Emerson, Eros, and convention in Sinatra’s vocal styling

by Michael Boughn


Let me start with Emerson and some explanation of how he found his way into my thinking about Frank Sinatra’s singing. First off, by Emerson I mean Stanley Cavell’s Emerson, the Emerson who is the inspiration for Nietzsche and thus in sense the one who breaks the ground for both Heidegger and Wittgenstein and what follows from them. This Emerson is the inventor of American thinking as a mode of engagement with the world that circulates around the invention of something called “the ordinary.” If the ordinary as a category of human experience takes on particular importance from the 16th century on with the rise of Modernity, Emerson is among the first to recognize the ways in which it opens up a new relation to a world no longer informed by magisterial incursions of extra-terrestrial significance. From the moment he first rejects the possibility of administering the Rite of the Last Supper, Emerson sets out on a course to rethink the world, and thinking itself, within the parameters he associates with an unrealized culture of democracy. The vocabulary of that project centres around words like “ordinary,” “common” and “familiar” in so far as they denote that which is here beside us, that which we share.

            In one sense this is Emerson’s move to get around or beyond a metaphysics and theology that not only have lost their ability to signify, but which hold the activity of thinking in thrall to the already thought, that is destructive of thinking. In a further sense, the very life of the world is then at stake, in so far as thinking is intimately implicated in living. It’s as if we are no longer able to even see the world because, as Emerson argued over and over, we are too busy worrying about what some dead guy like Jesus said or did. This world that we can’t see—blinded as we are by the already thought—is that world that Emerson calls ordinary. He makes the point over and over, as did his student, Henry Thoreau, that we do not yet know what it means to live in an ordinary world.

            America—and Frank Sinatra is nothing if not an American artist—has always had a strangely ambivalent relationship to this idea of the ordinary. On the one hand, the very idea of America as a city on a hill, a theocratic bastion of righteousness, posits the place as extraordinary. The whole destructive notion of so-called American exceptionalism arises out of this train of thought. At the same time, however, an equally powerful idea of America as the embodiment of the ordinary is deeply embedded in the sense of America as realizing the unprecedented experiment in democratic culture so striking in de Crevecoeur’s descriptions of colonial America. It’s this latter strain that Emerson bases his hopeful—Cavell calls it “further”—thinking on, the thinking of a further America. It is a world in which the hierarchical grandiosities of the old world are succeeded by a world in which real value resides in the ordinary. “I am Nobody—who are you?” Emily Dickinson asks with that clarity of mind that characterized her life and work in the imagination of such a truly democratic place.

            One of the places such an imagination of a possible America has come to dwell from time to time is in what is broadly referred to as American popular culture, especially as it has evolved in the 20th century. Nowhere is this more evident than in the repertoire Sinatra drew on for the bulk of his material—the so-called American popular song. There’s not time here to fully lay out the history of that musical genre. Suffice to say it was an amazing marriage of certain Americanized European and African traditions that gave rise between about 1920 and 1950 to the idea, as Will Friedwald puts it, “that music could have substance as well as mass-markeability.” The result was an astonishing body of musical work that still resonates with power by composers like Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers and his various lyricists, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and so on.    

Some of it came from Tin Pan Alley, much from the musical theatre that developed throughout those years derived from the traditions of operetta and opéra comique. Opéra-comique was related to the Italian opera buffa, but instead of singing everything, as in the case of mainstream opera, unsung dialog furthered the narrative, as it crucially does in musical theatre. Jerome Kern began his career writing oprettas, and most of the rest of them—the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter—grew up in New York at a time when opera was immensely popular. While the black composers had a different relationship to it than the white ones, all of them grew up in the shadow of its authority..

Certainly one similarity between opera and the democratically mediated/Americanized musical theatre was the common celebration of the unique, individual voice usually raised to praise or damn love as a curse or blessing of humanity which in either case confirms the nobility and gravitas—and often the foolishness—of the human. Italian opera, which Frank Sinatra grew up listening to (Puccini was his favourite composer), particularly celebrated that in the development of a mode of vocal production called bel canto. I raise it here because Sinatra in an early interview when asked to identify how his singing was different from what was then current declared that he sang in a tradition that he called bel canto, and then added, “without making a point of it.” This rider is significant as the qualification that opens bel canto to the ordinary.

