Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Conversations with Donald Clarke (I) - Clarke's Biography of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby's Influence on Sinatra

Author Donald Clarke
As I already mentioned in a previous article, Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra has always been one of my favorite biographies ever written on Ol' Blue Eyes, not only because of its very direct, dynamic style, but also because Mr. Clarke attempts to reconcile Sinatra the man and Sinatra the musician. Although I have read other Sinatra biographies and studies (some excellent, some good, and some plainly trashy) I often come back to Mr. Clarke's book (and to Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You as well) and reread passages or whole chapters that invariably offer new perspectives on Sinatra's life and work. Some months ago I contacted Mr. Clarke asking him for an interview for The Vintage Bandstand, and he kindly agreed. But each question that I asked him promptly elicited many more, and so we have been corresponding via e-mail intermittently for the past several months, and I have so much interesting material that I have decided to begin a series of articles culled from our e-mail exchanges. As long as Mr. Clarke finds our correspondence stimulating enough, these Conversations with Donald Clarke will be an ongoing series, and I hope the readers consider his perspectives on Sinatra and jazz in general as enlightening as I do. In this first installment of the series, Mr. Clarke and I discuss his book on Frank Sinatra, as well as the influence that Bing Crosby exerted on The Voice in the formative period when he was still Young Blue Eyes.

Donald Clarke, who has also published a biography of Billie Holiday and the study The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, has edited the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and runs the very recommendable website Donald Clarke's Music Box (where you can find the Encyclopedia in its entirety for free), was born in 1940 and grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a place "where there is no there," as he himself puts it. After working in a car factory for ten years and then attending college, he decided to travel to Great Britain to teach in a primary school. At first it was going to be just ten weeks, but he wound up staying in Britain for twenty-five years! He returned to the United States in 1998 and now lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with his wife of 34 years, "a very successful magazine editor-in-chief" who works for Organic Garden magazine. He has three children, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren and considers himself now "the luckiest man in the world." Music has always been his great passion, which is something that we both share, and so without further ado, let us turn now to the beginning of our first conversation, made out of excerpts of our recent electronic correspondence.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): When I first saw your book on Sinatra, All or Nothing at All, on the shelves of the bookstore Shakespeare & Co., in Paris, France, I was struck by its subtitle, "A Life of Frank Sinatra." This seemed to imply that this was a fresh, personal take on Sinatra's life, about which so much had been written over the years. It was, so to speak, your life of Frank Sinatra. Was that your intention as you sat down to write the book? In other words, with so much in print about Sinatra, what new perspective on his life were you hoping to bring to the fore with your book?

Mr. Clarke: Yes, the title was chosen carefully. Somebody once wrote that "There is no such thing as an autobiography, not even an autobiography," meaning, I take it, that in order to tell you my life story, I would also have to tell you the life stories of all of my ancestors, everybody I have ever known, etc. Similarly, there will be as many biographies of Sinatra as people willing to write them. The last one I looked at had the author pretending to be a fly inside the limousine quoting Frank and Barbara having a squabble, as though he had been there with a notebook. I didn't have a new perspective, but I've read enough lousy biographies so that what I wanted to write was the book that I would want to read if I were looking for a book about Sinatra, covering both the life and the music. I think I have a knack for telling the reader what he or she wants to know without patronizing anybody. So, yes, it is my life of Sinatra, and I wasn't afraid to put myself in it.

Another aspect is that if Sinatra hadn't been a singer, as I wrote in the book, he might have been a New Jersey plumbing contractor, and we never would have heard of him unless he got arrested. In other words, at some level he must have been an ordinary guy. This was after I had written the Billie Holiday book and I realized that what I was really writing about was the problem of being an American in the twentieth century.

Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby
TVB: At some point in the book, you mention that Sinatra became an incredibly popular, if often controversial, public figure, when all he had originally set out to do was to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Bing Crosby. Bing was certainly an innovator in many ways, not only as a vocalist but also as a businessman. In what ways do you think Sinatra was an innovator as well, both in music and in business? Or, in other words, in what ways did he improve upon Crosby's foundation?

Mr. Clarke: I enjoyed Crosby's work, but I was never that big a fan. I heard him in the late 1940s and onward, and was surprised many years later to hear some of his earlier records, when he wasn't so relaxed, or maybe the white pop music style was different in the 1930s. I believe that whites were learning from blacks in the jazz era, but that they didn't really master the idiom until after WWII. There are more of Crosby's recordings I would like to hear -- there's a big compilation of radio broadcasts on Mosaic that he made in the 1950s with a small jazz group. But for me his innovation was not so much interpreting songs as the fact that he was influenced by jazz, and also knew how to use a microphone, so that he became the first modern recording vocalist, with Louis Armstrong. So Crosby was good for Sinatra to learn from, but there was an immediate difference: Crosby wanted to be your boyfriend; Sinatra wanted to be your lover.

Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald
TVB: What was it exactly about Sinatra's sound that attracted you upon first hearing? I have been trying to define what it was for me for years now, and every time I try, for some reason, I can't quite put my finger on it... As a matter of fact, his biggest hits as Young Blue Eyes on Columbia were ballads, weren't they? What do you think about that? To what extent can we say that Sinatra was a jazz singer?

Mr. Clarke: A combination of things. First of all, the sound of his voice was attractive. Then there was the honesty he bragged about. When he was singing, there was no artifice. Also, he sang ballads or uptempo, and it doesn't matter if he was a jazz singer. I think I said in the book that he was not, but I would say now that we can call him a jazz singer, "if the essence of jazz singing is to make the familiar sound fresh, and to make a lyric come alive with personal meaning," which is something I wrote about Billie Holiday. The other day I happened to hear Ella Fitzgerald singing "This Year's Kisses," and it wasn't a patch on Holiday's version. Then I recalled that Ella had said that singing a song was like telling a beautiful story that happened to somebody else. Much as I admire Ella, when you heard Holiday or Sinatra singing a song, you knew they were telling you something about themselves. And that's what a great jazz musician does.

TVB: And to finish with Crosby's influence on Sinatra, there is a passage of your book where you say that at some point Crosby allegedly advised Sinatra not to rely too heavily on just one arranger, a piece of advice that, from your point of view, was a mistake. However, couldn't we say that if Sinatra were to rely on one arranger alone, that would inevitably lend an air of sameness to his recordings? For example, I feel that George Siravo's arrangements for Sinatra toward the end of his tenure with Columbia are a breath of fresh air after several years of Axel Stordahl's string arrangements, as beautifully lyrical as Stordahl's work is. What do you think about that?

Mr. Clarke: If I disagreed with Crosby, I was wrong. I was probably wishing that Sinatra had made all his records after 1953 with Nelson Riddle. The Siravo records were a welcome change from Stordahl, but I find them studio-bound. This question has partly to do with the playing of white bands as opposed to the black masters of jazz. The white studio arrangers and musicians had improved immeasurably by the mid-1950s, in my opinion. Also, bands which were on the road, like Tommy Dorsey's around 1940, learned how to breathe and think together, as opposed to ad hoc studio groups, which also improved post WWII.

And that is it for the first installment. I would like to thank Mr. Clarke for his kindness in addressing all these questions, as well as for his giving freely of his time. More installments in this series of Conversations with Donald Clarke will be forthcoming!

'Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra,' a Columbia LP arranged by George Siravo

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