Hand color tinted photo of Bing Crosby & Frank Sinatra
Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby (May 3, 1903 – October 14, 1977) was an American popular singer and actor whose career stretched over more than half a century from 1926 until his death. Crosby was the best-selling artist until well into the rock era, with over half a billion records in circulation.
One of the first multimedia stars, from 1934 to 1954 Bing Crosby held a nearly unrivaled command of record sales, radio ratings and motion picture grosses. Widely recognized as one of the most popular musical acts in history, Crosby is also credited as being the major inspiration for most of the male singers of the era that followed him, including Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Dean Martin. Yank magazine recognized Crosby as the person who had done the most for American G.I. morale during World War II and, during his peak years, around 1948, polls declared him the “most admired man alive,” ahead of Jackie Robinson and Pope Pius XII. Also during 1948, the Music Digest estimated that Crosby recordings filled more than half of the 80,000 weekly hours allocated to recorded radio music.
Crosby exerted an important influence on the development of the postwar recording industry. In 1947, he invested $50,000 in the Ampex company, which developed North America’s first commercial reel-to-reel tape recorder, and Crosby became the first performer to pre-record his radio shows and master his commercial recordings on magnetic tape. He gave one of the first Ampex Model 200 recorders to his friend, musician Les Paul, which led directly to Paul’s invention of multitrack recording. Along with Frank Sinatra, he was one of the principal backers behind the famous United Western Recorders studio complex in Los Angeles.
Through the aegis of recording, Crosby developed the techniques of constructing his broadcast radio programs with the same directorial tools and craftsmanship (editing, retaking, rehearsal, time shifting) that occurred in a theatrical motion picture production. This feat directly led the way to the use of the same techniques in the creation of all radio broadcast programming as well as later television programming. The quality of the recorded programs also led to their assuming a commercial value for sale in and of themselves; which in turn leads directly to the creation of the syndicated market for all short feature media such as TV series episodes.
In 1962, Crosby was the first person to receive the Global Achievement Award. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Father Chuck O’Malley in the 1944 motion picture Going My Way. Crosby is one of the few people to have three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Crosby was born in Tacoma, Washington, on May 3, 1903, in a house his father built at 1112 North J Street. His family moved to Spokane, Washington, in 1906 to find work.
He was the fourth of seven children: five boys, Larry (1895-1975), Everett (1896-1966), Ted (1900-1973), Harry ‘Bing’ (1903-1977), and Bob (1913-1993); and two girls, Catherine (1904-1974) and Mary Rose (1906-1990). His parents were English-American Harry Lincoln Crosby (1870-1950), a bookkeeper, and Irish-American Catherine Helen (affectionately known as Kate) Harrigan (1873-1964). Kate was the daughter of Canadian-born parents who had emigrated to Stillwater, Minnesota, from Miramichi, New Brunswick. Kate’s grandfather and grandmother, Dennis and Catherine Harrigan, had in turn moved to Canada in 1831 from Schull, County Cork, Ireland. Bing’s paternal ancestors include Governor Thomas Prence and Patience Brewster, both born in England and immigrated to the U.S. in the 17th century. Patience was a daughter of Elder William Brewster (pilgrim), (c. 1567 – April 10, 1644), the Pilgrim leader and spiritual elder of the Plymouth Colony and a passenger on the Mayflower.
In 1910, Crosby was forever renamed. The six-year-old Harry Lillis discovered a full-page feature in the Sunday edition of the Spokesman-Review, “The Bingville Bugle.” The “Bugle,” written by humorist Newton Newkirk, was a parody of a hillbilly newsletter complete with gossipy tidbits, minstrel quips, creative spelling, and mock ads. A neighbor, 15-year-old Valentine Hobart, shared Crosby’s enthusiasm for “The Bugle,” and noting Crosby’s laugh, took a liking to him and called him “Bingo from Bingville.” The last vowel was dropped and the name shortened to “Bing,” which stuck.
In 1917, Crosby took a summer job as property boy at Spokane’s “Auditorium,” where he witnessed some of the finest acts of the day, including Al Jolson, who held Crosby spellbound with his ad-libbing and spoofs of Hawaiian songs.
In the fall of 1920, Crosby enrolled in the Jesuit-run Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, with the intention of becoming a lawyer. He sent away for a set of mail-order drums. After much practice, he soon became good enough and was invited to join a local band made up of mostly local high school kids called the “Musicaladers,” managed by Al Rinker. He made so much money doing this that he decided to drop out of school during his final year to pursue a career in show business.
In 1926, while singing at Los Angeles Metropolitan Theater, Crosby and his vocal duo partner Al Rinker caught the eye of Paul Whiteman, arguably the most famous bandleader at the time. Hired for $150 a week, they made their debut on December 6, 1926 at the Tivoli Theatre (Chicago). Their first recording, “I’ve Got The Girl,” with Don Clark’s Orchestra, was issued by Columbia and did them no vocal favors as it sounded as if they were singing in a key much too high for them. It was later revealed that the 78rpm was recorded at a speed slower than it should have been, which increased the pitch when played at 78rpm.
As popular as the Crosby and Rinker duo was, Whiteman added another member to the group, pianist and aspiring songwriter Harry Barris. Whiteman dubbed them The Rhythm Boys, and they joined the Whiteman vocal team, working and recording with musicians Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, and Eddie Lang and singers Mildred Bailey and Hoagy Carmichael.
