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All Or Nothing At All:
A Life of Frank Sinatra

Chapter 2

Today's video generation will find it hard to imagine how important radio was without pictures, but the Sinatras' radio occupied pride of place on top of the baby grand piano. When Frankie was born in 1915, radio was still dominated by hobbyists, who were better operators and used more up-to-date equipment than the U.S. Navy; but during the First World War Congress decided that regulation was necessary, and by the end of the war the Navy controlled nearly all broadcasting.

The cable companies had long been seen as private monopolies, charging far too much for their Morse code services, but when the broadcasting of speech was becoming common, the USA was never going to set up independent public broadcasting, like Britain's BBC: that would have smacked of socialism. So patents were simply appropriated (such as those of Marconi, the virtual inventor of broadcasting, who was only a foreigner after all) and handed over to big business: General Electric, RCA, and the United Fruit Company, who already operated the world's largest ship-to-shore network. The first nationwide broadcast was accomplished when Frank Sinatra was a few months old; when he was not quite five, the national election returns were broadcast for the first time, and the following year, in 1921, bandleader Vincent Lopez was the first to broadcast live. (It was soon discovered that record sales went up in cities where the recording artist was heard on the radio.)

Broadcasting itself did not turn a profit for the first few years; nearly half the stations in the country were owned by radio and electrical manufacturers. But also in 1921, the first commercial radio advertising was broadcast: a station owned by AT&T charged $50 for a ten-minute spiel for apartments being built in Queens. Russian-born David Sarnoff had worked in Marconi's USA office at age 14; at 21 in 1912, he became nationally famous as a wireless operator, staying awake for three days to report the sinking of the Titanic. Later he proposed the radio music box, with amplifying tubes and a telephone loudspeaker; in 1916 the world was at war and the idea was shelved, but Sarnoff knew that advertising would eventually pay the bills. In 1926 he was there when the Federal government allowed the establishment of the National Broadcasting Company, with RCA owning half of it and GE and Westinghouse the rest. Another fledgling radio network had been owned briefly by Columbia Records, who sold it because it did not make money, but the Columbia Broadcasting System later turned a profit after all. Sarnoff's equal at CBS was Bill Paley, whose family business was cigars; he discovered broadcasting while looking for a way to sell stogies. Between them, Sarnoff and Paley invented much of the 20th century.

It was no accident that NBC and CBS established headquarters near Tin Pan Alley in New York, where the nation's songs were published. The amateurs in broadcasting's earliest days had set the tone: radio was to be fun, helping to knit the country together by means of popular culture, as vaudeville, movies and baseball were already doing. But audience power was a myth. At first it had been assumed that broadcasting would set the people truly free, because anybody could do it; but nowhere in the press was the question ever addressed of the marriage between the airwaves and commercial interests. The audience with the most power would be the one that bought the most goods.

When Frank Sinatra was nine years old, broadcasting was already one of the most important and profitable industries in the country; and when he was a teenager, during the Depression, it became even more important, because it was 'free' entertainment (if you could afford a radio). And similarly, if it is hard to recapture the importance of radio in the 1930s, it is also hard to imagine the phenomenal importance of Bing Crosby.

There were other stars: a light opera tenor called Vernon Dahlart switched to country music and had a multi-million seller in 1925 with 'The Prisoner's Song' (which he recorded for at least twelve labels); Gene Austin had another monster with 'My Blue Heaven' in 1927. Bandleaders were also big, and Paul Whiteman was the biggest. But Crosby started with Whiteman, singing in a trio called The Rhythm Boys, and went solo to become the biggest recording artist of the first half of the century by a very wide margin. He not only sold 300 million records, most of them at a time when the industry was much smaller than it is now, but he made over 50 movies, and on the radio he was inescapable.

