×

Memories of a 50-year love affair with Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra would be 100 years old on Dec. 12. What is it about Frank Sinatra's enduring appeal? How did this man sell an estimated 150 million albums worldwide?

It's not hard to figure out: It involved greatness: great talent, great taste, great attitude, great style.

And great swagger.

I first felt it when I was a kid. In 1967, at 11 years old, I went to the Hatboro Record Shop in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and bought a 45 of "That's Life," Sinatra's ode to the ups and downs of a guy who is always striving to be on top:

"I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king,

I've been up and down and over and out and I know one thing ...

Each time I find myself flat on my face

I just pick myself up and get back in the race...

That's life!"

Reprise Records Back to Back Hits Frank Sinatra "That's Life".
Bob Pisani | CNBC
Reprise Records Back to Back Hits Frank Sinatra "That's Life".

Even as an 11 year old, with no knowledge of the swinger lifestyle, the song impressed me. It felt like rock, but it wasn't rock. It was all strutting and testosterone, and it moved me. It was my introduction to Francis Albert Sinatra, and the start of a lifelong study of the man.

But by the early 1970s, I was a teenager buying Rolling Stones albums like "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street," trying to convince my father that songs like "Tumbling Dice" were high art.

"I can't understand what this guy Mick Jagger is saying, Robert!" Who knew what "Tumbling Dice" was about, then or now?

"Now you listen to Sinatra! He has perfect enunciation!"

He did, but 1972 was a tough time to be a Sinatra fan. He had recently announced his "retirement" and aside from a minor hit with "My Way" three years earlier, he was not much in evidence on the charts.

Only when he came out of retirement in 1973 with a new album — "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back" — and a TV special, where he reunited with his old MGM buddy Gene Kelly — did the myth get even bigger.

It got bigger because by the mid-1970s, the public realized that Sinatra was the central figure in the creation of what came to be known as the Great American Songbook, a body of work — many of them show tunes — written from the mid-1920s through the mid-1960s by a small group of composers: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin, Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.

Sinatra — along with Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and a small group of other singers — made those songs into "America's Classical Music" as Jonathan Schwartz aptly named it.

And the public knew it, knew that he and a small group of his contemporaries had created something important. By the time he came out of retirement and sang at the White House in April 1973 much of the classic repertory was on the set list: "You Make Me Feel So Young," "One for My Baby," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Ol' Man River."

But Sinatra did not revive these songs: he had never abandoned singing them. He had been singing them, in some cases, since the 1940s. But he had the good sense — and the good advice — to surround himself with the best arrangers and writers, men like Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins and others who wrote new charts for the old standards.

And aside from a few misguided efforts to sound "hip" (did anyone really need to hear Frank Sinatra sing "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" or "(They Long to Be) Close to You"?) he had the good sense to stay with those songs.

Sinatra embarked on a massive worldwide tour in 1974. It may not have been the Grateful Dead, or Dylan's Never Ending Tour, but from then on Sinatra played mostly huge halls to adoring audiences who came to hear the songs he had help make famous.

And let's get one thing straight about his voice: it did get coarser as the 1970s wore on, but nobody cared. I didn't In April 1979 I took my mother to see him open at Resorts International in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which had opened the year before as the first legal casino outside of Nevada.

It was a nostalgic homecoming of sorts for him. The legendary 500 Club down the street, where he had played since the 1940s, where Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis became breakout stars, was long gone, destroyed in a fire six years before.

He came out late, with a glass of whiskey. His love for Jack Daniels was already legendary.

He opened with — what else? "New York, New York." "I'm back, and I'm gonna keep coming back!" he bellowed.

And we all stood and cheered, even my mother, who was a teenager when he became famous in the early 1940s.

And when he ended, 15 or so songs later, with the obligatory "My Way" (a song he said he detested — "I'm gonna sing this song, because if I don't I get hate mail!" I heard him say more than once over the years), we were still cheering. The lateness, the booze, the coarseness in his voice, it didn't matter.

You had to be there to feel the electricity that he generated.

And it never faded, that electricity. Even in 1990, when I saw him at the Meadowlands, a couple miles from his Hoboken home, and again at Radio City Music Hall in 1994, where he had been reduced to reading from a teleprompter because he couldn't remember the lyrics.

I still have that 45 of Sinatra singing "That's Life." For some reason, I've kept it in my drawer for all these years, almost 50 now.

Hell, I know why I kept it. Because it connects me to him. And to the past, the tumultuous and eventful and impossibly fun 1960s.

And because the song talks about the future, and whatever cool and hip thing can happen, just around the corner. Sinatra made you believe in it, made you want to grab life and squeeze it for all it was worth.

"That's life, I tell you I can't deny it

I thought of quitting baby, but my heart just ain't gonna buy it

And if there's nothing shaking come this here July

I'm gonna roll myself up

In a big ball

And die!"

Happy 100, Frank. We're still listening.

  • Bob Pisani

    A CNBC reporter since 1990, Bob Pisani covers Wall Street from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Wall Street