Skip to main content

A Musical Biography of Frank Sinatra.

Will Friedwald has written a new encyclopedic guide to the music legacy of Frank Sinatra: "Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer's Art" (Da Capo Press). The work chronicles Sinatra's five-decade career, drawing on interviews with his many collaborators, and interviews with Sinatra himself, and includes a discography of his well know, as well as little known recordings. Friedwald is also the author of "Jazz Singing."


Other segments from the episode on September 24, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 24, 1997: Interview with Will Friedwald; Review of Elizabeth Ehrlich's book "Miriam's Kitchen: A Memoir."


Date: SEPTEMBER 24, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092401np.217
Head: The Song Is You
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Frank Sinatra is a rare figure in pop culture -- a singer who is revered by young and old and by jazz and rock musicians. It would be easy for a biography of him to let his celebrity, his love affairs, and his rat pack adventures overshadow his voice, but that's exactly what Will Friedwald avoids in his book, "Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art."

The book is a musical biography focusing on Sinatra's voice and his records. Although Friedwald wasn't able to interview Sinatra, he did speak to arrangers and musicians who worked closely with him. Friedwald's Sinatra book is now out in paperback. Friedwald is also the author of the book "Jazz Singing."

Sinatra started his recording career with the Harry James Orchestra in 1939. Let's begin with their most celebrated recording, "All Or Nothing At All."


FRANK SINATRA, SINGER, SINGING: All or nothing at all
Half a love never appealed to me
If your heart never could yield to me
Then I'd rather have nothing at all

All or nothing at all...

GROSS: Will Friedwald, welcome to FRESH AIR.

And let me start by asking you why this recording is a defining moment musically for Frank Sinatra.

WILL FRIEDWALD, AUTHOR, "SINATRA! THE SONG IS YOU: A SINGER'S ART": Well, to me it's interesting because one of the things you constantly hear about Sinatra, even from Sinatra himself, is that he learned a lot of his technique, particularly in terms of breath control, he learned a lot of that stuff from Tommy Dorsey.

And it's interesting to see him here, in August 1939, which is like four whole months before he even joined Tommy Dorsey, here he is doing a lot of that stuff way, way early -- way, way before he even met Dorsey.

And it just goes to show this was something that Dorsey, of course, encouraged and nurtured, but that he didn't need Dorsey to introduce him to it. I mean, he was already doing that stuff way, way back in the early part of his career.

GROSS: Which is -- what's the stuff you're talking about -- the kind of breath control that he has.

FRIEDWALD: Well, that long -- basically holding notes. I mean, that sort of long lagato (ph) style that you can hear throughout All Or Nothing At All. And his is, in a sense, the original element -- the original Sinatra breakthrough.

This is what made him different from Crosby. This is what makes him different from any other pop singer or jazz singer of the 1930s -- the way he holds those notes for dramatic emphasis, for musical emphasis -- to contain the thought of a phrase -- all, you know, within a certain musical boundary which is a way that no other singer was doing at that time.

And then to hear him doing it before Dorsey, who he always said was the one that taught it to him, it's really quite remarkable.

GROSS: Now, the amazing thing is that this wonderful recording didn't sell in 1940 when it was first released. But then it was re-released, what, three or four years later and it sold a million. What was the difference there?

FRIEDWALD: The Harry James Orchestra was sort of a B-band in 1939. They were brand new. They had not caught on yet. They did not have any big hits, and Harry James had not done all the movies that he would later do. And they were just kind of a struggling operation during the time that Sinatra was in the band.

And in fact, when Sinatra broke through, you know, at the end of 1942, the beginning of 1943, people of course remembered that he had been with Dorsey, but they completely forgot about the Sinatra-Harry James relationship. You know, most of the bobby soxers and the Sinatra fans at that time had never heard, you know, had no idea that he had been with James.

And when they reissued that record, it was kind of an odd circumstance in that it -- they reissued it in the middle of the 1942 to '44 musicians strike. And so if you really wanted to hear what Sinatra was doing at the Paramount -- was going -- you know, driving all the girls crazy at the Paramount -- there really was no evidence on records.

The only records that he did make were with these kind of a capella choirs, and they did not give a real impression of what Sinatra was doing on radio and what he was doing down at the Paramount and in the movie theaters.

So, the best representation of what Sinatra sounded like was this four-year-old record.

GROSS: Before Sinatra became a solo singer -- before he was out on his own, he was with Harry James and then with Tommy Dorsey. Why did he leave the bands to go out on his own?

FRIEDWALD: It's interesting that -- I was talking to a press agent named Gary Stewart (ph), who knew Sinatra from the very early period, and he remembered a conversation he had with Sinatra like circa late '42, which is after Dorsey and before the sort of bobby soxer breakthrough that he had at the end of that year.

And he said that Sinatra was talking to him about his future plans, and that he knew exactly everything he wanted to do, including the whole multi-media career thing, which was to do -- which was to have a radio show, which was to make recordings, and even to go into pictures.

