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William C. Altreuter
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Sunday, August 28, 2005

My beach reading included two books assigned by KRAC Captain Tom Knab, Kitty Kelley's "His Way: The Unauthorized Biography Of Frank Sinatra" and Will Freidwald's "Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art". "Read them in that order," I was instructed, so I did. The Kelly book is quite a piece of work. I suppose if you grew up with Sinatra, the way our parents did, a great deal of it would be familiar; as it is, I knew the broad outlines. Oddly, though, a reader unfamiliar with Sinatra could read this doorstop and come away with no idea of why the thug the book chronicles is of any interest at all. Kelly spends more time on the (mostly terrible) movies that Sinatra was in than on any aspect of his music-- and gives as much attention to tripe like "The Naked Runner" or "Von Ryan's Express" as to "High Society" or "Guys and Dolls" or "The Man With The Golden Arm". Even the treatment of "From Here To Eternity" focuses more on the gossip about how he got the part than on what made his performance notable. (She concludes that a important reason that so many Sinatra movies are terrible is that he didn't rehearse, and deliberately gave off-hand performances in order to deflect criticism. Maybe so, but this doesn't account for the poor script selection, or the fantastic performances he was capable of. He is great in "The Manchurian Candidate"-- why is he even doing "Robin and the Seven Hoods"?)

I suppose we all know that Sinatra was capable of tremendous cruelty, and his antipathy towards the press and love of crude racist jokes is pretty well established. Kelley tries to balance this by documenting his philanthropy and his acts of generosity towards friends, but what we are left with is a picture of a man full of contradictions, rather than an understanding of why the man was like that. "expediency" seems to satisfy Kelley when it comes to answering why a Stevenson/Kennedy/Humphrey liberal became a fixture in the Reagan circle, (and an Agnew pal) but there must be more to it than that.

Ultimately, though, it is the missing music that makes the book feel empty-- ground that Freidwald's book covers expertly. Sinatra is one of the most important musicians America produced in the 20th Century, and it is much more interesting to know that the valve trombonist on "Night and Day" was from the Ellington band than it is to read about a bodyguard smashing a photographer's camera. "I'm A Fool To Want You" is much more interesting than the stories about Sinatra and Ava Gardner throwing ashtrays at each other. In the end Kelley's book is a carefully researched piece of work that deserves props for that quality. Unfortunately it does not explain much, and although it is reasonably objective journalism, it is clear that Ms. Kelley is not fond of her subject. If it were about a less significant character I'd have put it down after about 200 pages.

Freidwald tells us about song structure, and recording sessions, and the musician's strikes and recording bans, and the aesthetic decisions and stylistic choices Sinatra and his various arrangers made; contrasts versions of different songs (there's a great discussion of how "Night And Day"'s structure works). If I have a criticism, it would be that at times Freidwald is a little too inside baseball. I've been listening to this music for years, including Sunday mornings spent with Jonathan Schwartz's scholarly discussions, but some of this (discussions of available in England only airchecks, e.g.) was on beyond zebra as far as I'm concerned. A pleasure, even if the writing is sometimes a little too cute for its own good.

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