A review of James Kaplan's "Frank: The Voice," which tells the story of Frank Sinatra's first four decades, in which the great singer developed his unmatched sound through hard work, countless saloon gigs and heartbreak.

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‘Frank: The Voice’

by James Kaplan

Doubleday, 768 pp., $35

In the early ’90s, seated in the front row at a Las Vegas showroom, I reached out and touched Frank Sinatra. Actually, it was just his shoe, but it was still a decidedly unhip move for a music writer, and perhaps an unsafe one, as Frank’s bodyguards watched from the side.

One suspects James Kaplan, author of “Frank: The Voice,” would understand. “Frank” spends 768 pages telling the story of just Sinatra’s first four decades, and everything just short of his choice in black loafers is mentioned.

Those four decades are the years when Frank became a star, and it is a compelling story.

The book’s title is a nod to Sinatra’s nickname, but also a hint that Kaplan wants to dissect the very DNA of Sinatra’s vocal chords. He details how the timbre of Frank’s vocals changed as the singer discovered his own pathos. Sinatra didn’t start out a great singer, but got there through hard work and countless saloon gigs.

If there was an apex to Sinatra’s early career, Kaplan dates it March 27, 1951, when fresh off being grilled over alleged mob ties, and lovesick for Ava Gardner, Sinatra cut “I’m a Fool to Want You.”

“Sinatra sang just one take — a take for ages,” Kaplan writes.

While many Sinatra aficionados argue that the sides Frank cut for Capitol Records in the early ’50s were his most important, much attention here goes to Frank’s Columbia recordings from the ’40s.

By the time he cut “I’m a Fool to Want You,” Sinatra knew heartbreak, sadness and loneliness, and all are on that magnificent recording, along with a scent of Ava Gardner’s perfume.

Kaplan is skilled at painting a scene, and he turns readers into “flies on the wall.” When it works, particularly in descriptions of Sinatra’s studio sessions, the music comes alive.

Yet far too often in “The Voice,” Kaplan tells us what Sinatra is thinking, not just doing, and this weakens an otherwise excellent book. For example, when FDR dies, Kaplan tells us the known facts, that Sinatra attended a Hyde Park, N.Y., memorial service.

Then the author plays shrink and confessor: Frank “felt deeply sad, as though he has lost a beloved uncle; he felt sorrow with the rest of the country. … But somehow the sadness didn’t get Frank where he lived. He was young, in the vibrant prime of life: Roosevelt had been an old, sick man.”

This isn’t a one-time egress, as it happens on virtually every other page. It places this book squarely between Nick Tosches’ mad take on Jerry Lee Lewis in “Hellfire” and the kind of psychology-free narration of Peter Guralnick’s biography of Elvis Presley, “Last Train to Memphis.”

Kaplan also cites Kitty Kelly’s trash-filled Sinatra bio as a frequent source, another miscue.

“The Voice” ends in 1954, as Sinatra wins an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in “From Here to Eternity,” and of course we read what Sinatra is thinking as he awaits the envelope.

Yet Kaplan is sharp with his next scene, as Sinatra blows off an Oscar party to walk the streets in the wee, small hours. It’s a beautiful image, and one that helps redeem “The Voice” — the most popular singer in America walking the streets alone.

It is hard to imagine the same man, four decades later, playing in Vegas, and letting a goofball fan touch his black loafer.

Seattle writer Charles R. Cross is the author of biographies of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.