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May 16, 1998

New York Times: Frank Sinatra obituary

May 15, 1998

LOS ANGELES -- Frank Sinatra, the dashing teen idol who matured into the premier romantic balladeer of American popular music and the "Chairman of the Board" to his millions of fans, died Thursday night of a heart attack. He was 82.

Sinatra, who had not been seen in public since a heart attack in January 1997, was pronounced dead at 10:50 p.m. in the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said his publicist, Susan Reynolds. Sinatra's family, including his wife was with him when he died.

A private funeral was planned, Reynolds said.

"Ol' Blue Eyes" was a master craftsman and ranked as one of the most influential singers in this country's history. In more than 200 albums, his music led the evolution from Big Band to vocal American music.

The blunt, often aggressive son of Italian immigrants communicated across generational lines with love songs filled with a rare mix of vulnerability and verve -- from "Strangers in the Night" to "One For My Baby."

He refused to compromise -- "I'm going to do as I please," he once said -- and his trademark song was "My Way."

He made almost as much news off-stage as on. Through his Rat Pack and organized crime associations, he was a cultural phenomenon who endured setbacks and scandals to become a White House intimate.

His hairline receded and his waist thickened over the years, but Sinatra's light baritone only grew deeper and richer. He had a lavish lifestyle, four wives and some associates whose names could be found in FBI crime files. But for each story of Sinatra's punching someone, there was another of loyalty and generosity to friends and strangers. He always thanked his audiences for listening to him.

"An audience is like a broad," he said in a 1963 Playboy interview. "If you're indifferent, Endsville."

Once, in the early 1950s, his career appeared to be over, and he came back with a movie performance in "From Here to Eternity" that brought him an Oscar for supporting actor. He retired to much fanfare in 1971, but found himself unable to stay away from the microphone.

Sinatra said he never took voice lessons except to extend his range, and never learned to read music. In his performances late in his career, he would read lyrics. Yet his phrasing and timing rarely faltered.

His signature songs included "Night and Day," "Young at Heart," "One for My Baby," "How About You?" "Day by Day," "Old Man River," "New York, New York," "Come Fly With Me," "Strangers in the Night," and, with daughter Nancy, "Somethin' Stupid," a No. 1 smash during the rock era. Twyla Tharp choreographed a program called "Nine Sinatra Songs."

His movie credits include musicals -- "Anchors Aweigh," "On The Town," "Guys and Dolls," "The Tender Trap," "High Society," "Pal Joey" -- and grittier fare, such as "The Manchurian Candidate," "Von Ryan's Express" and "The Man With the Golden Arm," which brought him his other Oscar nomination.

He received the Kennedy Center honor in 1983 and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by his friend President Reagan in 1985.

"Sinatra's endurance has become a rallying point for many people who feel that their sacrifices and hard work are no longer honored, their values demeaned, their musical tastes ignored and sneered at," Pete Hamill wrote in New York magazine in 1980.

"They don't care that Sinatra got fat; so did they. They don't care that Sinatra moved from the New Deal to Ronald Reagan; many of them did the same thing, for the same basic reason: resentment at being ignored by the Democratic Party. They had overcome poverty and survived two world wars; they had educated their children and given them better lives; and sometimes their children didn't even care. But it should never be forgotten that Frank Sinatra was the original working class hero. Mick Jagger's fans bought records with their allowances; Sinatra's people bought them out of wages."

Sinatra had new success in the '90s with his "Duets" album and its Grammy-winning sequel, "Duets II." They combined him with a wide array of fellow singers, including rocker Bono of U2, Barbra Streisand and Julio Iglesias.

Bono paid tribute to Sinatra, saying, "Rock 'n' roll people love Frank. He has what we want: swagger and attitude."

Francis Albert Sinatra was born Dec. 12, 1915, in a tough, working-class neighborhood of Hoboken, N.J. In the difficult delivery, his left earlobe was torn off and his throat was scarred by forceps; the doctor thought him stillborn. His grandmother shoved the 13-pound baby under cold running water and signs of life quickly emerged.

Sinatra's father, Martin, was a boxer and member of the fire department. His mother, Dolly, was a nurse who became a power in local Democratic politics. Francis, their only child, spent much of his early life with his maternal grandmother but was spoiled by the entire family and lavished with gifts and fine clothes. He soon learned to fight off the envious kids in the neighborhood and became the leader of a gang that specialized in petty thievery until his mother moved to a nicer neighborhood.

In 1933, Sinatra went to hear Bing Crosby and left the theater determined to be a singer, but not a Crosby copycat. "What I finally hit on was more the 'bel canto' Italian school of singing," involving the smooth connection of notes, he wrote for Life magazine in 1965. "It was more difficult than Crosby's style, much more difficult."

He picked up what jobs he could, and as a member of a quartet won the Major Bowes Amateur Hour in 1935. By 1939 he was singing with bandleader Harry James, for $65 a week, but soon joined trombonist Tommy Dorsey, who had the reputation of showcasing singers.

Sinatra, free to experiment with style, became fascinated with Dorsey's breath control. "He would take a musical phrase and play it all the way through seemingly without breathing, for eight, 10, maybe 16 bars." Sinatra finally discovered that Dorsey snatched quick breaths through the side of his mouth, and he vowed to learn to play his voice like an instrument.

He began swimming and running to improve his lungs, and learned to breathe in the middle of a note without breaking it. He was the first popular singer to use breathing for dramatic effect, and learned to use his microphone to enhance his voice. It also was important, he would say later, for a singer to realize he was telling a story, and place his pauses accordingly.

Like Crosby, Sinatra was influenced by jazz. However, his phrasing, hitting certain words to make them more meaningful, was more like jazz phrasing -- and was more exciting and appealing to young people.

Dorsey's new singer quickly attracted a following, and by the end of 1941 Sinatra replaced Crosby at the top of the "Down Beat" poll. He broke from the band in 1942 and, with a series of concerts at New York's Paramount Theater, burst into the nation's awareness in a way that was not matched until the arrival of Elvis Presley in the '50s and the Beatles in the '60s.

His appearances created such hysteria and fits of swooning that newspapers turned to psychiatrists for explanations. Crowds snarled Times Square; fans smeared lipstick on the home of the hollow-cheeked, bow-tied singer. The Paramount, and New York City's police, came in for an even bigger dose of Sinatramania in 1944, when 10,000 kids jammed the ticket line and an estimated 20,000 others piled into Times Square, breaking windows in the crush.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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