And he said that Sinatra had the aspiration to win an Academy Award as early as 1942, which is before he had even starred in a picture. And Mitch Miller said the same thing to me, in that Sinatra had this whole kind of career plan all mapped out.

He really knew where he wanted to be, where he wanted to go, and he knew that singing with the big bands, as lucrative as it was and as easy on him as it was -- I mean, it certainly was a very responsibility-free life -- and when he first left, he had a big -- a payroll of his own to meet and he had a whole bunch of responsibilities that he never had, you know, just a few months earlier.

But he sought them all just because he knew that was the next step. And he also knew that -- and again, this is something he said in interviews -- he knew that if he were ever going to make it as a solo singer, he had to do it the sooner the better, because there were some formidably great singers in the big bands.

He was really worried about Dick Haymes. He was worried about Bob Eberley (ph). And he was worried about Perry Como. And he figured that the sooner he could get out on his own, the better it would be for him because, you know, there might not be a "position" -- that was the term he used -- there might not be a position for him if he didn't get out as soon as he could.

And it's interesting that Sinatra really does become the first singer established by the big bands to leave the big bands and start something on his own. And he really launches that whole avalanche that kind of defines post-war pop, which is the phenomenon of the solo singer who leaves the big bands and has hits on his own. And Sinatra is really the role model for that whole generation.

GROSS: Why was that hard to do? Why was it so unusual to do?

FRIEDWALD: Well the big bands were just so entrenched. I mean basically that was pop music. Pop music was, you know, 16 men and a guy waving a stick. I mean, that's what people danced to. And it was more of a dancing culture at that point than a listening culture.

And the big band leaders were heroes. They were like -- they were as well known to, you know, not even people who participated in the culture, but just, you know, ordinary people as, say, you know, baseball stars or sports stars or movie stars, and people like that.

I mean, people like Benny Goodman and Harry James really were matinee idols. I mean, we can look back and say yes, they were also virtuoso musicians and, you know, they were also great jazzmen, but at the time they were just thought of as pop stars.

GROSS: My guest is Will Friedwald, and his book Sinatra! The Song Is You is out in paperback now.

Well, as you said, you know, when Sinatra was starting to record on his own, the musicians strike was in effect and there was a recording ban. You couldn't record with musicians because they were on strike. So some singers were making a capella records, and there were these, like, choruses of voices instead of a band behind them.

And you write that Sinatra held out as long as he could. He kind of held out until the last minute, but he finally capitulated toward the end of the strike and started recording these a capella records. What do you think of these records?

FRIEDWALD: Well, they have a kind of charm all their own. I don't think they're representative of what Sinatra was doing because we know from air checks that, you know, the stuff with orchestras was much more lush and languorous and much more representative.

It's interesting that Sinatra always said that he held out, and I don't doubt that he's sincere, but he made more of those a capella records than anybody. He made like nine or 10 titles, and I don't think anyone else made more than three or four. Bing Crosby only made four as far as I know of.

And it's interesting that Sinatra didn't do it until he heard that Dick Haymes was going to do it; until Dick Haymes scheduled a session with an a capella choir, and then Sinatra and Manny Sacks (ph), who ran Columbia Records, knew that they had to jump on it because they didn't want Dick Haymes to come in ahead of Sinatra.

So Sinatra from that point, he did a bunch more. But it really was not a viable means for him to work in. In fact, as early as 19 -- like September or October, '42, right after he left Dorsey, some of the press reported that he was thinking of making those kinds of records, but he didn't actually do it until June of '43.

GROSS: Well let's hear one of those a capella records that he made, and this is "Close To You" which is also, I think, the first recording that he did for Columbia as a solo singer.

FRIEDWALD: Right. This is the first -- this essentially is the first Sinatra record as a star.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Why don't we hear it?


I will always stay
Close to you
Though you're far away

GROSS: That's Frank Sinatra, recorded in 1943. My guest is Will Friedwald, author of the book Sinatra! The Song Is You, which is out in paperback now.

In his Columbia years, he primarily sang ballads, where later on in his Capitol years, he did wonderful ballads, but he was also a real swingin' singer. Why do you think he stuck so close to ballads in that first part of his career?

FRIEDWALD: Well, one of the points that Billy May (ph) makes is that this was what made him different. In other words, it was a -- you have to think of it, everything coming out of a big band mentality, with the whole swing background. And this is what people were used to hearing, was that solid four-four dance foxtrot rhythm. I mean, every record ever made was a foxtrot in four-four in those days. And people really came out of this dance culture.

And the way Sinatra got people to listen to him, and the way Sinatra got people to say "hey, this guy's different," was by slowing it down. I mean, this was really somebody to listen to, and not to dance to. And he had this big, lush semi-classical sound, although I don't find anything classical in the singing. Others have. But that whole lush relaxed thing was incredibly different.

I mean, even somebody like Bing Crosby, as miraculous as he was, would never have gone to that extreme, you know, with those really slow tempos. It forced you to listen to him.