Crosby soon became the star attraction of the Rhythm Boys, not to mention Whiteman’s band, and in 1928 had his first number one hit, a jazz-influenced rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” However, his repeated youthful peccadilloes and growing dissatisfaction with Whiteman forced him, along with the Rhythm Boys, to leave the band and join the Gus Arnheim Orchestra. During his time with Arnheim, The Rhythm Boys were increasingly pushed to the background as the vocal emphasis focused on Crosby. Fellow member of The Rhythm Boys Harry Barris wrote several of Crosby’s subsequent hits including “At Your Command,” “I Surrender Dear,” and “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”; however, shortly after this, the members of the band had a falling out and split, setting the stage for Crosby’s solo career. In 1931, he signed with Brunswick Records and recording under Jack Kapp and signed with CBS Radio to do a weekly 15 minute radio broadcast; almost immediately he became a huge hit.
As the 1930s unfolded, it became clear that Bing was the number one man, vocally speaking. Ten of the top 50 songs for 1931 either featured Crosby solo or with others. Apart from the short-lived “Battle of the Baritones” with Russ Columbo, “Bing Was King,” signing long-term deals with Jack Kapp’s new record company Decca and starring in his first full-length features, 1932’s The Big Broadcast, the first of 55 such films in which he received top billing. He appeared in 79 pictures.
Around this time Crosby made his solo debut on radio, co-starring with The Carl Fenton Orchestra on a popular CBS radio show, and by 1936 replacing his former boss, Paul Whiteman, as the host of NBC’s Kraft Music Hall, a weekly radio program where he remained for the next ten years. As his signature tune he used “Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)”, which also showcased his whistling skill.
He was thus able to take popular singing beyond the kind of “belting” associated with a performer like Al Jolson, who had to reach the back seats in New York theatres without the aid of the microphone. With Crosby, as Henry Pleasants noted in The Great American Popular Singers, something new had entered American music, something that might be called “singing in American,” with conversational ease. The oddity of this new sound led to the epithet “crooner.”
Crosby gave great emphasis to live appearances before American troops fighting in the European Theater. He also learned how to pronounce German from written scripts and would read them in propaganda broadcasts intended for the German forces. The nickname “der Bingle” for him was understood to have become current among German listeners, and came to be used by his English-speaking fans. In a poll of U.S. troops at the close of WWII, Crosby topped the list as the person who did the most for G.I. morale, beating out President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, General Dwight Eisenhower, and Bob Hope.
Crosby’s biggest musical hit was his recording of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”, which he introduced through a 1942 Christmas-season radio broadcast and the movie Holiday Inn. Crosby’s recording hit the charts on October 3, 1942, and rose to #1 on October 31, where it stayed for 11 weeks. In the following years, his recording hit the Top 30 pop charts another 16 times, topping the charts again in 1945 and January 1947. The song remains Crosby’s best-selling recording, and the best-selling single and best-selling song of all time. In 1998, after a long absence, his 1947 version hit the charts in Britain, and as of 2006 remains the North American holiday-season standard. According to Guinness World Records, Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” has “sold over 100 million copies around the world, with at least 50 million sales as singles.”
According to ticket sales, Crosby is, at 1,077,900,000 tickets sold, the third most popular actor of all time, behind Clark Gable and John Wayne. Crosby is, according to Quigley Publishing Company’s International Motion Picture Almanac, tied for second on the “All Time Number One Stars List” with Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, and Burt Reynolds. Crosby’s most popular film, White Christmas, grossed $30 million in 1954 ($229 million in 2007 dollars). Crosby won an Academy Award for Best Actor for Going My Way in 1944, a role he reprised in the 1945 sequel The Bells of Saint Mary’s, for which he was nominated for another Academy Award for Best Actor. He received critical acclaim for his performance as an alcoholic entertainer in The Country Girl, receiving his third Academy Award nomination. He partnered with Bob Hope in seven Road to musical comedies between 1940 and 1962 and the two actors remained linked for generations in general public perception as arguably the most popular screen team in film history, despite never officially declaring themselves a “team” in the sense that Laurel and Hardy or Martin and Lewis were teams.
By the late 1950s, Crosby’s popularity had peaked, and the adolescence of the baby boom generation began to affect record sales to younger customers. In 1960, Crosby starred in High Time, a collegiate comedy with Fabian and Tuesday Weld that foretold the emerging gap between older Crosby fans and a new generation of films and music.
The Fireside Theater (1950) was Crosby’s first television production. The series of 26-minute shows was filmed at Hal Roach Studios rather than performed live on the air. The “telefilms” were syndicated to individual television stations.
Crosby was one of the most frequent guests on the musical variety shows of the 1950s and 1960s. He was especially closely associated with ABC’s variety show The Hollywood Palace. He was the show’s most frequent guest host and appeared annually on its Christmas edition with his wife Kathryn and his younger children. In the early 1970s he made two famous late appearances on the Flip Wilson Show, singing duets with the comedian. Crosby’s last TV appearance was a Christmas special filmed in London in September 1977 and aired just weeks after his death.
Bing Crosby Productions, affiliated with Desilu Studios and later CBS Television Studios, produced a number of television series, including Crosby’s own unsuccessful ABC sitcom The Bing Crosby Show in the 1964-1965 season (with co-stars Beverly Garland and Frank McHugh), and two ABC medical dramas, Ben Casey (1961-1966) and Breaking Point (1963-64), and the popular Hogan’s Heroes military comedy on CBS, as well as the lesser-known show Slattery’s People (1964-1965).
Crosby perfected an idea that Al Jolson had hinted at, that the popular performer did not have to limit himself to a mere series of shticks but could be a genuine artist in this case, a musician. Before Crosby, art was art and pop was pop; opera singers worried about staying in tune and reaching the upper balcony, vaudevillians concerned themselves with their costumes and facial expressions.
Crosby rendered the difference between the two irrelevant. Where earlier recording artists had displayed strictly one-dimensional attitudes, Crosby not only perfected the fully rounded persona, but brought with it the technical ability of a true concert artist. Crosby projected with a majestic sense of intonation that afforded Tin Pan Alley the musical stature of European classics and a jazz influenced time that made him the dominant voice of both the Jazz age and the Swing era.
