Frank Sinatra: An Extraordinary Life by Spencer Leigh

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Frank Sinatra: An Extraordinary Life by Spencer Leigh

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A very full life and times of the American singer and his career, which weathered many changes throughout almost half a century. The author describes the music, films, business affairs and dealings with sometimes less reputable company, and more. While Sinatra may not always have been the most pleasant of men, it is impossible not to admire his energy and versatility.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: October 2015
Publisher: McNidder and Grace
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0857160867

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Frank Sinatra was undoubtedly a legend. In a notoriously precarious profession, he managed to stay at the top, or very close to it, for a remarkably long time. Despite a few half-hearted flirtations with other styles which may have strayed a little from his comfort zone, he remained true to his musical style, won the respect of younger generations, and never really went out of fashion.

Timed to coincide with the centenary of the singer’s birth, Leigh tells the story of a full life and career very scrupulously, and in remarkable detail. Sinatra was born in 1915 of Italian parentage in Hoboken, New Jersey, with a punctured eardrum as well as damage to his neck and ear, the result of a difficult delivery with forceps, and was almost given up for dead at first. (One is reminded of the last Kaiser, who had a similar difficult arrival into the world yet also lived to the age of 82). Always fascinated by jazz and big band music, he was determined to become a professional entertainer after seeing Bing Crosby perform. From the time he released his first record in 1939, he never really looked back.

To an extent Sinatra lived a charmed life. As Leigh makes clear, he was not the greatest husband or parent. Being married did not stop him from becoming involved with other women, and he certainly had some dubious friends along the way. He made a few ill-judged career moves and some appalling records, but remained a true survivor and had this remarkable ability to kick-start his career time and time again. One fact I had not appreciated until reading the book was that he was probably the first artist to record ‘concept’ albums, of songs based around a particular theme, such as ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ in 1955.

As the first of many performers to establish his own independent record label, Reprise, in 1960, he showed a flair for business and kept the venture going despite an uncertain start. The accounts of his love-hate relationships with the other members of the Rat Pack – Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis – and various presidents of the United States make for interesting reading, as do his initial hostility to the musical phenomena of Elvis Presley in the 1950s and The Beatles in the 1960s, only to be superseded by a semi-grudging acceptance (and on occasion more, as proved when he praised George Harrison’s ‘Something’ as one of the greatest love songs of all time – even if he did initially call it a Lennon and McCartney song). And who could not but be amused by reading that on one of his visits to Britain he rang Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn to ask for a request. Tony thought it was a joke and put the phone down, later saying he was the only person who ever did such a thing to Sinatra and lived to tell the tale.

As a chronicle of the singer’s story and the age he lived in, this makes a very good read. I was particularly impressed with the way that Leigh has split every chapter into two, the first part describing something significant in his life, and the second telling the events of his life on an almost day-to-day basis. As a result we not only have a detailed picture of the man himself, but also the general cultural background, whether it is a portrait in words of his Italian family background at the beginning, or trends in American music and society from the 1920s onwards. For me, the half-chapters on the Great American Songbook and the trends in music and popular entertainment during the Second World War, and the establishing of Capitol Records, the company which first made him a real success, were particularly illuminating. He is sometimes critical of some of Sinatra’s less wise musical moves, such as his once recording a Christmas single, a ‘nauseous’ John Denver song which saleswise sank without trace, and makes no attempt to defend his lapses in good behaviour, particularly towards his cuckolded wives, or his associations with less reputable company.

I had a couple of minor reservations. In addition to the lack of an index (surely essential in a book of this nature with over 300 packed pages) and any kind of discography, even if only a basic listing of albums and release dates, I also found the font size rather on the small side. Hazarding a guess that it will appeal primarily – no ageist aspersions intended – to a middle-aged readership upwards, I feel this is something the publishers may not have fully considered. It did detract a little from what is otherwise an engrossing addition to any musical library.

If you enjoy this, may we also recommend the memoirs of his fourth wife, Lady Blue Eyes: My Life With Frank Sinatra by Barbara Sinatra, or also the biography of his favourite British artist, Matt Monro: The Singer's Singer by Michele Monro.

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