And in fact, there are even accounts -- statements from the day -- from psychologists and people like that that compare Sinatra to a mesmerist or some kind of a -- he had this kind of hypnotic power, they would say, in his singing -- just by slowing down the tempo. And that's what gave him that romantic edge.

And that's certainly what, you know, young women of that day responded to -- was that slow, romantic sound. Nobody had ever come on like that before. Nobody had ever heard any kind of a pop singer that was that intensely romantic. And that's why all the girls went ape over him at that point.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to choose what you think is one of the best romantic ballads from his Columbia years.

FRIEDWALD: I love "I Fall In Love Too Easily."

GROSS: I love that, too. OK. Shall we play that?


GROSS: OK. Let's hear it.


SINATRA SINGING: I fall in love too easily
I fall in love too fast
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last

My heart should be well-schooled
'Cause I've been fooled in the past
And still I fall in love too easily
I fall in love too fast

GROSS: That's Sinatra, singing I Fall In Love Too Easily, and my guest Will Friedwald is the author of the book Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art.

What do you particularly love about that recording, Will?

FRIEDWALD: Well, it's interesting. I mean, we talk about the use of classical elements, and that -- Dave Mann (ph), who later wrote "In The Wee, Small Hours of the Morning," plays the piano solo on that. And both that solo and the orchestration are -- you know, you could say that there's some kind of classical elements to them; some kind of European romantic elements.

But at the same time, it's very much in a pop vein. It never seems heavy-handed. It's very, very light and sweet, and there's an innocence to it. And to me, that's sort of the apex of early Sinatra in that, you know, his voice -- there's a strength to it, but at the same time there's such a vulnerability and a tenderness.

And he sounds so open and so sincere that it really -- it also matches the intent behind the lyric because he talks about, you know, falling in love so easily. He's sort of being blown about on these winds of emotion. And the voice and the orchestration and everything about it comes together to amplify that point.

I mean, it's a really -- I mean, the great thing about Sinatra records from every generation is that they all have that kind of synergy, where everything sort of works together and it's not just, you know, it's not just -- the song is never randomly orchestrated or sung. Everything is put together with that kind of meaning. And this is a really strong early example of that.

GROSS: My guest is Will Friedwald, author of Sinatra! The Song Is You. We'll talk more and hear more music after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Will Friedwald, author of Sinatra! The Song Is You.

The late '40s and early '50s were a difficult part of Sinatra's career. He was in a slump. He eventually lost his -- he was dropped by his agency, his movie studio, his network, and his record company in 1952 or by 1952. As you write in your Sinatra book, this difficult period is usually discussed in terms of his personal life -- his tortured romance with Ava Gardner; his divorce from his children's mother -- from his first wife, Nancy.

You say there were musical problems that were really getting him down here, too. What were some of those musical problems eating at him?

FRIEDWALD: I think the key issue in that point is kind of a combination of musical problems, as you say, and image problems. I mean, the -- as, you know, with the divorces and with that very publicized affair with Ava Gardner, it became clear that Sinatra was not an innocent.

And basically, in his music and in his film roles up until that point, he was always playing naive young things; these very kind of sweet boys from Brooklyn, usually. I don't know why. I don't know why from Brooklyn, but from Brooklyn.

But after he, you know, was pursuing this -- sort of this great, hot-looking devilish woman Ava Gardner, then people couldn't think of him as that anymore, particularly when, you know, he had a divorce and had this big affair while he was still married.

In his music -- in the films and in the records -- he was still coming off that way. He had that sweet sound -- that innocent sound; that tender and vulnerable sound. And people weren't buying it anymore.

And it was particularly against the grain of what was going on by the late '40s, where novelty records with a heavy beat were really kind of taking over. I mean, the ground -- that whole era is sort of the breeding ground for rock and roll because of that same sensibility got, you know, transmuted into that a decade later.

And Sinatra was really going against the grain of it. He was still mainly doing Gershwin and Cole Porter and people like that, and it was very antithetical to what was going on. And what Sinatra does -- the way he gets out of it -- is by adapting more of his own personality, or at least refining his image and making his music sort of come into that, showing more of a tough-guy thing; you know, showing this kind of willingness to participate in these kind of sinful situations, as it were, that you don't find in the early stuff.

And then people start buying him again, once the music becomes in tune with that -- once he starts doing the harder, swinging stuff and has that kind of attitude, that kind of edge to it that he develops in the '50s -- then people believe him again. And that's really, you know, the biggest part of the comeback, I think, is...

And of course, you know, "From Here to Eternity," which is a much deeper kind of a movie role -- it's more of an acting part; not just, you know, a singer who happens to be playing a character -- but it's a very deep part and it shows what he could do as an actor. And of course, the musical work from the mid-'50s on were, you know, also is very much the work of an actor by that point.

GROSS: Well, you know that period where there are a lot of novelty hits affected Sinatra directly, even though he didn't want to sing those songs. As you point out in your book, he was featured on the hit parades so whatever was number one, he had to sing, and he had to sing even the "Woody Woodpecker Song" which had become a hit.