There is endless debate about what constitutes bel canto. James Stark, who wrote the book on it, finally can only say that “when a singer sings with chiaroscuro, with appoggio, with equalized registers, with flexibility and a pleasing vibrato, we immediately identify this with bel canto training.” (225) On the other hand, everyone agrees that it is not the heavy tone associated with large orchestras and what Owen Jordan calls “darkly romantic subject matter” in which the individuality of the singer is submerged in various mythic dimensions of music and libretto. Bel canto is expressive rather than declamatory, and what it expresses is the drama of emotions through a specially developed “word-note-tone” relationship. In the beginning, bel canto pitted itself against the polyphony of church choirs, and a couple of centuries later, against Wagner. Throughout that history it claims a lyricism that is native to the thought of individual passion, of expression as art, and of virtuoso voices.

When Sinatra makes his claim to bel canto, it is at the far end of that tradition and he was drawing it into a new development of virtuoso singing, one he helped to create. In one sense, he was simply signifying an art voice, a voice trained or otherwise hip to certain conventions that signify artful beauty, but of a specific order. It involves the achievement of a certain tone or colour, the equality of registers, and the toning down or reigning in of certain vocal gestures (notably legato, portamentos, and especially vibrato) moving them toward a more simple or ordinary sound, a sound that approaches and suggests the spoken voice, even as it frames that within the parameters of song. In much the same way that the 19th century Italian vocal theorists developed their sense of bel canto to counter the influence of Wagner, Sinatra invoked it to differentiate his own singing from that of the reigning king of American pop music, Bing Crosby.

Take a song like Cole Porter’s “Just One of those Things.” Bing Crosby released it on “Bing Crosby Sings Cole Porter” in 1949, but probably first recorded in 1945. Here’s the opening: [Crosby opening} One of the most notable thing about Crosby’s performance is the marked difference between his upper and lower register. It’s obvious in the opening bar where he comes in squarely on the beat with a dramatic, precipitous octave drop (A to A) from “It” to “was.” The bright, brassiness of the upper register and the deep, dark colour of the lower are notable in their contrast. He uses this device throughout, often as in bar 8 where he subjects “flings” to a portamentos, swooping from lower to upper and then back to lower register. In bars 9-16 of the bridge he sustains the shift to the upper register even longer, drawing more attention to the shift in colour. [Crosby colour sample]. In fact, this distinction between upper and lower register is one of the defining characteristics of Crosby’s crooning and the staged artfulness of his songs.

Broad vibrato is another convention that contributes to that. “Things” in bar 4 is marked with what seems a fairly wide vibrato. But when he hits “one” in the following line the vibrato has at least twice the frequency, which is further emphasized by doubling the duration of the note. [Crosby opening] Here he is at bar 11 on “bells:” [Crosby vibrato] Combining marked register shifts with swooping portamentos and broad vibrato, the end of the song is marked by a dramatic, almost lugubrious, fluiditiy. [Crosby end]

Compare this with Sinatra’s version of Porter’s song on his first comeback album arranged solely by Nelson Riddle, Swing Easy, recorded in 1953, four or five years after Crosby’s version.  Numerous characteristic differences are evident from the beginning of the tune, especially Riddle’s swinging, up tempo, brassy chart, and Sinatra’s justly famous phrasing that has him in coming in after, before, around, anywhere but on the beat.

Somewhat less obvious, but no less important, however, is Sinatra’s modulation of vocal conventions. His opening legato attack is associated with bel canto procedures. Throughout he controls and reduces vibrato. Compare “things” here to Crosby, but also “one” which Sinatra strips of vibrato and emphasis. [Sinatra opening] The result is that, whereas Crosby’s opening is heavily decorated with devices that call attention to the artfulness of the song, Sinatra uses only the most restrained devices—the legato attack, tightly controlled vibrato, and occasional slight note bending. There are none of the swooping portamentos Crosby is fond of, none of the wide, sustained tremelos.

