What’s Made Frank Sinatra Different: The Art of Vocal “Audacity”

Ever since Frank Sinatra wrote the article, Me and My Music, for an April, 1965 issue of LIFE Magazine, when describing his singing fans and critics alike consistently refer to his “phrasing”. It has become as much a cliché as summing up his career by saying “and he did it his way.”

In the article, Sinatra spoke of how trombonist/band leader, Tommy Dorsey, because of his exceptional breath control, could seamlessly carry a melodic line longer than most wind instrumentalists. Why couldn’t a vocalist have that smoothness, Sinatra wondered, and then went to work on himself physically (swimming laps underwater, running track) to accomplish it. The result was Sinatra’s enhanced breath control. It allowed him to do vocally what Dorsey had been doing instrumentally and that, in Sinatra’s own words, was what made him different from his contemporaries when the bobby-soxers swooned.

Phrasing “, for the record, is not the lyrical or melodic liberties one takes in a song. Rather, it is the grouping of notes to make musical sense —- a musical sentence, if you  will —- without a break in sound. However, lyrics do not always comply with the melody and sometimes words may be sustained in mid-sentence, ending the “phrasing” but not the thought. Sinatra’s developed breath control allowed him to also carry the LYRICAL message to its logical conclusion where other singers with less power  might interrupt the thought with a breath.

That being said, I believe what really made Sinatra different was “audacity”. Certainly it had its roots in his personality — the swagger, the self-assured “IL PADRONE” personality and that plays into his vocal delivery. But it really transcends his non-musical identity. The art of  “audacity” of which I  speak is the Sinatra of  “I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING”, “I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU” and the classic, “I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN”. It is the Sinatra that played with music,“ bending” the notes and ad-libbed lyrics to, dare I say to say it?, enhance their meaning. No so-called “phrasing” here, just total command; proof positive that a performer becomes an artist when he is secure enough to take chances.

Frank Sinatra was not a relaxed singer in the sense of his idol, Bing Crosby, or his contemporaries, Dean Martin and Perry Como. Crosby, Martin and Como, to be sure, all could have fun with a novelty song or touch your heart with a ballad. Martin, like Crosby, had a richness to his voice which was perfect for the laid-back, romantic approach. While Como had a lighter quality, he, too, eased his way into a tune. Sinatra, however, planted two feet on the ground and “confronted” a song. Just listen to “LUCK BE A LADY” or the swinging version of  “NIGHT AND DAY”.

Frank Sinatra also had the “audacity” to musically wear his heart on his sleeve. He “torched” for an unrequited or lost love openly, unashamedly and like no male vocalist had ever done so before, yet resisted sounding dependingly weak. Where other singers might elicit listeners to exclaim, “Get over it, bud!”, Sinatra had the effect to make the hardiest of men nod with experienced empathy. The self- pity in which he wallowed had a resignation to it that made others feel they had found a confidant. Much, it is true, had to do with how people envisioned his private life and how it influenced his selection of those songs of heartbreak. But that doesn’t change the fact he chose to record and perform them, to get “inside” them or, figuratively, “make love” to them.

Frank Sinatra did not sing like a singer, concerned chiefly with tonal quality while interpretation as well as technique take a back seat to a song’s delivery. Sinatra sang like a musician, learning from the abilities of the instrumentalists around him. His technique, as he said — including articulation, dynamics and perfect diction — made him stand out and he remains today the gold standard for popular singing and lyrical interpretation. But what truly made Frank Sinatra different, to my mind, was his “audacity” with a song. It is the quality of making even “OLD MAC DONALD” or “MRS. ROBINSON”  his own, personal statement.

Many performers have unique styles, but an “artist” is like the United States Postal Service: he can issue a one-of-a-kind stamp. The “art of audacity” was Frank Sinatra’s imprint in the world of popular music.

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