Crosby also elaborated on a further idea of Al Jolson’s, one that Frank Sinatra would ultimately extend: phrasing, or the art of making a song’s lyric ring true. “I used to tell (Sinatra) over and over,” said Tommy Dorsey, “there’s only one singer you ought to listen to and his name is Crosby. All that matters to him is the words, and that’s the only thing that ought to for you, too.”
The greatest trick of Crosby’s virtuosity was covering it up. It is often said that Crosby made his singing and acting “look easy,” or as if it were no work at all: he simply was the character he portrayed, and his singing, being a direct extension of conversation, came just as naturally to him as talking, or even breathing. Journalist Donald Freeman said of Crosby, “There is only one Bing Crosby and the time has come now to face the issue squarely he happens to be that unique, awesome creature, an artist.”
Crosby is usually considered to be among the most talented singers of his time. Crosby could, as musicologist J.T.H. Mize asserts, “melt a tone away, scoop it flat and sliding up to the eventual pitch as a glissando, sometimes sting a note right on the button, and take diphthongs for long musical rides.” J.T.H. Mize also inventoried the Crosby arsenal of vocal effects, including “interpolating pianissimo whistling variations, sometimes arpeggic, at other times trilling.” While vocal critic Henry Pleasants states that “the octave B flat to B flat in Bing’s voice at that time [1930s] is, to my ears, one of the loveliest I have heard in forty-five years of listening to baritones, both classical and popular, it dropped conspicuously in later years. From the mid-1950s, Bing was more comfortable in a bass range while maintaining a baritone quality, with the best octave being G to G, or even F to F. In a recording he made of ‘Dardanella’ with Louis Armstrong in 1960, he attacks lightly and easily on a low E flat. This is lower than most opera basses care to venture, and they tend to sound as if they were in the cellar when they get there.” Mel Torme concurred with Henry Pleasants stating that “(Crosby’s) low notes could make your bass woofers beg for mercy.”
Crosby’s sales and chart statistics place him among the most popular and successful musical acts of the 20th century. Although the Billboard charts operated under a different methodology for the bulk of Crosby’s career, his numbers remain astonishing: 1,700 recordings, 383 of those in the top 30, and of those, 41 hit #1. Crosby had separate charting singles in every calendar year between 1931 and 1954; the annual re-release of White Christmas extended that streak to 1957. He had 24 separate popular singles in 1939 alone. Billboard’s statistician Joel Whitburn determined Crosby to be America’s most successful act of the 1930s, and again in the 1940s.
For 15 years (1934, 1937, 1940, 1943-1954), Crosby was among the top 10 in box office draw, and for five of those years (1944-1949) he was the largest in the world. He sang four Academy Award-winning songs “Sweet Leilani” (1937), “White Christmas” (1942), “Swinging on a Star” (1944), “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” (1951) and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Going My Way (1944).
He collected 23 gold and platinum records, according to Joseph Murrells, author of the book, “Million Selling Records.” The Recording Industry Association of America did not institute its gold record certification program until 1958, by which point Crosby’s record sales were barely a blip, so gold records prior to that year were awarded by an artist’s record company. Universal Music, current owner of Crosby’s Decca catalog, has never requested RIAA certification for any of his hit singles.
In 1962, Crosby became the first recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He has been inducted into the halls of fame for both radio and popular music. Crosby is a member of the exclusive club of the biggest record sellers that include Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks and The Beatles.
In 2007 Crosby was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame, and in 2008 into the Western Music Hall of Fame.
Crosby was married twice, first to actress/nightclub singer Dixie Lee from 1930 until her death from ovarian cancer in 1952. They had four sons: Gary, twins Dennis and Phillip, and Lindsay. The 1947 film Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman is indirectly based on her life. After Dixie’s death, Crosby had a relationship with actress Inger Stevens and with Grace Kelly before marrying the actress Kathryn Grant in 1957. They had three children, Harry (who played Bill in Friday the 13th), Mary (best known for portraying Kristin Shepard, the woman who shot J.R. Ewing on TV’s Dallas), and Nathaniel.
Crosby was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Kathryn converted to Roman Catholicism in order to marry him. He was also a Republican, and actively campaigned for Wendell Willkie in 1940, asserting his belief that Franklin Roosevelt should serve only two terms. When Willkie lost in a landslide, he decreed that he would never again make any open political contributions.
Crosby had an interest in sports. From 1946 until the mid-1960s he was part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and helped form the nucleus of the Pirates’ 1960 championship club. In 1978, he and Bob Hope were voted the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf.
Crosby reportedly overindulged in alcohol in his youth, and may have been dismissed from Paul Whiteman’s orchestra because of it, but he later got a handle on his drinking. A 2001 biography of Crosby by Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins says that Louis Armstrong’s influence on Crosby “extended to his love of marijuana.” Bing smoked it during his early career when it was legal and “surprised interviewers” in the 1960s and 70s by advocating its decriminalization, as did Armstrong. According to Giddins, Crosby told his son Gary to stay away from alcohol (“It killed your mother”) and suggested he smoke pot instead. Gary said, “There were other times when marijuana was mentioned and he’d get a smile on his face.” Gary thought his father’s pot smoking had influenced his easy-going style in his films. Crosby also smoked two packs of cigarettes a day until his second wife made him stop. He finally quit smoking his pipe and cigars following lung surgery in 1974.