More important, however, is Sinatra’s controlled chiaroscuro and the equality of register, which, as James Stark has pointed out, is central to the art of bel canto. Sinatra very carefully developed his ability to modulate between upper and lower register without any noticeable shift, while maintaining the light/dark balance within his articulation. While extremely difficult to achieve, the resulting tonality is deceptively casual in its affect. [Sinatra colour sample] The result is an almost conversational tone, a radical simplification of the overall sound (Sinatra closing].

It’s become a commonplace, one Sinatra encouraged, that his adoption of Tommy Dorsey’s circular breathing technique allowed him to sing extraordinarily long phrases, articulating them in ways that naturally fell into an expressive story telling mode. He never just sang lyrics. As Will Friedlander points out, every song was a “multilayered process involving dynamics, shading, accenting, twisting of pitch and vocal color, all within a single-long breathed phrase.”

I want to emphasize his handling of vocal conventions here, not to oversimplify the complexity of his art, but because it seems to me to embody the thrust of the changes he brought into play, which was to reframe the artfulness of the song so that it approaches speech, say, the ordinary. This resembles the same kind of reframing that occurred in poetry over several centuries where artful conventions, most notably regular end rhyme and regular meter,  but others as well (complex metaphorical constructions, for instance), were more and more deemphasized or abandoned until poetry arrived at Williams’s red wheelbarrow and eventually at Ashbery’s Myrtle.

Alan Livingston, who signed Sinatra to Capitol Records in that crucial move that refounded his singing career, referred to the resulting quality of Sinatra’s singing as “credibility.” I’d like to introduce the word “intimacy” here and suggest that one of the main sources of Sinatra’s credibility is his ability to create a sense of intimacy with all the implications that word carries, at the heart of which is an experience of closeness. Thoreau in Walden calls this “nearness” and Emerson “familiarity.” In both cases the discourse circulates around the idea of acknowledging a deep alienation that characterizes our modern experience. Cavell in his discussions of Emerson traces this concern back to the rise of skepticism, a problem with the question of what “knowing” is, and concurrent with that certain historical developments in the world of work and culture.

Crosby’s innovations at one time probably also suggested intimacy, and specifically an intimacy that was implicated in a growing culturally acceptable eroticism. But the specific configuration of the intimacy was involved with the persona the singer chose to project which itself was limited by what was culturally possible at the moment. Crosby’s public image was complicated but fundamentally wholesome and, as they said, all-American, a phrase which designated a kind of masculinity that respected a woman’s virtue even as it played seductively to her. The eroticism, and the intimacy, were muted by, or contained within the limits of a slightly eroticized romanticism in which the woman was located as object. Even when he sings about one of those fabulous flings and trips to the moon on gossamer wings, the sexuality implicit in Cole Porter’s lyrics is mediated by Crosby’s vocal conventions toward an intense sentimentality that to us, and I suspect to Sinatra, seems corny.

One of Sinatra’s crucial moves was to realize that he could push that eroticism and intimacy further, beyond the bounds of family and reproduction, and address the woman as sexual subject. This moves beyond limiting senses of virtue, beyond even the legitimization of eros through love. In large part this was due to the loosening of larger cultural restrictions by the media, advertisers, and artists. But Sinatra was among those who were at the forefront of that movement to re-imagine and free up Eros.

Part of his artistic genius was to realize early on that one of the key components of that move was the use of vocal gestures that suggest or invoke the ordinary, the familiar, the near. Even when he was categorized as a crooner during his time with Dorsey in the 40’s, he had already ditched excessive ornamentation used by Crosby and stripped his voice down to the bare essentials. The result was the bobbysoxer phenomenon, the first cultural explosion of mass erotic excitement by women in the U.S. What Sinatra offered those girls was a sense of connection, a sense that he was singing to them, personally, and that he wanted them and knew that they wanted him, too. It was a feeling of intimacy in a world that arguably otherwise offered only an increasing feeling of alienation and meaninglessness as the institutions of Modernity continued relentlessly to secularize, industrialize, and urbanize. In this sense he is the realization of those tendencies that Sherwood Anderson first documents in Winesburg, Ohio, that compulsive turning to sexuality, as if that physical contact could somehow fill the hunger for a world of lost connections.