Broadcasting was less formal then, and nearly all of it was live. On one occasion in the early days, broadcasting with Gus Arnheim's band from a night club in Los Angeles, Crosby would be playing cards with his cronies with the radio on, dashing upstairs on his cue to sing his song; at the end of one tune he said to the radio audience, 'Deal me in, boys; I'll be right down.' But Crosby was so popular that his records were broadcast long before the disk jockey was invented; radio stations programmed their own Crosby shows with records, some of them several times a day. During the Depression the record industry almost disappeared completely, but Crosby was a phenomenon in every way: in 1933, according to one reckoning, he had twenty hit records, at the very bottom of the Depression.

Crosby was one of the first to understand how to use a microphone. Broadcasting (and electrical recording) transformed pop singing, because it was no longer necessary to have the lungs of an opera singer: one could sing intimately, as if to each individual listener. Crosby made it sound easy, but the use of the microphone isn't as simple as it looks, either. Vocalists and radio announcers had to know how to avoid exploding consonants, excessive sibilants and the like; and a good singer had to use the microphone in interpreting a song, sometimes leaning in and singing softly for more intimacy, sometimes rearing back to pour on the passion. Words and phrases had to be tailored to the mike, and each song had its different requirements. Crosby was a master, and Sinatra became an even greater one. But not right away.

Frank probably listened to the radio the way kids today watch TV, and furthermore, one of the people who had looked after Frank while Dolly was dipping chocolates and running the neighborhood was a babysitter, Rose Carrier, who took him to the movies. 'He loved it', Rose said many years later, 'not that he had any choice.' (During hot weather the side doors of the cinema were open, and Rose and Frankie would sneak in, spending the money Dolly had given them on popcorn instead of admission, and incidentally teaching Frankie another American lesson: rules are made to be broken.) Bing Crosby was not only ubiquitous on the radio, but appeared in as many as three films a year beginning in 1933. Crosby had been a heavy drinker and a party animal, and remained a womanizer most of his life, but after he hit the big time he looked after his career with some seriousness, and the image that emerged was that of an ordinary fellow who charmed everybody and always got the girl. Young Frank became a big fan. He took one of his girlfriends to a theatre to see Bing in person, and she never forgot that he came away enchanted, convinced that he could and would be another Crosby. (Guitarists Al Viola, from Brooklyn, and Tony Mottola, from New Jersey, both saw Crosby, probably on the same tour; they were mesmerized by Eddie Lang, Crosby's guitarist, and both later worked with Frank.)

Experiencing showbiz as a fan and imagining being a star was natural enough, but Crosby's stardom had a special appeal to Frank. His mother had convinced him that he could do no wrong, but pleasing an audience looked safer and easier than personal relationships; the fans, too, could give their affection without much risk. Though it would bring problems of its own, fame like Crosby's would be a kind of cure for loneliness, or at least a palliative; but success depended on talent, and there was no evidence that Frank Sinatra had any talent at all. He would have to work very hard for the first time in his life to discover that talent and then to polish it. To be fair, too, whether he or anyone else understood it or not, he must have had an innate feeling for music, an understanding of what it is and how it works, the way a sculptor has an understanding of the material he shapes. In the end Frank's need to communicate, an arrogance with vulnerability at the centre of it, would make him the biggest star of all.

He had a picture of Crosby on the wall in his bedroom; according to one story, when Dolly realized that he was fantasizing about being a singer, she tore down the picture. Another story is that she threw a shoe at him and called him a bum; many years later he said, 'There's always somebody to spit on your dreams.' Neither of them could have imagined how hard the road would be until the world took notice of Frank Sinatra, but Dolly's worldliness was certainly realistic; how many kids wanted to be stars on the radio and in Hollywood, and how many succeeded? Besides, Frank had never shown any ability to stick to anything. But he began singing in public, and almost immediately he began showing signs that he was ahead of his time: again and again, he not only knew what he wanted to do but how to go about it.