FRIEDWALD: He sang some really dreadful things there. I mean, he sang "Nature Boy." He sang "Civilization." I mean, there are air checks of all that stuff and you knew, you know, you can hear Sinatra cringe. And you can hear, even on those shows where he does it, you can hear Sinatra deprecate those songs in his introductions and things like that. But you know, those were the times, and being on the hit parade, he was obliged to do that.

GROSS: And then, he had Mitch Miller as his producer for some of his latter years at Columbia Records, and Mitch Miller was kind of famous for cranking out novelty songs that were also big hits that singers had to, like, sing forever after that -- like "Mule Train" for Frankie Laine or "Come On To My House" for Rosemary Clooney. What were those songs for Sinatra?

FRIEDWALD: Well, you know, to give Mitch some credit, a lot of the Sinatra-Mitch Miller things are quite beautiful. There's some wonderful ballads, like "Nevertheless" and "I'm A Fool To Want You," which is, you know, one of the great Sinatra records of any era is...

GROSS: That's a great record.

FRIEDWALD: ... from that period.

GROSS: Yeah.

FRIEDWALD: But the way Mitch defends himself, and he has been attacked and he does need to defend himself, is that, you know, they tried doing great records of great songs and people weren't buying them. And Sinatra was in a very low and depressed state, and was willing to try anything at that point to try and have a hit.

And Mitch came to him with these horrendous songs, and he really did not have the fortitude, emotional or career-wise or financial, to withstand Mitch's advances. And that's why he did "Mama Will Bark" (ph), which is the most, you know, horrendous record of his whole career. It's just abysmal.

And there they are. And he spent the last -- the next 40 years, 50 years after that putting those records down and putting Mitch Miller down, you know, as violently as he could.

GROSS: Well let's take a break from all the good music that we've heard -- listen to Mama Will Bark. Was there a dog in the studio with him for this?

FRIEDWALD: We happen to know that the guy that does the dog imitation is a gentleman by the name of Donald Bain (ph). And I have no idea who he is, but somehow that name, Donald Bain, has been preserved. So that's the fellow who does the dog barks on this record.

GROSS: All right. Let's hear it.


SINATRA SINGING: My feet were killing me
My dogs were barkin'
I must have fallen asleep
Where I was parkin'
And then I dreamed two dogs were talkin'
Take my word
It was the dog-gonest thing you ever heard

She said "Mama will bark"
You look so lovely in the moonlight
"Yes, but papa will bark"
Your eyes are shinin' like the starlight
"Yes, but mama will bark"
Your lips are so inviting darling give me one more kiss


"Mama will spank"
The night is...

GROSS: That's Frank Sinatra in probably one of the worst records he ever made, would you say?

FRIEDWALD: Certainly, one of them. Sure. I mean, there's some awful things in the '70s too. I mean, there's awful things here and there.

GROSS: Well, I guess, yeah.

FRIEDWALD: But this is kind of a period of concentrated awfulness.


GROSS: Will Friedwald is the author of Sinatra! The Song Is You, which has been published in paperback by Da Capo Press. He'll be back in the second half of the show and we'll hear more music, too.

Let's end this half with one of Sinatra's great ballads from the Columbia era, "I'm A Fool To Want You."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


SINATRA SINGING: I'm a fool to want you
I'm a fool to want you
To want a love that can't be true
A love that's there for others, too

I'm a fool to hold you
Such a fool to hold you...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Will Friedwald, author of the book Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art. When we left off, we were talking about his years with Columbia Records, when he was known primarily as a great ballad singer.

Why did Sinatra end up leaving Columbia and then moving to Capitol Records, where he started a whole different part of his career and a whole different sound -- that swinging sound?

FRIEDWALD: Well, Columbia essentially -- Sinatra and Columbia agreed not to renew the relationship when the contract ended at the end of '52. And but within six months, he had switched to Capitol and like Allen Livingston (ph) who was in charge of Capitol at that time told me, he still believed that Sinatra could sing, but nobody else did. And it was a real uphill battle to get the company to -- to get Capitol to show any enthusiasm in the early Sinatra releases.

But the whole thing was that Sinatra was able to kind of turn that high-rolling, high-living, skirt-chasing rat -- you know, proto-rat pack image to his advantage at that point, 'cause that was suddenly the "in" thing to be in the 1950s.

Like, I mean in the '40s, during World War II, Sinatra comes on as just the opposite of sort of, you know, when our idea of masculinity is somebody like John Wayne, Sinatra comes on as very tender and very vulnerable.

When our idea of the thing to be is a family man -- I mean, the '50s is an era of nothing if not familial connections -- Sinatra goes against that grain again by, you know, promoting himself as a swinging bachelor with a ring-a-ding-ding lifestyle.

And the Capitol Records, you know, particularly the up-tempo ones, promote that. And you know, that's the image that worked for him at that point. And it happened to have a lot in common with Sinatra's real life personality, and he used that to his advantage.

