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Guest columnist Jim Cahillane: Frank Sinatra: Of thee I sing

The idealized America that many of us long for today began, for me, when I came of age in 1940, exactly 80 years ago.

The current Netflix two-part special, “Frank Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All,” stirred memories in me and may serve as a master course on the last half of the 20th century for anyone who’s interested. Completed in 2015, the well-edited series has stories to tell and music to die for.

Actor Charlton Heston of Hollywood fame and sad National Rifle Association nuttiness offered this defining quote, “A Sinatra song is like a four-minute movie.” I agree.

May I invite you to leave 2020 and its worries, step back in time, and meet Frank Sinatra as I recalled him in a long ago Springfield Union-News article. I recommend the current TV series for its honesty, its history and its ability to say as Frank once sang, “What America Means to Me” — in a movie short that won an Honorary Academy Award and special Golden Globe in 1946. I hope that you too find it a welcome respite from Trump’s America!

“A few weeks before he died, I started a letter to Frank Sinatra. My inspiration was that I felt beyond lucky to be born early in the 20th century and to come of age hearing the great sounds of big band music, plus sublime voices singing what became our songs.

“Dear Frank,

Please excuse any liberties I’ve taken with your salutation: “Frankie Boy,” “The Voice,” “The Chairman of the Board,” “Ol’ Blue Eyes”— have all been your names in the past — and if there were any justice in the fleeting fame game — you might claim Muhammad Ali’s and Jackie Gleason’s title of, “The Greatest.”

If only there were justice?

I first became aware of you, i.e. your singing voice, on the radio, or was it in the movies? The music and the times of the 20th century are starting to run together in my mind. Audio high technology for me began when record players no longer had to be wound up by hand. Jukeboxes were amazing things comprised of arms, levers, brittle shellac records and multiple choices from the Hit Parade. Hi-Fi and LP’s improved the sound and extended the time between record changes. Radio allowed the poorest of us, in the remotest of places, to join America’s swinging band nightlife.

When “Your Hit Parade” made you a part of my life you were already famous. My teenage angst and your hit record: “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week” exactly coincided. I cannot hear it today, 50 years on, without jerking myself back to the l940s, and feeling foolishly wistful at its simple lyrics.

Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week

‘Cause that’s the night that my sweetie and I used to dance cheek to cheek.

I don’t mind Sunday night at all, cause that’s the night friends come to call,

And Monday to Friday go fast, and another week is past.

Total recall! But don’t ask me about last week.

I’ve read that you, Frank, came to hate being on “Your Hit Parade.” It’s easy to see why. Weekly countdowns from ten-to-one found you doing the week’s hot selling records time after time. That show’s musical arrangements were boring and repetitive.

Our mid-century world was young and, like youth across the planet does today, yearned for and danced to American popular music. The difference is that, blame it on my youth, the words and music actually entered my heart and soul. A larger person would open his mind and build informed opinions about the current music scene, but I cannot. A relentless rock ’n’ roll beat, insults my intelligence. I long to hear strings that you sought out when a boy singer to back up your vocals.

The musicians and the band, you insisted, had a right to be heard. Every tuned instrument, including your voice, took its rightful place in creating instant classics. Each take was a little bit newer, or bluer, or jazzier, or softer, or slightly slanted — the way poet Emily Dickinson advised us to tell things.

Telling, in this context, is a great word. They used to say of certain singers that they could really “sell” a song. You, Frank, were different. You told your musical stories with great respect for words and their meaning. Composers and lyricists must have loved you. To truly meet someone you have to look in her eyes and comprehend the individual. To tell stories in song great vocalists begin with the verse and ease their audience into the song itself. Here, a fine dual romancing, respectful of lyric and listener.

Fellow musicians remember you as demanding. At your recording sessions they’d arrive to find you already there, warming up; only then did they get their latest arrangement. They had to pay attention and work hard because you expected a fresh approach, a today reading. You forced an added energy, introducing uncertainty and an edge giving your best recordings an immediacy that is likely to last forever.

When today’s hacks get around to writing about you they’ll talk about the end of an era, and such. Unfortunately for them they’ll never know what it was to be young, in love with love, and having life’s pains and joys sung as sweetly as we did by an American guy from Hoboken, New Jersey. Good times and bad, war or peace, we prevailed. When the songs were Sinatra’s we had the world on a string.

‘Set ‘em up Gabe; it’s quarter to three and there’s no one in the place.’”

Except for one teary old guy staring at the jukebox who now has a reason to hate Saturday nights.”

Writer Jim Cahillane is isolating at home in Williamsburg. He’s grateful for the many prayers and good wishes as he recovers from a late July knee surgery. The Springfield Union-News is no more. His Frank Sinatra appreciation ran in May 1998 following Frank’s death.

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