Any ordinary kid wanting to be Crosby might have gone straight to Hollywood, or trudged around to booking agencies making a pest of himself. (Decades later they made demo tapes and sent them to record companies.) In 1933 or '34 the Depression was still on and the Big Band Era hadn't really begun; dance bands were everywhere, but the bands themselves were not the stars, not yet. Frank had a superficial confidence in himself, a shield between himself and failure; he was a sharp dresser and did not look like a high-school dropout, and he knew how to turn on the charm. He understood the importance of radio exposure, and would sing over the air for nothing: local stations were willing to use cheap local talent because some of their advertising was for local businesses, after all. The networks had what were called sustaining programs for their affiliate (local) stations, who could take them or leave them: sustaining programs had no sponsors, hence low budgets. Motolla remembered working with Frank at Newark's WAAT when they were both still kids. Frank already liked hanging around with musicians, but he couldn't afford to hire a a band or even an accompanist, so he made himself useful, getting musicians together for live gigs on condition that they would let him sing, at school dances, weddings, anywhere he could gain experience.

For decades Catholic high schools in the USA have had their own dances on Friday nights, places for kids to flirt and socialize without getting into trouble. Meanwhile, however, at her Garden Street address Dolly had performed an abortion on a girl who subsequently had to be rushed to hospital; Dolly was put on probation for five years in the mid-1930s, and Our Lady Of Grace turned down Frank and his musician friends because of his mother's reputation. It was not the first time he'd been embarrassed by Dolly, but it was the first time it had interfered with his chosen career. He kept his temper, but he went ominously silent and suffered from headaches, according to his girlfriend at the time. Possibly in order to make amends, Dolly bought him a public address system, a microphone, amplifier and speaker, and gave him money to buy stock arrangements -- sheet music -- so that the bands could play the songs of the day. All this helped to ingratiate him with the musicians, and apparently he needed the help. 'While I wasn't the best singer in the world,' he said many years later, 'they weren't the best bands in the country either.' He also played the ukelele, which is probably best forgotten; he got thrown out of some places, and one girl refused to let him sing at her wedding. He'd sing on the local radio for nothing, and one friend who heard him on WAAT advised him to quit. But Dolly was not capable of being embarrassed, and maybe she began to understand how determined he was; when Frank was 19 years old and doing nothing but singing anyway, she got him a gig at the local Union Club, singing five nights a week for a month or two, and he actually got paid. After that he had a kind of reputation, and could pester the local social clubs for work.

One of the local bandleaders, Harold Arden, had a steady gig at the Rustic Cabin, in nearby Englewood Cliffs; a vocal trio called The Three Flashes occasionally sang there with the band. James 'Skelly' Petrozelli, Pat Principe (Patty Prince) and Fred Tamburro, the effective leader, would let Frank drive them to work in his car. Then the band and the trio were offered a chance to make some film shorts for Edward 'Major' Bowes, a producer whose Major Bowes' Amateur Hour was a successful radio showcase. In those days a movie house showed musical and comedy shorts and newsreels as well as feature films, and some of the shorts were effectively advertising for radio programs; Frank begged to be allowed to take part, but Arden didn't like his singing and the trio didn't want him either. So Dolly went to see Tamburro, who lived in Hoboken's Little Italy, where she was the boss, and the result of her influence was that the trio cut Frank in on the filming. The short films were called The Night Club and The Minstrel, and Frank didn't sing but played a waiter, in blackface, which is an indication of where Major Bowes was at: blackface as a vaudeville tradition left over from minstrelsy was already corny in 1935.

The films were shown at Radio City Music Hall in October, but before that Bowes decided to audition the boys for his radio program, and thanks to Dolly's continuing pressure, The Three Flashes became The Hoboken Four. They sang the Mills Brothers' version of 'Shine', a blackface number, passed the audition and sang on Bowes' radio show in September from the stage of the Capitol Theatre in New York. They won the amateur contest, according to the applause meter; but with the films about to come out, it was no doubt convenient for Major Bowes to have his screen stars win the radio contest.