And the Capitol things, particularly the swing things -- and I maintain that swing and jazz were always the basis of what he did. I mean, he really comes on very -- and he said it himself -- that he really listened a lot of Louis Armstrong and people -- and Ella Fitzgerald and even Sarah Vaughan, although Sarah Vaughan was, of course, much younger than he was.

But he always gives credit to people like that as his main inspirations. And you can really hear that by the '50s, he was recording jazz albums very regularly; recording things with a beat, you know, all the time. And by that point, he really established himself as a jazz-oriented popular vocalist.

And it's a -- those are very strong records, you know, particularly with Nelson Riddle. And you know, the two of them really explored that whole swinging side of Sinatra and made some of the great jazz vocal records that have ever been done.

GROSS: But you say Sinatra had to be sold the idea of working with Nelson Riddle. He was very reluctant to team up with him.

FRIEDWALD: Well, we find at the very start of the Capitol period, Sinatra's still very unsure, very -- doesn't have a lot of confidence. The funny story that Bob Wells (ph) told me -- Bob Wells was the guy that wrote, among other things, he wrote "The Christmas Song" with Mel Torme and he also wrote "The Patty Duke Theme" later on.

GROSS: "They're Identical Cousins."

FRIEDWALD: Exactly. He invented the concept of identical cousins. But he also wrote the lyrics to "From Here to Eternity," which is, you know, one of the early Capitol singles, and part -- a big part, of course, of the Sinatra comeback.

And he said that at the session from From Here to Eternity, Sinatra was very sheepish, very reluctant, very nervous. And he kept saying: "was that all right, Bob? Did I do that OK? Did you like it?" And he would, you know, he really needed acceptance and he really needed people to pat him on the back and say: "yeah, Frank, that was great."

And then Bob said that about six months later, after he won the Academy Award and after he was back on top again, he saw Sinatra at some kind of event and Sinatra said something like: "how ya doin', kid?" You know? It was like Sinatra was -- you know, he was on top and he was, you know, not talking down to him exactly, but you know you could tell that he was dealing from a position of strength at that point.

And it was just like their relationship had totally gone 180 degree angle, you know. Sinatra was now, you know -- he was totally just rejuvenated and re-animated and you know -- he had experienced the comeback by that point and he was the new Sinatra.

GROSS: Nelson Riddle has said, you report in the book, that he always let Sinatra choose the tempo. And I think Sinatra really had a gift for re-defining what the tempo for a song should be; and you know, reworking, re-thinking a song -- giving it a new -- a new sound.

FRIEDWALD: Well, the -- one of the amazing things about Sinatra overall, I mean, going back to the Columbia period and in the work with Riddle in particularly, is that Sinatra always had total control of what was going on musically.

I mean, this is an era when we think of, you know, somebody like Dinah Shore and Nat Cole or even Bing Crosby. Basically, you know, they would just show up at the session and be told what they were going to sing and how they were going to sing it.

With Sinatra, it's just the opposite. He would plan all his sessions himself, and he would go to -- go to the dates and tell his producers what he was going to sing and how he was going to sing it. I mean, he was the one dictating all that.

And this comes to the fore really acutely in the work with Riddle because Riddle was a very dynamically talented young arranger when Sinatra first met him, but he was someone who did not have an individual style of his own at that point. And working with Sinatra really helped Riddle develop what became the Nelson Riddle sound, the Nelson Riddle style, which is, you know, automatically identifiable whenever you listen to one of his orchestrations.

And in a sense, I think that Sinatra saw Riddle at that point as a black -- a blank page on which he could write. And he and Riddle very carefully planned those records. Sinatra would not only dictate tempo, but as Riddle has said, he would say that, you know: "when the song starts for the first eight bars, I want strings behind me. Then for the next eight bars, I want to have a trumpet obligato, and then I'd like to have, you know, whatever, you know, some kind of flutes or something like that or trombones."

And he would really sketch out those records, from say, you know, eight bars to eight bars or four bars or whatever -- you know, down to the tempo, down to the texture, you know, all that kind of stuff. And of course, then he had also said that after, say if he planned 14 songs in a 16-songs album, he might -- might get tired and let Riddle do what he wanted for the other two or something like that.

But basically, those records are really keen and very exacting collaborations between Sinatra and Riddle, and Sinatra's input goes way beyond, you know, the singing itself. I mean, he had a lot to do with the sound and the feel of those orchestrations.

GROSS: Let's play one of the great collaborations between Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra, and I know this is a favorite of yours: "I've Got You Under My Skin."

FRIEDWALD: That's a favorite of everybody's.

GROSS: Yeah. This is a Cole Porter song, and I don't think anybody quite swung it like this before Sinatra.

FRIEDWALD: I certainly don't know of anyone, although now it's impossible to think of it any other way than as a swinging number like this.

GROSS: Tell me why else you love this recording?

FRIEDWALD: Well, to me this is the perfect example of the way Sinatra uses music and drama and puts them together, but in a way that's not at all heavy or didactic or anything like that. I love the parts of it where Sinatra is, you know, really singing a love song; where he's, you know, his whole purpose is to express the fact that he's in love with somebody and you know, perhaps trying to woo somebody, and he's very sincere at certain points.

