An Oscar-winning actor who appeared in more than 60 motion pictures, Frank Sinatra was even more celebrated as a singer, admired the world over as a supreme interpreter of American popular song.
The son of Italian immigrants, Francis Albert Sinatra was born Dec. 12, 1915, in Hoboken, NJ. As a boy he would sit on the docks, staring across the Hudson River at New York City's skyline, pondering his future. Decades later, when he first sang the theme from New York, New York, Sinatra might have remembered those times as he belted the line, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." By then, he had long since become an iconic figure, known as much for his visual image — particularly the jauntily cocked fedora and loosened collar of his classic album covers — as for his music.
Inspired by Bing Crosby, a major vocalist of the 1930s, the youthful Sinatra set his sights on a career in music and began singing on street corners with friends. In 1935, he and three others auditioned for Major Bowes' Amateur Hour, a popular radio program of its day. They performed as the "Hoboken Four" and won the talent contest.
After touring for a season with the Hoboken Four, Sinatra decided to go it alone. In 1939, he was singing at a roadhouse in New Jersey when trumpeter and bandleader Harry James hired him to sing with his orchestra. He made his first appearance with the James band in June 1939 and soon made his first commercial recording, "From the Bottom of My Heart."
Months after signing with James, Sinatra was invited by Tommy Dorsey to sing with his band. He sang with the famous trombonist, who then led one of the top swing bands in the country, from January 1940 to September 1942. Six months after joining the Dorsey orchestra, he hit number one with "I'll Never Smile Again." Other hits with Dorsey included "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and "The Song Is You."
Sinatra made his breakthrough appearance as a solo performer on Dec. 30, 1942, when he debuted in New York at the Paramount Theater. The hysteria set off by his fans made headlines, and within weeks he had signed recording, movie and radio contracts.
In this phase of his career, Sinatra was known primarily as a sensitive crooner whose musical style was perfect for the World War II era, when many couples were separated by circumstance. He worked hard at making his singing as conversational as possible and giving the melody and lyrics a flowing, surprisingly unbroken quality.
His wholehearted embrace of the technology of sound recording enhanced Sinatra's talent. He effectively used the microphone, which brought intimacy and articulation to the forefront of the art of popular singing, as a prop to convey emotion and to expand his dynamic range.
Highlights among Sinatra's early musical films include Anchors Aweigh (1945) and On the Town (1949). In 1946, he received a special Academy Award for The House I Live In, a short film arguing in favor of racial and religious tolerance. In 1953, Sinatra's popularity soared to new heights with the release of From Here to Eternity, in which he proved that he was an outstanding dramatic actor, winning an Academy Award for his supporting role as Maggio, a scrappy Italian-American soldier. For his dramatic performance in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Sinatra received a Best Actor nomination. Other highlights of his film career include the musicals Young at Heart (1955), Guys and Dolls (1955), High Society (1956), Pal Joey (1957), and Can- Can (1960). He also excelled in non-singing roles in films such as the crime caper Ocean's Eleven (1960) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a political thriller that addressed the Cold War.
Musically, Sinatra had entered another phase in the 1950s, an era that is generally considered his greatest period. The boyish crooner evolved into a deeper, more personal interpreter of pop songs who conveyed the meaning of a lyric with intensity and remarkable nuance. Sinatra had begun to express darker emotions that had not been previously acceptable, thus paving the way for the aggressive style of singers in the rock era. At the same time, his rhythmic acuity intensified, so that he sang with finger-snapping confidence that made him seem the essence of "cool" — a shift that mirrored postwar America's newfound swagger.
Sinatra did much to establish and preserve the great American songbook. He gave the classic songs new life by almost single-handedly inventing the pop album format. As the new medium of the long-playing record developed, Sinatra pioneered what was later known as the "concept album" — a musical album created entirely around a single concept. Collaborating with such legendary arrangers as Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins, as well as personally choosing the songs for each album, the order in which they would appear, the microphone placement for the instruments — and in some cases even conducting the orchestra himself — Sinatra made some of his most important and inspired musical works.
From 1955 to 1958, he released several albums now considered classics, including In the Wee Small Hours (1955), a selection of torch songs; Songs for Swingin' Lovers! (1956), containing "I've Got You Under My Skin," a favorite of many fans; A Swingin' Affair! (1957); and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958). Sinatra said the latter collection of moody ballads, including his signature "saloon songs," "Angel Eyes" and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," was his favorite.
Sinatra formed his own recording company, Reprise, in late 1960, and around this time became known as the "Chairman of the Board." Now in his late '40s, Sinatra was famous not only for his musical talent and acting ability, but as the central figure in the so-called "rat pack," a professional and personal circle that included Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. During this period, Sinatra became closely identified with Las Vegas, which he helped to popularize as an entertainment center.
In the 1960s, Sinatra worked in almost every conceivable setting, from the great jazz orchestras of Count Basie (It Might as Well Be Swing, 1964) and Duke Ellington (Francis A. & Edward K., 1967) to the semi-symphonic settings of Sinatra & Strings (1962) and The Concert Sinatra (1963) to the gentle bossa nova of Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967) and the jukebox pop of Strangers in the Night (1966) and My Way (1969).
Later in his career, Sinatra became an elder statesman on the music scene, and was known by the nickname "Ol' Blue Eyes." In 1985, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan. He had a number-one selling hit with Duets (1993), a collection of 13 standards pairing him with singers such as Tony Bennett, Gloria Estefan and Bono of U2.
Sinatra is widely regarded by singers, musicians, critics and fans as the single most important and influential performer of the American popular song. In a career studded with accolades, he won several Grammys, received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1971, and was recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1983. Sinatra gave generously to many charities and was noted for his philanthropy. He died May 14, 1998, at 82.