Sunday, January 09, 2011

Book: Frank: The Voice, by James Kaplan (2010)

Many serious celebrity biographies (the “serious” is meant for you, Kitty Kelley) tend to buy into one of two theories. Either the subject was such a genius that his sins against his fellow man must be forgiven, or to hell with his accomplishments because the bastard treated everyone like shit. James Kaplan walks the fine line between the two poles in Frank: The Voice, his hugely engaging new biography of Sinatra. Excuses aren’t made for Sinatra’s frequently loutish behavior, but respect is always paid to his overwhelming gift.

The book runs through 1953, ending when Frank has won his Academy Award for From Here to Eternity, lost the love of his life in the tempestuous Ava Gardner, but met his most significant partner in Nelson Riddle, arranger of the songs that would become the soundtrack to the rest of the twentieth century. Some have knocked Kaplan’s novelistic approach, putting himself in the heads of Sinatra and those around him. But that’s only an instance of the author taking cues from the master. Frank, we learn, was a supreme interpreter of lyrics because he lived inside them, analyzing them so he could “understand the point of view of the person behind the words ... his emotions.”

Sinatra’s background and resulting psychology aren’t all that unusual; not everyone who’s the product of a domineering mother and a weak father ends up being a noirish antihero. What’s different is Sinatra’s talent, his awareness of it and confidence in it. That talent is what Kaplan always leads with. There’s juicy gossip galore – in the midst of the Hollywood shenanigans, Frank’s first wife Nancy emerges as a compelling figure – but the focus is always on the music first. Kaplan provides plenty of nuggets, like how Sinatra’s rejection of the Mitch Miller-selected novelty songs “The Roving Kind” and “My Heart Cries For You” (“I’m not recording this fucking shit”) single-handedly led to Guy Mitchell’s career, and the trickery deployed by Capitol Records to get Frank to work with Riddle. Kaplan, let it also be said, is a very funny writer.

A week or so later, Sinatra had yet another on-set visitor at Columbia: the syndicated columnist Harold Heffernan, whose prose style was as clunky as his byline. “Salient factors that keep the pugnacious Frank Sinatra’s career from wallowing are a dogged tenacity and an enthusiasm about whatever he attempts,” Heffernan thesaurused, in his April 2 column.

Kaplan’s also serious about exploring all of Sinatra’s music. Thanks to this book I have now been exposed to “Mama Will Bark,” Sinatra’s 1951 duet with the evanescently famous bombshell Dagmar. Kaplan is far too kind to the song, which astoundingly was the B-side to Frank’s triumph “I’m a Fool to Want You.” Then again, why should you take the word of someone whose ringtone is “Bim Bam Baby”?