Following his recovery from a life-threatening fungal infection of his right lung in 1974, Crosby emerged from semi-retirement to produce several notable albums and concert tours. In March 1977, after videotaping a concert for CBS to commemorate his 50th anniversary in show business, Crosby backed off the stage into an orchestra pit, rupturing a disc in his back that required a month of hospitalization. In his first performance after the accident and his last American concert, on August 16, 1977 in Concord, California, the power went out, and he continued singing without amplification. In September, Crosby, his family, and singer Rosemary Clooney began a concert tour of England that included two weeks at the London Palladium. While in England, Crosby recorded his final album, Seasons, and his final TV Christmas special with guests David Bowie and Twiggy. His duet with Bowie on “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” generated so much interest that it was later released as a single and became an annual holiday classic. At the end of the century, TV Guide listed the Crosby-Bowie duet as one of the 25 most memorable musical moments of 20th century television.
His last concert was in the The Brighton Centre two days before his death, with British entertainer Dame Gracie Fields in attendance. Crosby’s last photograph was taken with Fields.
At the conclusion of his work in England, Crosby flew alone to Spain to hunt and play golf. Shortly after 6:00 p.m. on October 14, Crosby died suddenly from a massive heart attack after a round of 18 holes of golf near Madrid where he and his Spanish golfing partner had just defeated their opponents. It is widely written that his last words were “That was a great game of golf, fellas.” Because of incorrect instructions from his family, the year of birth engraved on Crosby’s tombstone is 1904 rather than 1903. He was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California, next to his first wife. He was buried nine feet deep so that his second wife could be buried with him.
At his death, because of Crosby’s shrewd investments in oil, real estate, and other commodities, he was one of Hollywood’s wealthiest residents, along with Fred MacMurray, Lawrence Welk, and best friend Bob Hope. A clause in his will stated that his sons from his first marriage could not collect their inheritance money until they were 65. Crosby felt that they had already been amply taken care of by a trust fund set up by their mother, Dixie Lee. All four sons continued to collect monies from that fund until their deaths.
After Crosby’s death, his eldest son, Gary, wrote a highly critical memoir, Going My Own Way, depicting his father as cold, remote, and both physically and psychologically abusive.
Younger son Phillip frequently disputed his brother Gary’s claims about their father. In an interview conducted in 1999 by the Globe, Phillip said, “My dad was not the monster my lying brother said he was; he was strict, but my father never beat us black and blue, and my brother Gary was a vicious, no-good liar for saying so. I have nothing but fond memories of Dad, going to studios with him, family vacations at our cabin in Idaho, boating and fishing with him. To my dying day, I’ll hate Gary for dragging Dad’s name through the mud. He wrote Going My Own Way out of greed. He wanted to make money and knew that humiliating our father and blackening his name was the only way he could do it. He knew it would generate a lot of publicity. That was the only way he could get his ugly, no-talent face on television and in the newspapers. My dad was my hero. I loved him very much. He loved all of us too, including Gary. He was a great father.”
However, Lindsay and Dennis publicly agreed with many of Gary’s criticisms of their father and Lindsay eventually committed suicide. Dennis ended his life two years later, grieving over his brother’s death, and battered, just as his brother had been, by alcoholism, failed relationships, and a lackluster career. Both brothers died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head. Their mother had struggled with alcoholism since her teens.
Phillip Crosby died in 2004.
Denise Crosby, Dennis’ daughter, is also an actress and known for her role as Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and for the recurring role of the Romulan Sela (daughter of Tasha Yar) after her withdrawal from the series as a regular cast member. She also appeared in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary.
Nathaniel Crosby, Crosby’s youngest son from his second marriage, was a high-level golfer who won the U.S. Amateur at age 19 in 1981, the youngest winner of that event (a record later broken by Tiger Woods). Nathaniel praised his father in a June 16, 2008, Sports Illustrated article.
Widow Kathryn Crosby dabbled in local theater productions intermittently, and appeared in television tributes to her late husband. Although left very comfortable in Crosby’s will, Kathryn’s allowance was controlled by a foundation that Crosby had carefully set up.
In 2006, Crosby’s niece, Carolyn Schneider, attempted to dispel the impressions created by some of the more vitriolic books penned about her uncle, publishing “Me and Uncle Bing,” in which she offered an intimate glimpse of her family, and gratitude for Crosby’s generosity to her and to other family members. Since publication of her book, Schneider has been a favorite at gatherings of Crosby fans, and has offered her memories of “Uncle Bing” to the BBC.
Francis Albert “Frank” Sinatra (December 12, 1915 – May 14, 1998) was an American singer and actor.
Beginning his musical career in the swing era with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, Sinatra became a successful solo artist in the early to mid-1940s, being the idol of the “bobby soxers.” His professional career had stalled by the 1950s, but it was reborn in 1954 after he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
He signed with Capitol Records and released several critically lauded albums (such as In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Come Fly with Me, Only the Lonely and Nice ‘n’ Easy). Sinatra left Capitol to found his own record label, Reprise Records (finding success with albums such as Ring-A-Ding-Ding, Sinatra at the Sands and Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim), toured internationally, was a founding member of the Rat Pack and fraternized with celebrities and presidents, including President John F. Kennedy. Sinatra turned 50 in 1965, recorded the retrospective September of My Years, starred in the Emmy-winning television special Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music, and scored hits with “Strangers in the Night” and “My Way”.
Sinatra attempted to weather the changing tastes in popular music, but with sales of his music dwindling, and after appearing in several poorly received films, he retired in 1971. Coming out of retirement in 1973, he recorded several albums; scored a Top 40 hit with “(Theme From) New York, New York” in 1980; and toured both within the United States and internationally until a few years before his death in 1998.
