By John Lawrence
1915 was a very good year because three giants of twentieth century music were born that year: Frank Sinatra, Billie Holliday and Billy Strayhorn. This year is the hundredth anniversary of their births.
By far the best known is Frank Sinatra, born in Hoboken, NJ to a middle class Italian family. His mother, Dolly, was a real go getter who became a political force in Hoboken. She secured Frank his first real job as a singer with the Hoboken Four, and got her husband hired by the Fire Department. When they told her they didn’t have any openings, she told them, “Make one.” They did.
Frank’s stories of growing up poor were so much BS. The Sinatra family moved into a $13,400. house in Hoboken in the middle of the Depression, an astronomical sum in those days. She had befriended so many people in Hoboken that, when the Democratic machine needed votes, Dolly could deliver them. She also had a thriving business as a midwife and an abortionist. Unfortunately, she died in a plane crash, a plane that Frank had chartered to bring her from Palm Springs to Las Vegas for his opening at Caesar’s Palace.
Frank got his first major job as a singer with trumpeter Harry James and his band. From there he went with Tommy Dorsey’s band. He created a sensation with the “Bobby Soxers”, teenage girls that moaned and swooned over him at the Paramount Theater in New York. Little known is the fact that his press agent, George Evans, paid a few girls to instigate the exuberance and before long many others joined in making Frank the first singing superstar in the 1940s. His following was similar to that of Elvis Presley in the fifties.
Later Frank gravitated to Hollywood and made some unmemorable movies. His career flagging in the early 50s, he begged for the part of Maggio in the film, From Here to Eternity, based on the eponymous novel by James Jones. His ex-wife Ava Gardner put in a good word for him with the producer and the rest is history. Frank won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and his career, which had been on the skids, rebounded.
Although he made over 50 movies altogether, he was best known as a singer who recorded for Columbia, Capitol and Reprise records. As a vocalist he had over 2000 recordings. Although he couldn’t read music and was a ninth grade drop-out, he recorded almost every song ever written for the Great American Song Book and made a fortune with his investments in Las Vegas casinos.
In a symbiotic relationship with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, the Sands became the House That Frank Built. Frank brought in the customers, was paid $400,000 a week, and everybody made money. He also had an investment in the Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe.
There was only one song he had problems with though: Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life. Reports are that Frank stomped out of the recording studio in frustration over not being able to master this song. Billy Strayhorn wrote it as a 16 year old teenager living in the Pittsburg, PA ghetto. It is widely regarded as one of the most sophisticated and difficult songs in twentieth century American music. However, Lady Gaga didn’t have any problems with it in her recent recording.
The lyrics have references to world travel and the French language from a 16 year old who had never been out of Pittsburg. “A weekend in Paris will ease the bite of it. All I care is to smile in spite of it.” The song’s opening words are:
“I used to visit all the very gay places
those come what may places
where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
to get the feel of life
from jazz and cocktails”
This song was from an era where “gay” had completely different connotations from what it has today. Nevertheless, Billy Strayhorn was a closeted gay man. He eventually became Duke Ellington’s right hand man composing much of the music that Ellington was known for as Strayhorn stayed in the background. When Ellington invited him to come to New York City to meet him, he gave him the directions: Take the “A” train to Sugar Hill in Harlem. In honor of that meeting he wrote the tune that became Ellington’s theme song, Take the “A”Train, or as Lawrence Welk later announced it, “Take a Train.”
Some of the other Strayhorn compositions and my favorites are the following:
Chelsea Bridge, Day Dream, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, Passion Flower, Raincheck, Satin Doll, Something to Live For and Upper Manhattan Medical Group.
Billie Holiday had a tragic life dogged by racism and addiction. As it says on biography.com: Billie Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time. She had a thriving career for many years before she lost her battle with addiction. Her autobiography was made into the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross. In 2000, Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billie was not only a singer but a songwriter too. Among her compositions are “God Bless the Child”, “Fine and Mellow” and “Don’t Explain.” Although she didn’t write it, she became identified with the song “Strange Fruit” about black lynchings in the south:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
She starts out her autobiography with: “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.” After being raped as a child, she became a teenage prostitute in her mother’s bordello. She escaped the poverty and misery of her life by listening to the jazz of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Around 1930 she started singing in local New York City clubs.