And at other times, he's just totally playing with it. I mean, at other times, he acts like the lyrics don't matter to him at all; that they're just baubles for him to play with, and he just throws them away; he just tosses with them. He bounces them like a toy balloon.

And he does all these things, and his whole attitude changes and adapts from, you know, line to line even; from four bars to four bars. He just really -- every line is like -- I mean, of course, for Sinatra every song he gets precisely the right character; precisely the right attitude. And I think this is really what, you know, pop singers have learned from him since then.

But it's so wild to see him doing that just from, you know, word to word almost in that song, the way he changes. You know, sometimes he's totally sincere and sometimes he's totally irreverent and flippant. It's just a miraculous piece of pop singing.

GROSS: I've Got You Under My Skin -- and this is what, the mid-1950s?

FRIEDWALD: This is 1956 I believe.

GROSS: OK. Here we go.


SINATRA SINGING: I've got you under my skin
I've got you deep in the heart of me
So deep in my heart that you're really a part of me
I've got you under my skin

I tried so not to give in
I said to myself this affair never will go so well
But why should I try to resist when baby I know so well
I've got you under my skin

I'd sacrifice...

GROSS: We're going to take a short break here and then come back with Will Friedwald, author of Sinatra! The Song Is You.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Will Friedwald, author of Sinatra! The Song Is You.

After Sinatra left Capitol Records, he formed his own record company, Reprise, with Moe Austin (ph). Why did Sinatra want his own company?

FRIEDWALD: I think that from the beginning, Sinatra always wanted to totally control and own everything he did. I mean, even as far back as the Dorsey period, he's virtually the only band singer that has any kind of influence in picking his own songs. And throughout the Columbia period, Sinatra is really in charge of everything on every level, from the songs sung to the way they're arranged.

And even the technology -- I mean, there are certain sessions -- there are certain session recordings and studio tapes where we can hear Sinatra as far back as like 1949, actually directing things like the placement of the microphones and telling the trumpets where they should stand and the trombones what direction the should face.

Sinatra always had control, and eventually he would get to the point where he wanted ownership. And this is against the background of a period when, particularly in the 1950s, when the big institutions -- the big studios, the MGMs and the Paramounts -- were, you know, beginning to relinquish control to independent producers.

And also in the early years of television, we have this whole breed of performer/moguls -- people like Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas -- and Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, of course, were the number ones. But there was, you know, this tradition was beginning to develop of performers that controlled their own material.

And Sinatra was really the first major star to try that as far as the record industry went. And he went to Capitol, where -- to which he had just signed a new contract, which made it difficult -- and said, you know, "I want this arrangement where, you know, I produce the stuff and you distribute it for me." And they wouldn't go for it.

So from that point on, he became resolved to start his own company. And at one point, he tried to buy Verve records, and that's where he met Moe Austin, who was the controller for Verve. And although he didn't wind up with the company, he and Austin, of course, got together and formed Reprise and, you know, were together for many years with that company. And that was really the first major example of a recording star who controlled his own masters and owned his own company.

Interestingly, it sort of happened in jazz to a much smaller degree. Charlie Mingus owned "Debut" Records and Al Hall (ph) owned "Wax" Records, and Louie Prima owned "Robin Hood" Records for a while. But none of them were really, you know, major corporations that floated stock options and things like that. I mean, this was a very -- a very unique thing for a recording artist to do.

Essentially, the notion of Reprise as a completely autonomous entity only lasted about five years, when he was bought out by Warner Brothers for, you know, an outrageous sum. I mean, it was this deal that included his motion picture contract and their taking over the company and, you know, it was for millions and millions of dollars. It was, you know, an unheard of-ly astronomical amount at the time.

GROSS: Did Reprise give him the kind of artistic freedom and independence that he wanted?

FRIEDWALD: Well, Reprise was -- whatever he wanted to do, he could do it. And you see it in things like his tribute album to Tommy Dorsey, which was obviously a very personal project. And I'm sure Capitol would have done it, but to me it's typical of the kind of thing that he really wanted to do on his own.

And then the Count Basie collaborations, where you know, previously you couldn't really do that because, you know, Basie was under contract to another label and that was a lot -- that was a difficult thing to manage. But you know, being in charge of the company and, you know, having that kind of -- having that kind of freedom, Sinatra made sure to do it. And that was a major Reprise project.

The same with the collaboration with Jobim and with Ellington. And the whole Reprise thing, where he's working with lots of different people at once -- that really became the standard for his work at the company. And I think that's because he didn't want what had happened to him earlier, which is when people got tired of the '40s sound, he had a very big sort of gap before he was able to develop a '50s sound.

So even before people got tired of the Sinatra-Nelson Riddle '50s sound, that's when he starts experimenting with lots of different arrangers and lots of different textures and lots of different sounds, because he doesn't want people to get tired of any one thing that he's doing.