Sinatra also forged a career as a dramatic actor, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in From Here to Eternity, and he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for The Man with the Golden Arm. He also starred in such musicals as High Society, Pal Joey, Guys and Dolls and On the Town. Sinatra was honored at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1983 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan in 1985 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1997. Sinatra was also the recipient of eleven Grammy Awards, including the Grammy Trustees Award, Grammy Legend Award and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, the only child of Italian immigrants Natalie Della (née Garaventa) and Antonio Martino Sinatra. He left high school without graduating, having attended only 47 days before being expelled due to his rowdy conduct. His mother, known as Dolly, was influential in the neighborhood and in local Democratic Party circles, but also ran an illegal abortion business from her home; she was arrested several times and convicted twice for this offense. Frank, himself, was arrested for carrying on with a married woman, an illegal offense at the time. Frank’s father Tony served with the Hoboken Fire Department. During the tough years of the 1930s, when the Great Depression hit North America very hard, Dolly nevertheless provided ready pocket money to her son Frank, the family’s only child, for outings with friends and fancy clothes. Frank then worked for some time as a delivery boy at the Jersey Observer newspaper, and as a riveter at the Tietjan and Lang shipyard. It was in the early 1930s that Sinatra began singing in public.
1935–40: Start of career, work with James and Dorsey
Sinatra’s first cousin, Ray Sinatra, had an orchestra and his own network radio program (“Cycling the Kilocycles”) in the mid-1930s, but Ray and Frank did not work together.
Instead, he got his first break in 1935 when his mother persuaded a local singing group, The Three Flashes, to let him join. With Sinatra, the group became known as the Hoboken Four,and they sufficiently impressed Edward Bowes. After appearing on his show, Major Bowes Amateur Hour, they attracted 40,000 votes and won the first prize — a six month contract to perform on stage and radio across the United States.
Sinatra left the Hoboken 4 and returned home in late 1935. His mother secured him a job as a singing waiter and MC at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for which he was paid $15 a week.
On March 18, 1939, Sinatra made a demo recording of a song called “Our Love”, with the Frank Mane band. In June, Harry James hired Sinatra on a one year contract of $75 a week. It was with the James band that Sinatra released his first commercial record “From the Bottom of My Heart” in July, 1939 – US Brunswick #8443 and UK Columbia #DB2150.
Fewer than 8,000 copies of “From the Bottom of My Heart” (Brunswick #8443) were sold, making the record a very rare find that is sought after by both Sinatra and record collectors worldwide. Sinatra released ten commercial tracks with James through 1939, including “All or Nothing At All” which had weak sales on its initial release but then sold millions of copies when re-released by Columbia at the height of Sinatra’s popularity a few years later.
In November 1939, in a meeting at the Palmer House in Chicago, IL, Sinatra was asked by bandleader Tommy Dorsey to join his band as a replacement for Jack Leonard who had recently left to launch a solo career. This meeting represented a turning point in Sinatra’s career since by signing with Dorsey’s band, one of the hottest bands at the time, he would achieve incredible visibility with the American public. Though Sinatra was still under contract with James, James recognized the opportunity Dorsey offered to Sinatra and graciously released him from his contract. Sinatra remained indebted to James throughout his life and upon hearing of James’ death in 1983, stated: “he [James] is the one that made it all possible”.
On January 26, 1940, Sinatra made his first public appearance with the Dorsey band at the Coronado Theater in Rockford, IL. In his first year with Dorsey, Sinatra released more than forty songs, with “I’ll Never Smile Again” topping the charts for twelve weeks beginning in mid-July.
Due to a punitive contract that awarded Dorsey ? of Sinatra’s lifetime earnings in the entertainment industry, Sinatra’s relationship with Tommy Dorsey was tenuous. In January 1942, Sinatra recorded his first solo sessions without the Dorsey band (but with Dorsey’s arranger Axel Stordahl and with Dorsey’s approval). These sessions were released commercially on the Bluebird label. Sinatra left the Dorsey band late in 1942 in an incident that started rumors of Sinatra’s mob involvement. According to contemporary Hearst newspaper accounts at the time mobster Sam Giancana convinced Dorsey to let Sinatra out of his contract for a few thousand dollars through coercion, an event famously fictionalized in the movie The Godfather. According to Nancy Sinatra’s biography, the Hearst rumors were started because of Frank’s Democratic politics. In actuality, the contract was bought out by MCA founder Jules Stein for the princely sum of $75,000.
1940–50: Sinatramania and decline of career
In May 1941, Sinatra was at the top of the male singer polls in the Billboard and Downbeat magazines.
His appeal to bobby soxers, as teenage girls of that time were called, revealed a whole new audience for popular music, which had been recorded mainly for adults up to that time.
On December 31, 1942, Sinatra opened at the Paramount Theater in New York.
During the musicians’ strike of 1942–44, Columbia re-released Harry James and Sinatra’s version of “All or Nothing at All” (music by Arthur Altman and lyrics by Jack Lawrence), recorded in August 1939 and released before Sinatra had made a name for himself. The original release didn’t even mention the vocalist’s name. When the recording was re–released in 1943 with Sinatra’s name prominently displayed, the record was on the best–selling list for 18 weeks and reached number 2 on June 2, 1943.
Sinatra signed with Columbia on June 1, 1943 as a solo artist, and he had initially great success, particularly during the musicians’ recording strikes. And while no new records had been issued during the strike, he had been performing on the radio (on Your Hit Parade), and on stage. Columbia wanted to get new recordings of their growing star as fast as possible, so Sinatra convinced them to hire Alec Wilder as arranger and conductor for several sessions with a vocal group called the Bobby Tucker Singers. These first sessions were on June 7, June 22, August 5, and November 10, 1943. Of the nine songs recorded during these sessions, seven charted on the best–selling list.
