SINATRA: An American Classic by John Rockwell

SINATRA: An American Classic

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The 200 photos are the primary attraction in this coffee-table-style salute to Frank Sinatra, "by any reasonable criterion the greatest singer in the history of American popular music." The text, a critical/biographical essay by New York Times writer Rockwell, plays down the flashy private-life and the Hollywood career—touching only briefly, sometimes fatuously, on the affairs, the marriages, the movies, the Rat Pack, the "mean streak," the feuds, the politics, the charges of Mafia involvement. ("And finally, who's to say, with absolute confidence, that Frank Sinatra has become an immoral man?") Instead, with due credit given to pop-singing scholar Henry Pleasants, Rockwell concentrates on Sinatra's jazz-inflected pop vocalism, the "hybrid style that represented a modification of the crooner's intimacy in the direction of a more forthright, innately Italian lyricism." He traces the recording career in detail—from 1940s superstardom to early-1950s decline, from the mid-1950s comeback (thanks to film-celebrity, the new "swinger" image, the Nelson Riddle sound) through the remarkably steady decades that followed. ("He nearly always managed to pare away the affectations that date other singers of his generation while retaining a natural contemporaneity.") And a few albums and songs are given close-up critical attention, especially "One for My Baby." Even on these limited terms, however, Rockwell is sometimes a less-than-ideal commentator—highlighting Sinatra's tenuous links to rock (with a hint of a sneer at "Tin Pan Alley"), seeming out-of-his-element when discussing influences on Sinatra's style (Mabel Mercer is slighted, Fred Astaire isn't mentioned). And a few attempts at life/work interplay—e.g., the "scars" of the Ava Gardner marriage inspiring great sad-song recordings—slip into speculation and flabby rhetoric. ("Music was his psychiatrist and his priest, purging him of tensions and restoring his sense of self.") Still, fans will want to browse through the pictures, and pop-music mavens will find much of Rockwell's analysis solid—while those turned on by the glamorous/notorious Sinatra will prefer to stick with one of the several celebrity-bio options.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Random House