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All Or Nothing At All:
A Life of Frank Sinatra

Donald Clarke

Frank Sinatra made his first records with Harry James shortly before I was born, and I began listening to the radio as soon as I could reach the dial, so I guess it's safe to say that I've been listening to him all my life.

In the 1950s I was buying the wonderful albums he was making, but apparently there were two Frank Sinatras. There was the one who'd been singing on the radio since I could remember, and who made terrific albums with Nelson Riddle; and there was the other Frank, who was gossiped about, always in some kind of trouble or controversy, who led a Clan and behaved like a troubled adolescent.

I heard the gossip about Hollywood, Palm Springs and Las Vegas from a considerable remove; there wasn't much trouble where I came from, but music was the most important thing in the world to me: I was listening to everything, and Sinatra was in the mix. I heard the loneliness and the understated passion; I heard the great American songs interpreted so that I understood why they were great songs. There's a story about a drunk in bar, listening to Sinatra on the juke box singing 'One for My Baby': when the record is over, the drunk sighs and says, 'I wonder who he listens to.' Sinatra didn't have to listen to anybody; somehow he knew how to live part of our lives with us.

Those of us who born white, male and American at exactly the right time have been surfing all our lives on a tidal wave of post-war prosperity. I was not a Catholic or a Jew or an African-American; my name ended into a vowel, but it was a silent vowel, so I blended easily into the woodwork. My people being the kind of people who pretty much kept their heads down, I finally understood that what Sinatra (and Duke Ellington and Shostakovich and Ray Charles) did for me was to allow me to live vicariously: I could hear the pain and the joy in the music, and begin to understand it from the sidelines. They also prepared me for the real world, which was not as safe (or as boring) as I had been led to believe. America was in fact a restless place, never as sure of itself as it pretended to be; one kept bumping into people who were not so lucky, or who refused to believe in their own luck; eventually there were grown-up disappointments, and loneliness, while in the wider world the 20th century was incredibly violent, and finally we had no leaders: there was no one to look up to, no one to vote for.

The greatest loneliness is in disillusion, which is one reason why we need art. Sinatra fought against disillusionment all his life.

He brought to his struggle whatever he had from his background; having no apparent talent at all, he drove himself to become a singer, and in the end he interpreted the songs so that his struggle became that of his generation. In his personal life, as Humphrey Bogart put it, he was 'a kind of Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, fighting people who don't want to fight.' In fact he fought with himself, unable to harness his own undoubted charm for his own good; he often chose friends who were unworthy of him. But the honesty and the vulnerability came out in the songs. If he had not needed to tilt at windmills, he would have become a successful plumber in Hoboken, and we would never have heard of him; but as the chivalric fool Don Quixote was the center of one of the best-loved novels ever written, so Sinatra reflected the anxiety of our century, and resolved it in his music.

There has been a lot of reporting about his bad behavior, and separately, millions of words about his music. In a curious way we have taken the two Sinatras for granted. Yet he became perhaps the most famous man of the century because the great singer and the troublemaker were in fact the same guy, and as he sang about love and marriage (which he tried four times), you can't have one without the other. A  great artist comes from a certain time and place to transcend it with his or her work; what I have tried to do here is to paint a rounded picture of a man who became part of the soundtrack of our lives.

Writing the book, I was grateful for the excuse to listen to all of Frank Sinatra's records. I hope it will be of value to all the Sinatra fans I haven't met yet.

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