Sinatra went before his draft board on December 11, 1943, and received on his file a 4-F “Registrant not acceptable for military service.” classification for a perforated eardrum. Additionally, an FBI report on Sinatra, released in 1998, showed that the doctors had also written that he was a “neurotic” and “not acceptable material from a psychiatric standpoint”. This was omitted from his record to avoid “undue unpleasantness for both the selectee and the induction service”. G.I.’s in the service, like William Manchester, said of Sinatra, “I think Frank Sinatra was the most hated man of World War II, much more than Hitler”, because Sinatra was back home making all of that money and being shown in photographs surrounded by beautiful women. His deferment would resurface throughout his life and cause him grief when he had to defend himself. There would be accusations, including some from noted columnist Walter Winchell, that Sinatra paid $40,000 to avoid the service — but the FBI could find no evidence of this.
When Sinatra returned to the Paramount Theater in October 1944, 35,000 fans caused a near riot outside the venue because they were not allowed in.
In 1945, Sinatra co-starred with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh. That same year, he was loaned out to RKO to star in a short film titled The House I Live In. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, this film on tolerance and racial equality earned a special Academy Award shared among Sinatra and those who brought the film to the screen, along with a special Golden Globe for “Promoting Good Will.” 1946 saw the release of his first album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra, and the debut of his own weekly radio show.
By the end of 1948, Sinatra himself felt that his career was stalling, something that was confirmed when he slipped to No. 4 on Down Beat’s annual poll of most popular singers (following Billy Eckstine, Frankie Laine, and Bing Crosby).
The year 1949 saw an upswing, as Frank once again teamed up with Gene Kelly to co-star in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. It was well received critically and became a major commercial success. That same year, Sinatra would team up with Gene Kelly for a third time in On the Town.
1950–60: Rebirth of career, Capitol concept albums
After two years’ absence, Sinatra returned to the concert stage on January 12, 1950, in Hartford, Connecticut. Sinatra’s voice suffered and he experienced hemorrhaging of his vocal cords on stage at the Copacabana on April 26, 1950. Sinatra’s career and appeal to new teen audiences declined as he moved into his mid-30s.
In September 1951, Sinatra made his Las Vegas debut at the Desert Inn. A month later, a second series of the Frank Sinatra Show aired on CBS.
Columbia and MCA dropped Sinatra in 1952.
The rebirth of Sinatra’s career began with the eve-of-Pearl Harbor drama From Here to Eternity (1953), for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This role and performance mark the turnaround in Sinatra’s career, in which he went from being in a critical and commercial decline for several years to an Oscar-winning actor and, once again, one of the top recording artists in the world.
Also in 1953, Sinatra starred in the NBC radio program Rocky Fortune. His character, Rocko Fortunato (aka Rocky Fortune) was a private eye who was placed in a variety of odd jobs by the Gridley Employment Agency in order to help solve crimes. The series aired on NBC radio Tuesday nights from October 1953 to March 1954. During the final months of the show, just before the 1954 Oscars, it became a running gag that Sinatra would manage to work the phrase “from here to eternity” into each episode, a reference to his Oscar-nominated performance.
In 1953, Sinatra signed with Capitol Records, where he worked with many of the finest musical arrangers of the era, most notably Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Billy May. Sinatra reinvented himself with a series of albums featuring darker emotional material, including In the Wee Small Hours (1955) — Sinatra’s first 12″ LP and his second collaboration with Nelson Riddle — Where Are You? (1957) and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely (1958). He also incorporated a hipper, “swinging” persona, as heard on Swing Easy! (1954), Songs For Swingin’ Lovers (1956), and Come Fly With Me (1957).
By the end of the year, Billboard named “Young at Heart” Song of the Year, Swing Easy! with Nelson Riddle at the helm, (his second album for Capitol) was named Album of the Year and Sinatra was named “Top Male Vocalist” by Billboard, Down Beat and Metronome.
Frank Sinatra starred in the movie adaptation of Frank Loesser’s stage musical “Guys and Dolls” in 1955
A third collaboration with Nelson Riddle, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, was a success, featuring a recording of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”
Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, a stark collection of introspective saloon songs and blues-tinged ballads, was a mammoth commercial success, peaking at #1 on Billboard’s album chart during a 120-week stay. Cuts from this LP, such as “Angel Eyes” and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” would remain staples of Sinatra’s concerts throughout his life.
Through the late fifties, Sinatra frequently criticized rock music, much of it being his reaction to rhythms and attitudes he found alien. In 1958 he lambasted it as “sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons. It manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.”
1960–70: Ring-A-Ding-Ding, Reprise records, Basie, Jobim, “My Way”
Sinatra would start the 1960s as he ended the 1950s, his first album of the decade, Nice ‘n’ Easy, topping Billboard’s album chart and winning critical plaudits en masse, this, despite Sinatra growing discontented at Capitol Records and having decided to form his own label, Reprise Records. His first album on the label, Ring-A-Ding-Ding (1961), was a major success peaking at #4 on Billboard and #8 in the UK.
His fourth and final Timex special was broadcast in March 1960 and secured massive viewing figures. Titled It’s Nice to Go Travelling, the show is more commonly known as Welcome Home Elvis. Elvis Presley’s appearance after his army discharge was somewhat ironic; Sinatra had been scathing about him in the mid fifties, saying: “His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.” Presley had responded: “… [Sinatra] is a great success and a fine actor, but I think he shouldn’t have said it. … [rock and roll] is a trend, just the same as he faced when he started years ago.” Later, in efforts to maintain his commercial viability, Sinatra would eventually record Presley’s hit “Love Me Tender” as well as works by Paul Simon (“Mrs. Robinson”), The Beatles (“Something,” “Yesterday”), and Joni Mitchell (“Both Sides Now”).
Following on the heels of the film Can Can was Ocean’s 11, the movie that would become the definitive on-screen outing for “The Rat Pack”.
