May 15, 1998 12:00 PM

In Frank Sinatra’s more than 50 years before the public, his voice deepened and his style evolved. What remained constant was his seeming naturalness—his unsurpassed ability to converse with his listeners through music.

No one made it look easier, but as anyone who has tried to sing “My Way” in the shower can attest, “natural” is not the same as “simple.” Just behind Sinatra’s undeniable gifts lay a lifetime of work, of rehearsal and obsession with detail. “Music,” said a motto he kept in the den of his former Coldwater Canyon home, “is the only form of art that touches the absolute.” When all the films have turned brittle and the celebrity and Mafia clippings yellowed into dust, it will be Sinatra the singer whom we remember.

Although he idolized Bing Crosby, Sinatra knew that he would have to distinguish himself from Crosby’s groaning intimacies. The way he chose was an attestation of his Italian roots, a stress on flowing singing in which words are bound together with almost liquid cohesion. That required an acute musical ear, but it also involved hard work to build up his lung power and to control his breathing so that inward gulps of air didn’t disrupt the musical line. In 1940, when he had graduated to Tommy Dorsey’s swing band, he sought to emulate Dorsey’s trombone sound—not just the purling flow, but also the seamless, apparently breathless way Dorsey played his instrument. “This gave the melody a flowing, unbroken quality,” Sinatra said later, “and that—if anything—was what made me sound different.”

But there was more to it than that. Like Luciano Pavarotti today, Sinatra articulated words with a thrilling relish, placing his voice forward in his mouth and using crisp declamation to define musical phrasing. His patented accent, somewhere between the Jersey docks and Park Avenue drawing rooms, contributed to the distinctiveness. No one more than Sinatra capitalized on electronic amplification, which arrived in the late ’20s and allowed singers to articulate words naturally without straining for operatic brilliance. And if he never fulfilled himself as an actor in his films, he did so in his concerts and recordings. Arguably, it was Sinatra’s increasing understanding of acting that lent such poignancy and emotional honesty to great narrative monologue songs like “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).”

In his bobby-soxer years on the Columbia label, in the ’40s, Sinatra was more of a melodist than a dramatist, cushioned in musical director Axel Stordahl’s lush string arrangements. With the war over and swing fashions fading, Sinatra fell into a personal, artistic and commercial trough, reduced to corny ditties (“Mama Will Bark,” a 1951 duet with the novelty actress Dagmar, is generally considered the low point), forlornly chasing Ava Gardner around the world and begging for the public’s favorable attention.

Musically, his fortunes turned around when he switched to the Capitol label and began recording with arranger Nelson Riddle. An orchestrator of rare skill and originality, Riddle knew just how to work with the jazz-influenced sidemen with whom Sinatra now surrounded himself. Riddle’s most notable contribution was the so-called swinging ballad, among which “Young at Heart” and “We’ll Be Together Again” are classic examples. The change erased the last vestige of Sinatra’s teen-idol image; here, at last, was a grown man singing to adults.

The new style presented a clearer picture of Sinatra’s influences: innumerable instrumentalists and singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Mabel Mercer and, above all, Billie Holiday. Sinatra was always a pop singer, but his ease with jazz spontaneity won him genuine respect in the jazz world. Another signpost of maturity came more naturally: the downward drift of Sinatra’s range from low tenor to genuine baritone.

Sinatra’s years at Reprise Records, from the ’60s onward, are generally slighted in favor of the Capitol period, but that judgment is unfair to much good work. Vocally, with advancing years and the attendant loss of breath control, Sinatra shortened his phrases and stressed punchy swinging arrangements over longer-spun ballads. But his ballads could take on a special vulnerability brought on in part by his very refusal to mask his vocal weak spots, as in his achingly sad testimony to age from 1965, “September of My Years.”

To the very end, before a failing memory forced him from the stage he loved, Sinatra could give a wonderful performance. His voice got grittier, his phrasing choppier, but his sense of musical style and lyrical conviction stayed with him. Frank Sinatra was not a composer; he was “just” a singer. But no artist has better proved that song lives in the throat, mind and heart of a great singer.

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