At the age of 18, Holiday was discovered by producer John Hammond while she was performing in a Harlem jazz club. Hammond was instrumental in getting Holiday recording work with an up-and-coming clarinetist and bandleader – Benny Goodman.
Holiday toured with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1937 where she met lifelong soul mate, Lester Young, who named her “Lady Day.” In return she called the tenor saxophonist “Prez.” Artie Shaw signed Billie as his band’s vocalist in 1938, becoming the first white bandleader to hire a full-time black female singer to tour the segregated south. Promoters objected to Holiday—for her race and for her unique vocal style—and she ended up leaving the orchestra out of frustration.
Touring the U.S. in the 1930s meant running head-on into racial discrimination. While with Basie in Detroit, a theater manager insisted the light-skinned Holiday blacken her face so the audience would not mistake her for white and get angry she was performing with black musicians. While touring with Shaw’s mostly white band in the segregationist South, it was difficult just finding a restaurant where the band could eat together.
After she left Shaw’s band, she went back to New York City where she performed at the liberal Cafe Society, the first racially integrated night club in the United States. She first sang “Strange Fruit” there. At owner Barney Josephson’s insistence, she closed her set with this song, leaving the stage without taking any encores, so that the audience would be left to think about the meaning of the song.
Billie Holiday was one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite singers bringing the three cats born in 1915 full circle. Billie Holidays’s records and Billy Strayhorn’s compositions will never go out of style. Nothing classic ever does. In addition Frank has left a lasting legacy as he has a whole channel on Sirius satellite radio devoted to his music. They also play Billie’s records and Strayhorn’s compositions there. Just the other day I heard Lady Gaga singing Lush Life on Sirius.
Some last thoughts on Frank Sinatra. Frank, despite his personal foibles and peccadilloes, was a force of nature unlike any other major entertainment figure of the 20th century. He was a movie star, but, unlike other movie stars who could only make money from making a movie, Frank could go out and perform on a weekly basis and make $400,000 a week in Las Vegas and around the world similar to Peggy Lee or Lena Horn.
He also had invested in Vegas casinos and made lots of money that way even when he wasn’t performing. He got a check for $1,000,000. from Jack Warner to merge his Reprise records with Warner studios.
Frank liked associating with those at the pinnacles of power whether it was President Jack Kennedy or Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. As a very generous and gregarious guy, he fixed up both Jack and Sam with the same woman – Judith Campbell. He had a lifelong vendetta against gossip columnists, particularly female gossip columnists including Barbara Walters, because, like most celebrities, he felt his private life should remain private.
Unfortunately, there was such a gigantic spread between Frank’s public image and his private reality that the likes of Kitty Kelly who wrote “His Way, the Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra“, could not resist scandalmongering. His valet, George Jacobs, corroborated most of Kelly’s writing but did so in a much more affectionate manner in his book, “Mr S: My Life With Frank Sinatra“.
Frank experienced his share of tragedy including the death of his mother in an airplane crash (into San Gorgonio Mountain that also claimed Dean Martin’s son), the death of his best friend, Jilly Rizzo, in a fiery car crash in Palm Springs as well as the deaths of his Rat Pack buddies, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin and his songwriting buddy Jimmy Van Heusen.
Ever the survivor Frank outlived them all and is buried in Cathedral City in Desert Memorial Park along with his parents, Jilly, and many of his friends. His fourth wife, Barbara, still maintains a home in Palm Springs and is involved with the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center for abused children.
In any event his life is a life to ponder and his legacy in music will remain for all time. He had tremendous luck and good taste in his arrangers – Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, Axel Stordahl and others who had a huge hand in making his albums the classics they are.
Frank associated with the best musicians and arrangers in the business. Of course he had the money to hire the London Symphony Orchestra and pay them triple scale for an all day session if he had wanted to. His pianist, Bill Miller, accompanied Frank for more than 50 years and played the excellent, timeless barroom piano intro to Frank’s classic saloon song, “Make it One for My Baby and One More for the Road.”