They were also good enough for Bowes to sign them up for a tour. This was the tail end of the vaudeville era, and Bowes' touring company was a low-budget ancestor of the Ed Sullivan TV show of two decades later: with sixteen other acts ranging from bell-ringers to tap-dancers, for fifty dollars a week plus meals the boys toured across North America to the West Coast and back, singing in theatres and grocery stores (the sponsor was a coffee company). Frank must have improved after a year or two of singing everywhere he could, for he replaced Tamburro as the lead singer in the group (though Tamby was still the nominal boss). The management tried to keep an eye on them, but all four would sneak out at night, breaking all the rules; and Frank had more luck than the others with the girls, which made them jealous. His voice was still too high and he certainly hadn't found a style of his own at the age of 19, but the voice was smooth, the vulnerability was there, and the effect on the women in the audience was already noticeable: all the boys were asked for their autographs, but Frank got more attention from the women, and would often disappear with one or another of them, a perquisite of entertainers since the first caveman beat on a log.

In fact, Frank had a knack for making himself the center of attention: he became the star of the whole troup, the other boys said nearly 50 years later; but there would always be a difference between the larger group (the audience) and the immediate entourage. Frank may have been able to become the star of Major Bowes' number five touring unit, but the other three members of the Hoboken Four were closer intimates, and they were not impressed. At least two of them used him as a punching bag. At a lunch counter, Patty Prince said many years later, Frank leaned over and said, 'Why don't you beat me too, and make it unanimous?' Prince felt sorry for him, but one rather suspects that when it came to getting along with his peers Frank Sinatra had some way to go.

At any rate, the tour with Major Bowes soon became tedious. Before the end of the year the Hoboken Four became the Hoboken Trio when Frank left, going back to the dreary round of singing anywhere he could. Dolly had seen to it that his time on the road with Major Bowes had been well reported in the local papers, so for over two more years he sang up and down the river, at weddings, political rallies, the Elks Club, the local radio stations (for free), anywhere they'd let him in.

He was learning the ropes. He pestered musicians, bandleaders and clubowners, as well as song publishers for the latest tunes and arrangements, and whereas earlier he'd been described as 'pushy, like his mother', now somebody described him as 'pushy, but polite'. He was teaching himself more about how to charm people, something he never learned from Dolly; but the distance across the river to Manhattan must have seemed like a million miles. Finally, in 1938, there was an opening for a singing waiter and emcee at the Rustic Cabin, for which Frank managed to obtain an audition. By this time the Swing Era was well under way, bandleaders were among the biggest names in show business, and Frank knew that he had to get himself heard by those kinds of people. The Rustic Cabin had a radio wire direct to WNEW in New York City, an important station that broadcast live dance music on Saturday night; but the Cabin's bandleader, according to one story, was still Harold Arden, who still didn't think much of Frank's singing.

Dolly said in an interview some years later that when she heard that Frank's audition had been unsuccessful, she thought that was just fine, because she didn't want him singing in a night club anyway. If this story is true, it reveals an astonishing degree of selfish ignorance: the boy was a young man of 22 in 1938 and had already been a professional singer for several years; what did she think he was going to do if he didn't continue following the path onward and upward? This is an example of the mentality of the ward-heeler: for Frank to have been a local celebrity would have been enough for Dolly. In the event, however, he was so upset that it was then that she realized how much his singing meant to him, or so she said later. She called the mayor of North Bergen, Harry Steeper, who was also president of the New Jersey musicians' union; Frank passed a second audition and became a singing waiter for $15 a week.

In 1935, when Frank drove The Three Flashes to a film studio in the Bronx ('Hollywood on the Hudson') to make their films for Major Bowes, they drove across the George Washington Bridge, which then hadn't been open very long. The Rustic Cabin was a roadhouse near the New Jersey end of the bridge, the kind of place where people traveling to or from Manhattan might stop for a drink or a meal, and a good location for anyone hoping to break into the music business. Frank's confidence was now higher than ever. He had always told all his friends and any musicians who would listen that he was going to make it big, though all the breaks he had received up to that point were courtesy of his bossy mother. His friends humored him: 'Yeah, sure, Frankie. Sure you are, we'd say. No one thought he'd ever make it, except for him, that is.' Musicians still thought he wasn't very good: 'We ridiculed him because he just wasn't that good. Even though he was singing at the Rustic Cabin, he didn't seem to have any talent. No style whatsoever.' His voice was described as 'high' and 'tight'. But it was probably also during 1938 that Frank began took a few singing lessons, realizing like a lot of ambitious musicians before him that he had taught himself as much as he could and it was time he got some professional help. He went to see an Australian-born ex-opera singer, John Quinlan, who lived in New York, and took lessons from him, apparently for several years.