And so in a year like 1962 and 1963, sometimes he's working on like 10 albums at once, with 10 different arrangers, and they all sound completely different.

GROSS: Why don't you choose one of your favorites from the Reprise era?

FRIEDWALD: Well, you couldn't go wrong with, like, "Pennies From Heaven" from the Basie album. That's really a classic piece of Sinatra swing.

GROSS: Let's hear it.


SINATRA SINGING: I've got you under my skin
I've got you deep in the heart of me
So deep in my heart that you're really a part of me
I've got you under my skin

I tried so not to give in
I said to myself, this affair never will go so well
But why should I try to resist when baby I know so well
I've got you under my skin


GROSS: My guest is Will Friedwald, author of Sinatra! The Song Is You.

You're part of the rock and roll generation. You know, you grew up when rock and roll was the popular music of your generation. Although I should mention here that your father, the late Herb Friedwald, was a jazz producer so I'm sure you were also exposed to jazz a lot, even when you were very, very young.

But how did you discover Sinatra as somebody who actually spoke to you? As opposed to just somebody who was on the background on the radio or on jukeboxes?

FRIEDWALD: It's interesting that anybody who's into this -- into this kind of music and to jazz or vintage pop or even show music or even classical music -- oh, I guess classical's the exception because we're supposed to be exposed to that through cultural institutions; through school or through museums or you know, these programs that are, you know, developed to expose people to that.

But with jazz and its brethren, everybody I know that's seriously into it always finds it by accident. They always find a Sinatra record somewhere and play it and it's never, like, you know "I went to a course in appreciating great pop songs and they played me the stuff and I fell in love with it."

I just, you know, knew relatives that had Sinatra records and I just gradually gravitated to him, and got to the point where I had to have them all and became a real Sinatra-holic, as it were.


What I remain to this day.

GROSS: You finally met a lot of Sinatra-holics in writing this book. There are people who are just obsessed with Sinatra and who have almost like shrines to him, not to mention every out-take of every record that he ever did.

FRIEDWALD: It's amazing the cult of personality that Sinatra spawns. And something about him -- something about the personality, the quantity -- the quality of the singing; the nature of the work; the longevity of the career; the multi-faceted nature of the career in terms of his branching out into all the different media -- the television work, the film work.

Of course, you know, the other side of Sinatra -- the schmeery (ph) side of Sinatra that Kitty Kelley writes about; the kind of sensationalistic aspects of him; the marriages and the Mafia and all that stuff. I mean, all these things sort of contribute to the fact that he is that unique and that he inspires that kind of devotion, which is really -- at times it borders on fanaticism. And it's really unique amongst -- on that sort of level.

I mean, I really have a hard time thinking of even rock and roll singers that inspire that kind of long-term devotion, particularly over the long-haul. I mean, there are people that collect Sinatra records fervently all their life, and just spend their whole lives in looking for, you know the next rare Sinatra item.

GROSS: Your book on Sinatra is really like a listening companion. It's about Sinatra the singer. It's about his voice, his recording sessions, his approach to music. It's not about his love affairs. It's not about his early childhood. You really keep all of that in the background or out of the book completely.

I'm wondering why you wanted to do that? Why you wanted to focus so specifically on the voice and the approach to music?

FRIEDWALD: Well, it just occurred to me that since he is the number -- I mean, I don't even think it's worth debating. He's certainly the number one performer in the whole genre of American pop, particularly in American popular song. He's certainly the single most important figure, be it songwriter or arranger or singer or whatever.

I mean, he's really the person that defines this whole idiom. And it's, you know, an amazingly vast and oceanic idiom. Capacious. And you know, the mere fact that Sinatra is the single most important figure in this field, and that no one had ever done a book which studies that at any kind of length at all. You know, I think that there's one reference to Nelson Riddle in all of Kitty Kelley. And if you look in the index under "Riddle, Nelson," it says "page 275" and there he is.

But I mean, the fact that no one had ever done that always struck me as a major loss.

GROSS: That probably means they never slept together.


FRIEDWALD: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: Will Friedwald, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much for talking with us about Sinatra and your book, Sinatra! The Song Is You.

FRIEDWALD: Thank you.

GROSS: Will Friedwald is the author of Sinatra! The Song Is You, which is now out in paperback. Here's one of Sinatra's great Capitol recordings -- a song written for him by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen for the movie "The Joker Is Wild."


