the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Doctors said he had a heart attack. He had not been seen in public since a heart attack in January 1997.

Sinatra was 82. He improvised a full life and orchestrated an unparalleled career, appearing in 60 films, starring on radio and television, winning countless awards.

"Frank Sinatra is by any reasonable criterion the greatest singer in the history of American popular music," critic John Rockwell wrote in his 1984 book, Sinatra: An American Classic.

He recorded hundreds of songs, some of them several times. Cole Porter's Night and Day exists in almost a dozen versions, including an ill-advised disco rendition from the late 1970s.

His first hit was I'll Never Smile Again in 1942. Half a century later, when Sinatra was 78, his first album of Duets was released and immediately went platinum. This disc, which the critic Will Freedwald has called Sinatra's "economic zenith, technological masterpiece and artistic nadir," featured him singing (mostly through studio overdubbing) with such disparate performers as Carly Simon, Barbara Streisand, Anita Baker, Bono, Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias and Kenny G, and brought him yet another new audience.

No entertainer of Sinatra's generation kindled more devotion and acclaim, no personality inflamed more controversy and debate, no star radiated more light _ and more heat.

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He was the skinny kid from Hoboken, N.J., who began with the Big Bands, thrilling the bobby-soxers. He was the bloated old man who ended with dozens of pages devoted to him on the World Wide Web, still selling 1-million albums last year.

For millions of older Americans, including many in their 70s and 60s, but also many in their 50s and 40s, the word Sinatra still projects an interior slide show of indelible images:

The snap-brim hat slanted backward. A lamppost casting a shadow. A tumbler bronzed by an inch of Jack Daniel's. A smoldering Chesterfield.

Ol' Blue Eyes. The Chairman of the Board. Francis Albert. The Voice.

Love affairs and fistfights. Political affiliations and mob connections. Friends and cronies. The Rat Pack and its groupies (ring-a-ding-ding).

Movies and music. A man and his music. Always, the music.

"Whatever else has been said about me is unimportant," Sinatra once said. "When I sing, I believe. I'm honest."

Like vintage wine, that honesty poured sweet and clear.

It was delivered with Sinatra's legendary breath control, which permitted a leisurely, sensitive reading of the lyric. It was propelled by an innovative and rhythmic approach to music.

Sinatra music was brassy music, driven by blaring horns and pulsating percussion, infectious with the exuberance of new love, true love, lasting love:

+ "Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars. In other words, hold my hand. In other words, baby kiss me."

Sinatra music was sentimental music, lubricated by lush strings and a lonely piano, brimming with lost love, ill-fated love, forlorn love.

+ "Night and day, under the hide of me, there's an oh such a hungry yearning burning inside of me. And its torment won't be through 'til you let me spend my life making love to you. Day and night. Night and day."

When he was on his game, which was most of the time, Sinatra embraced the notes, caressed the tune, sang the song as if he had lived it, which he probably did.

"I know what the cat who wrote the song is trying to say," he once said. "I've been there _ and back."

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No question about that. Sinatra's love affairs were numerous and public and tumultuous. They almost always ended badly.

Sinatra courted Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall and Juliet Prowse. He married none of them, though he did marry four other women, including Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow.

He was divorced three times _ most traumatically from Gardner, with whom he had a long and stormy relationship.

At the end, Sinatra was survived by his fourth wife, Barbara, whom he married in 1976.

He had three children from his first marriage: Nancy, 57, who had some success as a singer; Frank Jr., 53, who also sang and sometimes conducted his father's orchestra; and Tina, 49, who produced a television mini-series about her father in 1992.

A family spokesman said Sinatra's wife was with him when he died and the rest of the family arrived a short time later.

Sinatra's funeral will be private. His family asks that instead of flowers, donations be made to Catholic Charities or to the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center at Eisenhower Medical Center, 39000 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage, Calif. 92270.

Without doubt, many musicians, composers and arrangers will attend the service. How could they not? Sinatra attracted the best songwriters and musicians of his time, and he was generous in acknowledging their work:

Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter.

Gordon Jenkins, Quincy Jones, Count Basie, Don Costa, Axel Stordahl, Billy May, Neil Hefti and the incomparable Nelson Riddle, an arranger whose heartbeat rhythms and soaring horns so perfectly suited Sinatra's style.

Anyone familiar with popular music must be impressed with that lineup. Sinatra certainly was. He frequently set up his songs with brief stories that praised the writer and arranger.

In addition to his music, Sinatra made scores of movies. He collected three Academy Awards, including one in 1953 for his portrayal of Maggio in From Here to Eternity.

