He was America’s greatest vocalist: a consummate artist who redefined the possibilities of popular music, bringing to it an intimacy, an urban swagger and an emotional vulnerability that stamped songs as indelibly his own. A voice — no, The Voice — who could deliver “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” with equal authority and self-knowledge. A tough guy with Bond-like sophistication and savoir faire, who sang with uncommon tenderness about loneliness and yearning. A ring-a-ding-ding Vegas showman, rarely without his posse, who could articulate the heartache and existential solitude of the human condition with more conviction than any singer on the planet.
The challenges of capturing the magic of Sinatra’s art and the contradictions of his life are daunting. His career spanned decades as he continually explored his gifts and tried to adapt to changing times, and his life, as the son of Italian immigrants, embodied the American dream of success, while his persona, with its nimbus of dangerous glamour, came to define one generation’s ideal of masculinity.
In the first volume of his Sinatra biography (“Frank: The Voice”) — which ended with Sinatra’s comeback from a career slump and his winning of the 1953 Academy Award for his supporting role in “From Here to Eternity” — James Kaplan provided a gripping, novelistic account of the singer’s roots and the development of his craft, deftly mapping his assimilation of early influences and his discovery of his own voice.
“Sinatra: The Chairman,” the concluding volume to that biography, does a similarly nimble job of tracing the singer’s continued rise to international fame, and credibly explicates the alchemy behind the singer’s collaboration with Nelson Riddle and their amazing achievement during the Capitol Records years with masterpieces like “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” and “Songs for Swingin' Lovers!”
Kaplan helps us understand the evolution of Sinatra’s voice over the years, his perfectionism and commitment to his craft, and his matchless ability to interpret songs and to turn them into stories animated by his own deepest emotions.
But as this more-than-900-page book increasingly turns from Sinatra’s music to his life in Hollywood, Vegas and Palm Springs, it bogs down in gossipy anecdotes and details that feel tedious and beside the point. It’s as if Kaplan had decided, with the second part of this volume, to go for inclusiveness rather than insight, encyclopedic compilation rather than interpretive analysis.
We do get some telling glimpses of Sinatra in “The Chairman,” but they mostly come from other people’s writings. Passages about the singer’s musical artistry are heavily indebted to Will Friedwald’s illuminating book “Sinatra! The Song Is You” (now sadly, it seems, out of print), while those about his daily life draw at length upon “Mr. S.,” a lively memoir by George Jacobs, his former valet, and William Stadiem. As for Sinatra the man, the most revealing insights come from memoirs written by his daughters Tina and Nancy, and from his third wife, Mia Farrow, who wrote in her autobiography, “What Falls Away,” about the “wounding tenderness that even he can’t bear to acknowledge — except when he sings.”
Sinatra never wrote a memoir himself. But his best self is already there in the hundreds of songs he recorded. As Bob Dylan, who helped celebrate his 80th birthday, once observed, “Right from the beginning, he was there with the truth of things in his voice.”