Frank Sinatra is said to be by nature a generous man, but he is never sure how much credit to give, and finds it difficult to express gratitude. His mother being essentially a small-time gangster who never did anything for anybody unless it was going to bring a pay-off, she taught young Frankie to impress his friends with flash, but that didn't work, leaving him confused; as an adult, he could be brutally honest with himself, but he was afraid of being rejected, just as he was afraid of his own mother. So even if his heart was in the right place, in later years he would try to hide his generosity, because he knew that people would mistake his motives for Dolly's. And eventually these personal problems and hangups (of which we all have our share) were in addition to the problems that come with being rich and famous. So he once said, 'I never had a vocal lesson--a real one--except to work with a coach a few times ...' But on another occasion he said, 'If it hadn't been for [Quinlan's] coaching when my voice was about gone, I'd have had no career.' He also later consulted other singers at various points during his career; yet after Quinlan (because of his poor health) could not accompany Sinatra to the West Coast during his first rise to fame, he said, 'I guess Frank didn't understand. He hasn't spoken to me since.' It is as though Sinatra's self-confidence, having accomplished a great deal, also has to take all the credit, which is why the absolute loyalty he has always demanded of his associates takes such a fundamental, almost medieval character -- if you are Sinatra's friend or employee, you are not allowed any other life, and if you forget that he doesn't like ketchup on his hamburger he'll throw it at you. All this is so obviously the legacy of the lonely child that one is embarrassed to point it out.

Yet Frank Sinatra would eventually wrest control of his life from his mother, in spite of everything. He had been singing long enough so that his native intelligence began to take over. If he was singing 'high' and 'tight' when he began working every night at the Rustic Cabin, it is no wonder that before long his voice was almost gone. The first thing he would have learned from Quinlan was how to project his voice without working so hard. Much later, in the 1960s, Sinatra claimed to have adopted a bel canto style, which must have confused many listeners: bel canto means merely 'beautiful singing'; originally it was the justification for the invention of opera itself, a fusion of music and drama at the end of the 16th century which was supposed to emulate the drama of the classical world. But the phrase later came to refer specifically to an 18th century emphasis on beauty of sound and brilliant performance, which in practice often became precious at the expense of dramatic values. Sinatra meant it in the simple Italian sense of lyrical beauty, a combination of words and music.

Quinlan undoubtedly helped him to sing from the front of his vocal equipment, that is, from his mouth, rather than from the back of his throat or even further down towards his diaphragm. Any regular visitor to Italy knows that Italian speech makes great use of the tongue and the lips to shape the words, which is why the Italian language sounds so expressive, why it is ideal for singing and why so many Italians have become good singers: they are already halfway to singing when they learn to speak. This is also the reason why English-speaking people (especially Americans) have to work so hard on the accent when they study another language; to an Italian, there is nothing more ridiculous than hearing that language spoken with what amounts to a 'Noo Joisey' accent. Hence when Frank began taking singing lessons his speech also began to change: Quinlan was also helping him with diction, the importance of which he was already learning. It was during this period that he was also learning how to use the microphone: as he put it many years later, the real instrument was not the voice, but the mike. It could hear your voice better than you could hear it yourself, and you had to learn to play it like a sax.

Frank was small but wiry, and always physically fit. He is said to have played basketball, run on a track and swum underwater, using the facilities of the technical school where Dolly had hoped he'd study; the object was not just to keep fit, but also to build up his wind and the ability to hold long breaths. Much later, in a 1955 interview, Sinatra confessed that 'I believed, because of [Crosby's] leisurely manner of working that if he could do it, I could do it. The funny switch is that I've never been able to do it.' Crosby's deceptively relaxed manner had to be worked at and was more difficult than it looked, while Sinatra was too uptight to be relaxed, but he was destined to have more depth of style than that anyway. At the Rustic Cabin he already knew that he would not simply imitate Crosby, and he was well along in developing the means by which he would become a different kind of singer.

He still wasn't making much money; in fact Dolly complained that she had to give him money so that he could treat his friends when they came to see him at the Roadhouse: the job was a net loss to the family's accounts. But by the end of 1938 Frank Sinatra was getting more work and becoming better known; he was not only broadcasting with the band from the Rustic Cabin courtesy of the wire to WNEW, but singing several times a week on 15-minute spots from WNEW's studios in New York, and once a week on another station in Newark, where the band included a string section. And his personal life was also becoming complicated.

Among the girlfriends from Frank's teenage days was Marion Brush Schreiber, who remained his friend for years although their romance never got off the ground. She lived in the Garden Street neighborhood; she knew about Dolly's sideline in abortions, but in that self-possessed way some teenagers have, she was not shockable. She was aware of Frank's admiration of Bing Crosby, she helped him and his musician friends get work in the early days, and she was there when Frank got married. He had been acquainted with Nancy Barbato since the summer of 1935; he met her in Long Branch, New Jersey, where she lived across the street from one of Frank's aunts. At the end of that summer, before getting involved with Major Bowes, Frank brought Nancy to Hoboken and introduced her to Marion, who recalled that Dolly approved of Nancy at first, because Nancy's father was a plasterer who could afford to live in a single-family dwelling with a front porch. Nancy's sisters were all married to professionals, like accountants and lawyers, Marion said, and Dolly also liked that. But several years later, Frank liked women and they liked him, and his job at the Rustic Cabin offered plenty of chances to get into trouble.

At the end of 1938, having courted Nancy for over three years, Frank was also having an affair with a woman who was separated from her husband; Toni Francke became pregnant, and soon had a miscarriage, but furious at the way she had been treated by Frank and Dolly (who of course disapproved of her), in November and again in December she had Frank arrested on morals charges (see the mug shot here). She was persuaded to drop the charges, but that was enough for Dolly: she had always tried to control her son's personal life, and of course to that extent he was not learning to control it himself; it was a wonder that he had been allowed to go on tour with Major Bowes, which took him out of his mother's sight. Dolly decided it was time for Frank to get married, foolishly thinking that that would keep him out of trouble. By then time Nancy had been in love with Frank for years.

On 3 February 1939, Frank Sinatra made his first record, a demo, with the Frank Manne Orchestra, the song being 'Our Love', using the big tune from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet overture. It is not a bad record, as far as one can hear through the muddy sound; ripping off classical tunes was common and not entirely a bad idea, and Frank's treatment is probably a light-year or so ahead of what most pop singers were doing at the time: he sings the song as though he cares about it. Everything about the record, however, is mysterious: nobody knows who Frank Manne was, and the arrangement is well over four minutes long, far too long for a 10-inch 78 and impractical for a demo. One suspects that the recording session was some sort of wedding present; perhaps Frank had said to his mother that if she wanted him to get married so badly, she could make another contribution to his career by paying for a demo record. At any rate, the next day, on 4 February, Frank and Nancy were married. The reception was at Nancy's house, and there were very few people from Hoboken there, but the faithful friend Marion Brush was one of them. When she said goodbye, she wished Frank all the luck and happiness in the world, she said, and he kissed her. 'I'll never forget him that day. He looked like the saddest man I'd ever seen.' At the end of the month, Dolly got arrested again for another abortion; in March the new band of trumpeter Harry James made its debut in Philadelphia, and three months later James came to the Rustic Cabin looking for a singer.

The rest is history.

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