At the time, Sinatra seemed washed up, a victim of ineffective management, poor song selection and hemorrhaged vocal cords. His record company dropped him; so did his agent; so did his friends.

"At 38 years old, I was a has-been," Sinatra recalled.

Once commanding $150,000 per picture, a high price for those days, he begged studio chiefs for the role of Maggio. They struck a deal: $8,000.

What a bargain for the studio, what a lift for Sinatra _ an Academy Award, followed by a new record contract and the start of what many consider his most prolific and creative period, the so-called Capitol Records years.

The kid from Hoboken, once so skinny "my eyes were single file," climbed back on top. To stay.

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Sinatra was born on Dec. 12, 1915. His father was a boxer, boilermaker and fireman; his mother was a midwife and a saloon owner. By all accounts, Dolly Sinatra was a powerful presence, dominating her family and her neighborhood, always propelling her son toward success.

Most of Sinatra's story is well-known _ the working-class childhood, the audition on radio's Major Bowe's Original Amateur Hour, the graduation in 1940 from Harry James' band to Tommy Dorsey's orchestra.

Dorsey, a band leader and trombonist who seemingly could play without breathing, became the formative influence on the kid singer.

"Sitting on the stage between my numbers, I studied Tommy and over the months realized he took very small, subtle breaths out of the side of his mouth," Sinatra told an interviewer in 1990. "Of course, he had the trombone and his hand to hide the movement.

"It was a revelation, and over time I was able to do the same thing to sneak in air to vary my phrasing."

It revolutionized modern music _ a vivid interpretation that gave equal consideration to both music and words. With this, Frank Sinatra transformed popular music into a genuine art form.

Though they couldn't define it, his fans _ mostly young women whose young men were at war overseas _ knew he had something special. They went crazy, lining up in droves at New York's Paramount Theater, breaking records all over the country.

They swooned. They fainted. They squealed. "Frankie, Baby!"

But even the enormous magnitude of Sinatra's star power could not illuminate his complexities.

He campaigned for civil rights long before it became popular. He refused to sing in segregated establishments and he earned an Oscar in 1945 for his work in the 20-minute movie The House I Live In, which advocated racial, ethnic and religious tolerance.

Yet, he played a concert in South Africa's Sun City in the 1980s, although other entertainers declared the site off-limits because of apartheid.

His Rat Pack of associates _ Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and others _ was equally open to whites and blacks, Christians and Jews.

Yet, the Rat Pack's public behavior was often crass. Women were babes, chicks, gals, broads. The lady is a tramp. Come fly with me ("And don't tell your mama!").

He freely admitted associating with mob figures like Meyer Lansky and Sam Giancana. He ducked subpoenas in the 1960s from Florida investigators looking into alleged mob ties to the Fontainebleau. Yet, he survived numerous inquiries unscathed.

Long identified with liberal Democratic politics, Sinatra harvested votes for John Kennedy in 1960. Twenty years later, growing conservative in old age, he raised funds and campaigned for Republican Ronald Reagan.

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Afflicted throughout his career with a hair-trigger temper and a fondness for drinking, Sinatra often fought with news photographers and song writers, promoters and other performers.

"Being an 18-karat manic-depressive, and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an overacute capacity for sadness as well as elation," he said in 1963.

Legend has it that when he sang at the Democratic National Convention in 1956, then-Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn came up and threw an arm around his shoulder. "Hands off the threads, creep," Sinatra supposedly snapped.

When he collapsed in March 1994 while singing My Way at a concert in Richmond, Va., he snarled "Get that damned thing out of my face" as emergency equipment was thrust toward him.

Offended by gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, he sent her a full-sized tombstone. Denied credit at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where he often performed, he drove a golf cart through the window.

Temperamental and demanding, he tolerated no nonsense, particularly from his musicians.

During a rehearsal, he once stopped the music, then pointed at individual players. "You, you, you and you," he said. "Out. And don't come back."

It didn't matter. Through the decades, everyone who played pop music professionally _ especially those semi-anonymous musicians who earned union wages night after night on the bandstand _ fantasized about making music with Sinatra.

For the lucky few, it was the pinnacle of their career. To this day, they revere his phrasing and intonation, his syncopation and articulation and tonal control.

"I played with Sinatra," they still tell their kids. "I played with Sinatra."

"I can't tell you the anticipation I'd feel before working with Sinatra," said Peter Graves, a Fort Lauderdale band leader who backed Sinatra at the Sunrise Musical Theatre and elsewhere in South Florida and the Southeast.

"When you played with him, you were at the very top. He was simply the best."

Few would argue with that.

If Frank Sinatra is in heaven today, surely the angels are snapping their fingers and tapping their toes.

And the harpists better not screw up.

_ Information from the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.