SINATRA SINGING: When somebody loves you
It's no good unless he loves you
All the way
Happy to be near you
When you need someone to cheer you
All the way

Taller than the tallest tree is
That's how it's got to feel
Deeper than the deep blue sea is
That's how deep it goes if it's real

When somebody needs you
It's no good unless he needs you
All the way
Through the good or lean years
And for all the in-between years
Come what may

Who knows where the road will lead us
Only a fool would say
But if you let me love you
It's for sure I'm gonna love you
All the way

GROSS: Coming up, a new memoir about identity and food.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Will Friedwald
High: Will Friedwald has written a new encyclopedic guide to the music legacy of Frank Sinatra: "Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer's Art." The work chronicles Sinatra's five-decade career, drawing on interviews with his many collaborators, and interviews with Sinatra himself, and includes a discography of his well known, as well as little-known recordings. Friedwald is also the author of "Jazz Singing."
Spec: Music Industry; Frank Sinatra; Media
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Song Is You
Date: SEPTEMBER 24, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092402NP.217
Head: Miriam's Kitchen
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah (ph) begins at sundown October 1st this year, and as usual, will be celebrated with food. A new memoir by Elizabeth Ehrlich called "Miriam's Kitchen" reflects on the relationship between food and Jewish identity.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan says: "Miriam's Kitchen is rich in memories, recipes and unresolved contradictions."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Oy vey, is this book seductive. There I was in the middle of another frantic work week, eating cold pizza for dinner when the aromas bubbling up from Elizabeth Ehrlich's memoir, Miriam's Kitchen, made me slow down and breathe deep.

The beady tang of borscht, the eggy ecstasy of noodle kugel (ph), the whiff of chicken matzoh ball soup that smells like life -- oh, and potato latkas (ph), gefilte fish, warm honeycakes, simmis (ph), and kneady oniony brisket (ph) -- page by page, I inhaled them all and that take-out pizza turned to greasy rubble in my mouth.

You certainly don't have to be Jewish to be swept away by Ehrlich's memory stream of barley soup and schmaltz. She appeals to those same yearnings that have made Martha Stewart a mogul: the desire for the time and the expertise needed to create a snug refuge from the world outside.

Were Martha ever to forsake her Cuisinart for a white enamel basin, she'd fit right in with Ehrlich's perfectionist bubbys, for whom every stuffed cabbage had to be a thing of beauty.

Miriam's Kitchen is that by-now-familiar kind of memoir about a mid-life search for meaning. But the twist here is that Ehrlich tries to find herself and her lost connection to spirituality through food.

When she hit her 40s, Ehrlich, a former reporter and editor at Business Week, began worrying about giving her three children a solid sense of their religious identity. First, though, she had to fortify her own.

Ehrlich grew up the child of left-leaning, secular Jews in Detroit, where she says: "I was a misfit -- an onion roll among cupcakes." Marriage to an observant Jewish man nudged Ehrlich into keeping the Sabbath and getting rid of her Christmas decorations.

Throughout the year, Ehrlich details in her memoir, she's slowly, ambivalently assuming the arduous task of making her kitchen kosher. She's also regularly visiting her mother-in-law, Miriam, at five in the morning, which is when Miriam begins the day's cooking.

Time is running out. There's no one else around to learn Miriam's unwritten recipes, and Ehrlich doesn't want them to vanish as so much else has vanished. Miriam and her husband are Holocaust survivors, and Miriam's egg salad and chicken livers with noodles recreate a lost world.

Her food is also a defiant, if unconscious, declaration of survival. As Ehrlich observes: "serious cooking is an essentially optimistic act. It reaches into the future, vanishes into memory, and creates the desire for another meal."

While helping Miriam to grate potatoes, Ehrlich also reflects on the monumental work her own immigrant grandmothers did in their kitchens. One even went so far as to iron her kitchen for Passover, in order to burn away any offending break crumbs.

Ehrlich's kitchen chores gradually take on historical and religious resonance. As the year ends, this modern feminist even pays a visit to a mikva (ph) -- the ritual bath in which seriously observant Jewish women purify themselves after childbirth and menstruation.

Ehrlich comes across in her food-filled memoir as a smart cookie, aware of the dangers, especially for women, in embracing such a traditionally religious way of life. I love the way she writes about and values women's work. I also respect her desire to keep her religious traditions alive, rather than shelve them in the museum of nostalgia.

But, but, but -- Miriam's Kitchen is a rather cramped space. I wonder how a gay son or a daughter who didn't want children would squeeze in. I suspect Ehrlich seldom hangs up her apron these days to have dinner at the house of a non-Jewish friend.

Inside Miriam's Kitchen, the world is bright, small, and coherent. Outside, the Whitmanesque hordes jostle and yawp. It's an irony not lost on Ehrlich that she's chosen to settle back into the same kind of kitchen that some of her female forebears couldn't wait to skip out of once they made it to America.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Miriam's Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Miriam's Kitchen: A Memoir" by Elizabeth Ehrlich.
Spec: Books; Authors; Family; Miriam's Kitchen; Elizabeth Ehrlich
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Miriam's Kitchen
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


'Searching in Grenoble' showcases the unique style of jazz pianist Mal Waldron

Nobody sounds like Waldron, a fact proved by a new 2-CD recording the artist made during a 1978 solo concert. Searching in Grenoble is a good introduction to the pianist's compelling sound.


Remembering Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize-winning author of the 'Wolf Hall' saga

The British writer, who died Sept. 22, wrote a trilogy of critically acclaimed historical novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII's most trusted advisors. Originally broadcast in '12.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue