I have been a fan of Frank Sinatra, as well as his daughter Nancy, for many years. Ever since I bought A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra, which came in a special limited-edition red plastic cassette case, I have been hooked as a Sinatra fan. In 1985 Nancy Sinatra published Frank Sinatra, My Father, the first of her two paternal biographies. I remember when it first came out: it was an extravagantly produced coffee-table book full of colour photos and it weighed a ton. A year later it was issued in paperback, doing away with most of the photos, including all the ones in colour. I bought the hardcover edition several years later at a remainders store, yet read my own copy of the paperback. Nevertheless, I will talk about both editions for this review.
For me as a new Sinatra fan in the 1980’s, the hardcover edition was an invaluable resource in the pre-Internet age. While Nancy takes care to report that her book is not the definitive Frank Sinatra discography, since the number of compilations and reissues alone could dwarf the biographical text, she nonetheless talks about and shows LP covers for all of her father’s major releases from the dawn of long-playing records to 1984. I used this book as my first Sinatra reference when I was developing my own LP collection.
Photos from Nancy’s family albums decorate the book from cover to cover. I was impressed with the candid nature of some of them, especially shots of Frank from his earliest days as a singer with the Harry James Band. Frank Sinatra, My Father is however far more than a glamorous photo album and the paperback version is a substantial 388 pages of compact text, telling Frank’s life story, literally, from the time of his difficult birth in 1915 to 1984. From his first appearances on radio shows to busing from gig to gig as one of many singers in a travelling band, Frank slowly gained popularity and became the object of affection of millions of swooning young women in the late thirties and early forties. During this time he perfected his craft:
“His fame was growing–and so were his voice and his technique. His diction was flawless. Love, not luv; your, not yore. He worked at it constantly. He worked at all aspects of his music. He wanted to be the best ever.”
As an Italian American growing up in New Jersey, Frank’s family knew the pain of discrimination. Frank’s father, as a young man looking for work, knew that he was more likely to be employed if he changed his last name:
“He took up prizefighting and, because it was better in those days to have an Irish name than an Italian one (the Irish politicians controlled Hoboken), he adopted his manager’s name and became known as ‘Marty O’Brien.'”
This sense of self-preservation carried over when Frank first started to make it in show business. He felt that his own birth surname was a hindrance and had himself billed as “Frank Trenton” and “Frankie Trent” on the very first promotional advertisements. A stage name did not last long, as the name “Sinatra” was felt to be beautiful and musical-sounding, well fitting for a singer. However, these feelings of anti-Italian discrimination never left him, even as he gained fame. Frank developed a fighting spirit against prejudice which became a lifelong journey in his battle to eradicate. Nancy writes:
“Dad did not always like what he heard. As a boy, his passion for what came to be known as civil rights was triggered, he told me, by name-calling; kids in his neighborhood, he said, ‘calling each other ethnic names: nigger, wop, sheenie, dago and all that kind of stuff.'”
Frank used his clout as the number one entertainer in the world to battle racism head-on. He brought his black friends along with him to segregated clubs and restaurants, and if they were not allowed to be seated with him, he would get up and leave. Lifelong friend Sammy Davis, Jr. was often told, to his face, that he could not sit with Frank and his friends, and once Frank had his say the discriminatory policies of these establishments was lifted:
“He never expanded on it with words, according to Sammy, which doesn’t surprise me [ = Nancy], because when Daddy does, he gets livid. But he did it with action, making sure that Sammy was accepted wherever they went.”
Frank Sinatra, My Father told its story both in a traditional chronological narrative by Nancy as well as in passages written by Frank’s friends. Nancy would often “hand over the mike” to a colleague like Sammy Davis, Jr. or Dean Martin and they would relate a personal anecdote. I did not find the Nancy passages gushy or overly sentimental, even though she always referred to her father as “Daddy”. For some girls, they will always call their fathers “daddy” no matter how old they are. Nancy portrays her father as a man of few words but of profound action. Succinct in word but magnanimous and generous to all, Frank Sinatra could interpret a lyric without being verbose, and convey the underlying emotions of a song as one who has lived them:
“I think I get an audience involved personally in a song–because I’m involved. It’s not something I do deliberately. I can’t help myself. If the song is a lament at the loss of love, I get an ache in my gut. I feel the loss myself and I cry out the loneliness, the hurt, and the pain…Being an eighteen-karat manic-depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradiction, I have an overacute capacity for sadness as well as elation.”
Frank’s own admission of being a manic-depressive may be his own explanation for being married four times. His first wife, Nancy Barbato Sinatra, who is 95 this year, was a constant presence in his life even years after their divorce. Daughter Nancy shares many family and holiday times spent with her brother Frank, Jr., sister Tina and their divorced parents, all together. I wonder if Frank himself carried a torch for his first wife, seeing all the time he spent with her after they split up. Nancy reveals that even after her father’s next two marriages, to Ava Gardner and then to Mia Farrow, she always held out hope that her parents would reunite and marry again. It took her several years to accept her father’s fourth wife–and longest-lasting marriage–to Barbara Marx Sinatra. This marriage sealed shut the possibility that her father and mother would ever remarry.
Frank’s alleged ties to the mafia are dealt with in this book and Nancy goes to great lengths to dispel the rumours and explain how they started. The Sinatra-mob connection is entirely fiction, based mainly on anti-Italian discrimination. While it might be a known fact that the early days of glitzy Las Vegas were ruled by the mob at the same time that Frank was making his name as the #1 voice on The Strip, it was an inevitable conclusion that someone would put the two together. Frank is not afraid to speak out against these rumours and by 1985, when the book was written, has put it well past him.
For Nancy fans, her book contains a chapter on her own rise to fame. As Nancy contemplated her own singing career she found a record label easily, since she was one of the first artists to be signed to Reprise Records, the label founded by her father. Nancy, however, may have had her father’s backing but her records didn’t sell. After four years of dud singles (from 1961 to 1965) she was threatened with being dropped from the label. Any other artist would have been dropped after a couple flops, but Nancy had “Sinatra status” and could keep churning out the vinyl. Lee Hazlewood came to the rescue and wrote and produced her signature song, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”. There are a number of inaccuracies in this chapter. Nancy claims:
“‘Boots’ reached number one in three weeks, a rate unheard of then. The Beatles’ ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ soon afterward, was the only record to do the same thing.”
Since “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” topped the Billboard charts on 26 February 1966, Nancy did not precede but in fact followed the Beatles’ first #1 by two years. The Beatles had many singles that shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in only three weeks, but “Can’t Buy Me Love” was the fastest riser, vaulting 27 to 1 on 4 April 1964, only a two-week trip to the top. I had never heard of “Boots” taking such a fast climb to number one so I researched its entire chart history. “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” entered the Billboard Hot 100 on 22 January 1966 at #74 then progressed as follows: (74) 50 28 15 2 1 2 2 3 4 8 14 20 34. Nancy is thus mistaken in her belief that “Boots” took three weeks to reach the top of Billboard; in fact it took six weeks.
Now on a personal note, on 14 May 1995 I had the pleasure to see Nancy in concert at the RPM club (now known as The Guvernment) in Toronto. Even Lee Hazlewood made a guest appearance and shared some of their famous duets. I used my past history with the event’s concert promoter (as I used to interview pop stars for the Toronto Star from 1983 to 1988) to get me a backstage pass and I had a memorable time chatting with Nancy, Lee and her daughter A. J. Nancy and Lee signed all my LP and CD covers and they treated me like an old friend. What memories I had, sharing a couch with Nancy and Suzi Richter (of lesbian punk band the Nancy Sinatras)!