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Studying Sinatra: Ol' Blue Eyes 101

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By Norma Meyer

Published Feb 13, 2012 4:32 PM


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Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Every Sinatra-phile knows that Ol' Blue Eyes did it My Way. But why does the iconic crooner—who earned a larger-than-life reputation for his Jack Daniel's, hot women and Mafia pals—continue to be an unmatched singing sensation 73 years after he recorded his first tune?

"No matter where you go, from the mall to the men's room, his music is playing," says Earl Schub, who will teach "Why Sinatra Matters," a UCLA Extension course offered in both March and August through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. To put it simply, the kid from Hoboken, N.J. matters because he was an interpretive genius who had extraordinary pipes, unique diction, a passion for old-school standards and fantastic arrangers like Nelson Riddle.

And he had 'tude.

"In the case of Frank Sinatra, his attitude, his swagger, his persona, make him different from any other singers," notes Schub, MBA '76 and a longtime arts educator. "Sinatra conveyed the sense of having lived the life."

For decades, the ultra-cool baritone has cast a spell akin to some sort of Witchcraft. But despite mythic exploits—the Rat Pack partying, fistfights, hobnobbing with JFK—his personal adventures didn't affect his artistry, Schub says. Except when it came to Ava Gardner, the sultry movie queen he wed in 1951 after leaving first wife Nancy. Sinatra's stormy six-year marriage to Gardner made The Voice a better more believable torch singer because he wore his heart on his sleeve.

"The first time he recorded, I'm A Fool to Want You in 1951, he sang it through just one time and walked out into the night. He was in the process of going through some agony with Ava Gardner and it really affected him."

A high school drop-out and only child of working-class Italian immigrants, Sinatra was serving suppers as a singing waiter when Big Band leader Harry James discovered him in 1939. Up through 1994, the Chairman of the Board recorded more than 1,300 titles and appeared in more than 50 films, winning an acting Oscar for 1953's From Here to Eternity. He died at age 82 in 1998; his lyrical grave marker reads "The Best Is Yet to Come."

"When Sinatra sang, he was a storyteller," Schub says. "His charisma came through his recordings. And he had a terrific ear. He would point to a violinist and say, "You're playing the wrong note." There may have been 30 other musicians there.

As Frank might say, That's Life. He'd been up and down and over and out but persisted during a chart-topping 60-year career. The homegrown legend—who segued from skinny bobby soxer idol to cocked-hat-wearing hipster to elder statesman captivating crowds with New York, New York—matters because he may be the 20th century's greatest entertainer.

"A significant reason is that the music he loved was the Great American Songbook—the music of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin," Schub says.

"And he was so damn good. For what he did, there was no one better. Ever."

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