On January 27, 1961, Sinatra played a benefit show at Carnegie Hall for Martin Luther King, Jr. and would go on to play a major role in the desegregation of Nevada hotels and casinos in the 1960s. Sinatra led his fellow members of the Rat Pack and label-mates on Reprise in refusing to patronize hotels and casinos that wouldn’t allow black singers to play or wouldn’t allow black patrons entry. He would often speak from the stage on desegregation. He would play more benefits for Martin Luther King, Jr. who, according to Frank Sinatra, Jr., at one point during a show in 1963 sat weeping as Sinatra sang Ol’ Man River, the song from the musical Show Boat that, in the show, is sung by an African-American stevedore.
Over September 11 and 12, 1961, Sinatra recorded his final songs for Capitol Records.
In 1962, along with Janet Leigh and Laurence Harvey, he starred in the political thriller The Manchurian Candidate as Bennett Marco. That same year, Sinatra and Count Basie collaborated for the album Sinatra-Basie. This popular and successful release would prompt them to rejoin two years later for a follow-up It Might as Well Be Swing, which was arranged by Quincy Jones. One of Sinatra’s more ambitious albums from the mid-1960’s, The Concert Sinatra, was recorded with a 73-piece symphony orchestra on 35mm tape.
Sinatra’s first live album, Sinatra at the Sands, was recorded during January and February 1966 at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
In June 1965, Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr.. and Dean Martin played live in St. Louis to benefit Dismas House. The concert was broadcast live via satellite to numerous movie theaters across America. Released in August 1965 was the Grammy Award–winning album of the year September of My Years, with a career anthology A Man and His Music followed in November, itself winning Album of the Year at the Grammys in 1966. The TV special Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music garnered both an Emmy award and a Peabody Award.
In the spring, That’s Life appeared, with both the single and album becoming Top Ten hits in the US on Billboard’s pop charts. Strangers in the Night went on to top the Billboard and UK pop singles charts, winning the award for Record of the Year at the Grammys. The album of the same name also topped the Billboard chart and reached number 4 in the UK.
Sinatra would start 1967 with a series of recording sessions with Antônio Carlos Jobim. Later in the year, a duet with daughter Nancy, “Somethin’ Stupid”, topped the Billboard pop and UK singles charts. In December, Sinatra collaborated with Duke Ellington on the album Francis A. & Edward K..
During the late 1960s, press agent Lee Solters would invite columnists with their spouses into Sinatra’s dressing room just before he was about to go on stage. The New Yorker recounted that “The first columnist they tried this on was Larry Fields of the Philadelphia Daily News, whose wife fainted when Sinatra kissed her cheek. ‘Take care of it, Lee,’ Sinatra said, and he was off.”
Back on the small-screen, Sinatra once again worked with Antônio Carlos Jobim, and Ella Fitzgerald on the TV special A Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim.
Watertown (1970) was one of Sinatra’s most acclaimed concept albums, but was all but ignored by the public in commercial terms. Selling a mere 30,000 copies, and reaching a peak chart position of 101, its failure put an end to plans of a television special based on the album.
With Sinatra in mind, singer-songwriter Paul Anka wrote the song “My Way” inspired from the French “Comme d’habitude” (“As Usual”), composed by Claude François and Jacques Revaux. “My Way” would, perhaps, become more identified with him than any other over his seven decades as a singer.
1970–80: Retirement and comeback
On June 12, 1971 — at a concert in Hollywood to raise money for the Motion Picture and TV Relief Fund — at the age of 55, Sinatra announced that he was retiring, bringing to an end his 36-year career in show business.
In 1973, Sinatra came out of retirement with a television special and album, both entitled Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. The album, arranged by Gordon Jenkins and Don Costa, was a great success, reaching number 13 on Billboard and number 12 in the UK. The TV special was highlighted by a dramatic reading of “Send in the Clowns” and a song and dance sequence with former co-star Gene Kelly.
In January 1974, Sinatra returned to Las Vegas, performing at Caesars Palace despite vowing in 1970 never to play there again after the manager of the resort, Sanford Waterman, pulled a gun on him during a heated argument. With Waterman recently shot, the door was open for Sinatra to return.
In Australia, he caused an uproar by describing journalists there — who were aggressively pursuing his every move and pushing for a press conference — as “fags”, “pimps”, and “whores.” Australian unions representing transport workers, waiters, and journalists went on strike, demanding that Sinatra apologize for his remarks. Sinatra instead insisted that the journalists apologize for “fifteen years of abuse I have taken from the world press.” The future Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, then the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) leader, also insisted that Sinatra apologize, and a settlement was eventually reached to the apparent satisfaction of both parties, Sinatra’s final show of his Australian tour was televised to the nation.
In October 1974, Sinatra appeared at New York City’s Madison Square Garden in a televised concert that was later released as an album under the title The Main Event – Live. Backing him was bandleader Woody Herman and the Young Thundering Herd, who accompanied Sinatra on a European tour later that month. The TV special garnered mostly positive reviews whilst the album — actually culled from various shows during his comeback tour — was only a moderate success, peaking at #37 on Billboard and #30 in the UK.
In 1979, in front of the Egyptian pyramids, Sinatra performed for Anwar Sadat. Back in Las Vegas, while celebrating 40 years in show business and his 64th birthday, he was awarded the Grammy Trustees Award during a party at Caesars Palace.
1980–90: Trilogy, She Shot Me Down, L.A. Is My Lady
In 1980, Sinatra’s first album in six years was released, Trilogy: Past Present Future, a highly ambitious triple album that found Sinatra recording songs from the past (pre-rock era) and present (rock era and contemporary) that he had overlooked during his career, while ‘The Future’ was a free-form suite of new songs linked à la musical theater by a theme, in this case, Sinatra pondering over the future. The album garnered six Grammy nominations — winning for best liner notes — and peaked at number 17 on Billboard’s album chart, while spawning yet another song that would become a signature tune, “Theme from New York, New York” as well as Sinatra’s much lauded (second) recording of George Harrison’s “Something” (the first was not officially released on an album until 1972’s Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2.)
