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Book Review: Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan

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There have been a couple of books about Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) published over the years. Well, more than a couple. Type his name into Amazon’s database, and you will come up with an astonishing 4,860 available titles. What more could possibly remain to be said about him? In Frank: The Voice author James Kaplan begins by presenting a side of Sinatra that is too often ignored. Namely, that the man was a musical genius.

He often referred to himself as nothing more than a “saloon singer.” How hilarious. Sinatra was many things, but humble? Please. As a life-long fan, I have often wondered what exactly made Frank Sinatra’s music so special. As it turns out, it was good old-fashioned hard work. He had a fantastic voice, without question. But he would read through the lyrics, word by word, to inhabit them. It was the type of dedication that someone like Horowitz brought to the piano, or Segovia to his guitar. The fact that Frank made it look so effortless was especially impressive, considering just how seriously he took his work.

I found the descriptions of Sinatra’s process fascinating. Despite his recognition as perhaps the greatest singer of the twentieth century, so many other books barely acknowledge it. And when his music is discussed, it is almost always about his collaborations with Nelson Riddle on Capitol or his later Reprise/Warner Bros. recordings. As fantastic as that material is, the fact is that it was all recorded after he had reached the magic age of 40.

In contrast, the narrative of the new 786-page book Frank: The Voice ends in 1954, when he was just 38 years old. The climactic event was his winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Maggio in From Here To Eternity (1953).

It was a bold move by the author, and one that certainly sets The Voice apart from the usual Sinatra biographies. Probably the most famous previous Sinatra book was Kitty Kelley’s His Way (1988). The two could not be more different, in fact to even compare them to each other is a bit of a joke. Kelley’s stock in trade is salacious gossip, and there is no question that Sinatra’s life provided plenty of fodder, even without juicing it up. Kaplan does not shy away from this aspect of “Frankie’s” life either, although it is presented in a far less hysterical manner.

The life of Frank Sinatra was many things, but dull was never one of them. The career arc alone is a fascinating story. Reading about the early days when nobody took him seriously, to the “bobby-soxer” era, then his fall from grace serves to humanize the icon. Then there is the dark side. His abandonment of his family for Ava Gardner, the friendships with various Mafiosi and other bits are not pleasant. Topping it off with fabulous wealth which was spent so recklessly that most of the time he was practically bankrupt, and we are presented with one hell of a tale.

Maybe the wildest aspect of all is the fact that Sinatra still had another 50 years to go after he won that Academy Award. Kaplan has done a marvelous job of making this biography a real page-turner. The man was incredibly complex, and The Voice reflects it all. Here’s hoping that Mr. Kaplan decides to write the rest of the story, because he did a hell of a job with part one.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • Rob J

    “Frank” is a great book.
    There have been many biographies on FS, but this is the ONE.

    James has a very witty style of writing which I found very engaging, but he has also researched his subject very well.
    File next to Peter Guralnick’s “Last Train To Memphis”, it really is that good.