By Ernest Barteldes
I cannot say that growing up I was much of a Frank Sinatra fan. Sure, I’d watched movies like Anchors Aweigh and On The Town (both with Gene Kelly) on TV but at 12 I had no idea that the old man singing on the TV broadcast of his show at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã soccer stadium was the same guy who sang about the Bronx being up and the Battery down in a sailor’s outfit. I believe I was first exposed to Frank Sinatra through my mom, but his music never really reached me until many years later when I heard about his 1992 Duets album, in which he shared the spotlight with the likes of Bono, Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross. I remember marveling about how timeless these tunes sounded – that impression was further settled with Duets II a couple of years later, even though his voice was clearly tired as he struggled to continue relentlessly touring into his late 70s.
I didn’t really “get” Sinatra until I listened closely to his 1967 collaboration with Brazilian maestro Antonio Carlos Jobim. It was then that I started to really hear how he carefully phrased each word and gave it a unique feel that few of his contemporaries – and all the standards singers that came after him – were able to match. That was confirmed as I listened to many of his re-releases, including his brilliant albums with Count Basie and Quincy Jones.
So it was with great anticipation that I went to the New York Public Library’s Sinatra exhibit, which was put together with the support of the Grammy Foundation and Sinatra’s family to celebrate his upcoming centennial, and I must say I was not at all disappointed. The show was divided between four sections, going from his youth all the way to his final days, when he sang his last notes at a show in California. The first room comprises his growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey – there is a facsimile of a train with black and white images of his hometown going by, a door from his parents’ pub and other memorabilia, including an excerpt from his first radio appearance with the Hoboken Four (his first vocal group) and some personal effects of the era, including the ukulele he played to woo his first wife, Nancy. The second part of the exhibit is dedicated to his early movie career, with clips from the films mentioned earlier and his first Academy Award, earned for the short film “The Land I Live In.” To me, the best pieces of memorabilia were the shoes he and Kelly wore on “Take Me Out to The Ballgame”. The third room focuses on his Capitol and Reprise years along with his later films all the way to his final TV appearance as a grumpy old detective on the CBS show Magnum, PI. There were a couple of interactive opportunities – a mixing board allowed visitors to “remix” one of his songs (I got rid of the orchestra, stripping down the music to bass, piano, guitar and drums) and also a jukebox with a selection of his greatest hits. A whole part is dedicated to Sinatra’s longtime admiration and friendship with Ella Fitzgerald – his specials with her are shown on video, and one of the dresses she wore is on display. It is also mentioned that there were plans to record a duet album, but that it never came together because of schedule conflicts. There is, of course, a whole section dedicated to the Rat Pack – but not with as much reverence as the part dedicated to Fitzgerald.
The final and most emotional part is dedicated to his later years – his paintings, his close relationship with his family (one small t-shirt had the words “My grandpa is Ol’ Blue Eyes”), golf clubs and personalized jackets. Towards the end of the show there was a booth in which amateur singers could record a “duet” with Sinatra and then finally one of his best late-career shows at the Concert for the Americas, featuring master guitarist Tony Mottola on a fantastic rendition of Jobim’s “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.”
The exhibit mostly glosses over Sinatra’s troubled relationships with Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow (they are present on the timelines on the walls) and there is no reference to his alleged mob ties and his political leanings. They do mention his support to Civil Rights causes, but the show is mostly about the artist, not the man – save for the final part.
I must say it was quite an emotional experience going through the whole thing, right from feeling the “rumble” of the wheels of the train that got Sinatra out of Hoboken, his albums and especially the videos featuring his son (who worked as musical director for his orchestra during Sinatra’s final decade) Frank Sinatra, Jr, his daughter Nancy Sinatra and his granddaughter Angela Lambert, who discusses Frank’s paintings. The exhibit answered the question I had from the moment I walked in: would it do justice to the man and his music? It certainly does, and it is something I am glad to have seen.