The following year, Sinatra built on the success of Trilogy with She Shot Me Down, an album that revisited the dark tone of his Capitol years, and was praised by critics as a vintage late-period Sinatra. Sinatra would comment that it was “A complete saloon album… tear-jerkers and cry-in-your-beer kind of things.”
Sinatra was embroiled in controversy in 1981 when he worked a ten-day engagement for $2 million in Sun City, South Africa.
Frank Sinatra was selected as one of the five recipients of the 1983 Kennedy Center Honors, alongside Katharine Dunham, James Stewart, Elia Kazan and Virgil Thomson. Quoting Henry James in honoring Sinatra, Reagan said that “art was the shadow of humanity,” and said that Sinatra had “spent his life casting a magnificent and powerful shadow.”
Earlier that year, Sinatra had worked with Quincy Jones for the first time in nearly two decades on the album L.A. Is My Lady. Well received critically, L.A. Is My Lady came after an album of duets with Lena Horne, instigated by Jones, was abandoned after Horne developed vocal problems and Sinatra committed to other engagements, could not wait to record.
1990s: Duets, final performances
In 1990, Sinatra celebrated his 75th birthday with a national tour, and was awarded the second “Ella Award” by the Los Angeles–based Society of Singers. At the award ceremony, he performed for the final time with Ella Fitzgerald.
In December, as part of Sinatra’s birthday celebrations, Patrick Pasculli, the Mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, made a proclamation in his honor, declaring that “no other vocalist in history has sung, swung and crooned and serenaded into the hearts of the young and old… as this consummate artist from Hoboken”. The same month Sinatra gave the first show of his Diamond Jubilee Tour at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
In 1993 Sinatra made a surprise return to Capitol Records and the recording studio for Duets, which was released in November.
The artists who added their vocals to the album worked for free, and a follow-up album (Duets II) was released in 1994, which reached #9 on the Billboard charts.
Still touring, despite various health problems, Sinatra remained a top concert attraction on a global scale during the first half of the 1990s. At times, his memory seemed to fail him, and a fall onstage in Richmond, Virginia in 1994 signaled further problems.
Sinatra’s final public concerts were held in Japan’s Fukuoka Dome in December 1994. The following year, on February 25, 1995, at a private party for 1,200 select guests on the closing night of the Frank Sinatra Desert Classic golf tournament, Sinatra sang before a live audience for the very last time. Esquire reported of the show that Sinatra was “clear, tough, on the money” and “in absolute control.” His closing song was “The Best is Yet to Come.”
Sinatra was awarded the Legend Award at the 1994 Grammy Awards. He was introduced by Bono, who said of Sinatra “Frank’s the chairman of the bad attitude… rock ‘n roll plays at being tough, but this guy is the boss. The chairman of boss… I’m not going to mess with him, are you?” Sinatra called it “the best welcome…I ever had.” However, during his speech, Sinatra apparently ran too long and was curtly cut off by music, then commercials, leaving Sinatra looking confused while talking into a dead microphone.
In 1995, to mark Sinatra’s 80th birthday, the Empire State Building glowed blue. A star-studded birthday tribute, Sinatra: 80 Years My Way held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, was his last televised appearance.
Sinatra was elected to the Gaming Hall of Fame in 1997.
Sinatra had three children; Nancy, Frank Jr. and Tina by his first wife Nancy Barbato (married 1939-1951). He was married three more times, to the actresses Ava Gardner (married 1951-1957) and Mia Farrow (married 1966-1968) and finally to Barbara Marx (married 1976), to whom he was still married at his death.
Throughout his life, Sinatra had mood swings and bouts of depression, symptoms of bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression. He himself acknowledged this fact, telling an interviewer in the 1950s: “Being an 18-karat manic-depressive, and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as emotion.” In her memoirs My Father’s Daughter, his daughter Tina wrote about the “eighteen-karat” remark: “As flippant as Dad could be about his mental state, I believe that a Zoloft a day might have kept his demons away. But that kind of medicine was decades off.”
After suffering a heart attack, Frank Sinatra died at 10:50 pm on May 14, 1998 at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, with his wife Barbara by his side. He was 82 years old. Sinatra’s final words, spoken as attempts were made to stabilize him, were “I’m losing.” His death was confirmed by the Sinatra family on their website with a statement accompanied by a recording of the singer’s version of “Softly As I Leave You.” The next night the lights on the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed in his honor. President Bill Clinton led tributes to Sinatra, stating that he had managed “to appreciate on a personal level what millions of people had appreciated from afar.” Elton John stated that Sinatra, “was simply the best – no one else even comes close.”
On May 20, 1998 at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, Sinatra’s funeral was held, with 400 mourners in attendance and hundreds of fans outside. Gregory Peck, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra, Jr. addressed the mourners, among whom were Jill St. John, Tom Selleck, Joey Bishop, Faye Dunaway, Tony Curtis, Liza Minnelli, Kirk Douglas, Robert Wagner, Don Rickles, Nancy Reagan, Angie Dickinson, Sophia Loren, Bob Newhart, Mia Farrow, and Jack Nicholson. A private ceremony was held later that day at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Palm Springs. The eulogy was given by lifelong spiritual adviser and minister Jairus Bellamy. Sinatra was buried following the ceremony next to his parents in section B-8 of Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, a quiet cemetery on Ramon Road at the border of Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage, near his famous Rancho Mirage compound, located on tree-lined Frank Sinatra Drive. His close friends Jilly Rizzo and Jimmy Van Heusen are buried nearby in the same cemetery.
The words “The Best Is Yet to Come” are imprinted on Sinatra’s grave marker.