Monday, January 03, 2011

Singing in the rain

I've really had my legs knocked out from under me by a flu today, and I find my brain's not really up to a proper post, so I'll just share a passage from James Kaplan's new biography of Frank Sinatra. This scene comes in 1952, when Frank was near rock bottom: he'd been dropped by his agent, dropped by his studio, and was damn near to being dropped by his record label. Worse, the public seemed to have turned away, to other singers and other styles. Oh, and his running battle of a marriage to Ava Gardner was at its fiercest pitch.

Desperate, Frank booked a gig on Kauai . . .
playing a county fair in a tent. A leaky tent.

He pulled aside a flap and peered out at the audience. It was just a couple hundred red-faced tourists and hicks in aloha shirts and jeans and muumuus. Jesus Christ. The rain was drumming on the canvas, dripping on the ground. There was no orchestra, just an upright piano on a wooden platform. He closed the flap and looked at Bill Miller sitting on a folding chair, lean as a spider and pale as death--in Hawaii!--and sipping a cup of tea. Miller raised his eyebrows. Sinatra shook his head. Soon he'd be playing revival meetings.

Miller's thin lips formed into something like a smile.

Suddenly two brown-skinned girls in grass skirts came in, carrying flowered garlands, beaming. They dropped the leis over Frank's head, one by one, giggling, covering his cheeks with little kisses, and even as he grinned, his eyes grew moist

Frank turned to Miller. Should they do it?

Miller nodded and rose. Frank pulled the canvas aside and walked out onto the little stage, the garlands around his neck. The small crowd went nuts the second they saw him, clapping over their heads, whistling, stamping the ground. For a minute you couldn't even hear the rain on the tent. Sinatra was still smiling, the first time he'd been happy in weeks. He sat on the edge of the stage, dangling his legs, and said, "What do you want to hear?"
Kaplan's book--which only goes up to 1954, a fact that Doubleday's marketing crew ably buries in a line of copy--is completely absorbing, in part because I don't know Sinatra's life the way I know his music. My reading about Frank in the past has been almost entirely limited to books that turn to the facts of his life only in order to explain his music. (And of those, you still can't do better than Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You.) And while there's a certain "you are there!", overly novelistic quality to Kaplan's writing that at times I find frustrating, at other times, as in the scene above, his technique works perfectly. In that scene, he takes an utterly unimportant, throwaway concert date and makes us feel what it must have been like--and makes us wish, rain and muumuus and all, that we had been there.


  1. My sympathies with the flu. I've been spending most of my time in bed this year, trying to get over some godawful chest cold.

  2. Hope you're feeling better.


    word verification: prout
    the hollow feeling of French letters bereft of esprit.

  3. andrea4:31 PM

    I bemoan the lack of "of" after the word "couple." This author says "couple hundred." Ugh. How did that ever get started? I see it everywhere now.

    word verification: minep
    short form of mint julep.