Few musicians were ever as popular, influential, complicated, or dangerous as Frank Sinatra. Between landmark albums like “Songs for Young Lovers” and “In the Wee Small Hours,” his movie acting (“From Here to Eternity,” “The Man with the Golden Arm,” “The Manchurian Candidate”), his marriages to Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow, his running with the Rat Pack and brushes with the mob, he led a full, at times overstuffed life.
Biographer James Kaplan now follows his acclaimed “Frank: The Voice” with “Sinatra: The Chairman,” a thick, almost 1,000-page volume that aims for the level of depth and context Peter Guralnick achieved with his Elvis Presley biographies. Kaplan’s book both gets up close — using detail the way a novelist does — and weaves Sinatra in with the era he lived through. “The Chairman” emphasizes the period from 1954 to his 1971 retirement; it closes by moving quickly through Sinatra’s return to performing.
Below is an expert from the conversation with Kaplan…
How many years did you spend on this one? I’m wondering if the huge amount of research and interviewing change your view of him, either as a man or a musician?
Each of the books took me five years. Roughly speaking, with each of them, about three years of research and two years of writing. Research, including reading everything — books, newspaper articles, gossip columns, everything, and then, hundreds of interviews. It’s an enormous undertaking and of course, my feelings about Sinatra evolved as the project went on. When I began it, I was kind of, looking back, miserably ignorant of Sinatra. That is to say, I knew who he was, I knew how great he was, I knew he had created this music. But as to the specifics of this career and the complexities and subtleties of his life, I knew little if not nothing. I knew a lot of the clichés that had become widespread about Sinatra.
But it was my job to get behind those clichés, and to give the reality dimension and to shoot down any falsehoods that had been spread. One thing I’ll say is, the cliché about biographers is — it’s an unfortunate one — after a long time of working on the book they’re working from a contempt for their subject.
And it never happened to me.
He was a genius and he was a genius in several ways, and one genius that he possessed besides his musical genius was a genius for making himself dislikable. So there were many times when I disliked him. He could be awful, he could be quite awful; as Pete Hamill said, “His shortcoming were regrettable.” He’s putting it very kindly.
His shortcomings were large on the world. But I never felt contempt for him; contempt is one thing but dislike is another. I never — and this is more important still — never got bored with him. And I’m still not. And what’s more is I get goose bumps when I hear the guy sing. It’s an astonishing voice, and it’s beyond astonishment really, it’s inexplicable. There’s all kinds of things that I can say what it is, and there’s all kinds of things that I can’t say.
The explosive moment of my pre-adolescence was seeing the Beatles on February 9 on the Ed Sullivan show. And I loved rock ‘n’ roll, I continue to love rock ‘n’ roll, I listen to all kinds of music. I love classical, I love jazz and another evolution for me, studying Sinatra, was realizing that studying Sinatra and his music was not looking at a nostalgia act. It was not looking at something old-fashioned, or big band-er or your father’s cardigan sweater. It was looking at the greatest, arguably the greatest, interpretive musician of all time. And that includes everybody.
Read the full interview at Salon.