SCOTT SIMON, host:
You can probably name an awful lot of American singers who were considered the biggest stars of their time - Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson - but only one was the singular presence who became known as the Chairman of the Board.
(Soundbite of song, "I've Got You Under My Skin")
Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) I've got you under my skin. I've got you deep in the heart of me. So deep in my heart that you're really a part of me. I've got you under my skin.
SIMON: Before Frank Sinatra was a celebrity, he was a skinny kid from Hoboken who became famous for making bobbysoxers wet their theater seats. And before he became one of the most powerful figures in American culture, he was considered a fading star, a draft dodger, a mama's boy, a kept man, and a has-been.
James Kaplan, the novelist and journalist, has written an acclaimed new biography about Frank Sinatra between 1915 and 1954 - a time that took him from Hoboken to Hollywood, Ava Gardner to anonymous call girls, pop hits to suicidal despair. His new book is called "Frank: The Voice." James Kaplan joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. JAMES KAPLAN (Author, "Frank: The Voice"): I'm delighted to be here, Scott. Thank you.
SIMON: And tell us, as we hear these - the fading strains now, how do you characterize what was distinct and - I don't mind saying - amazing about Frank Sinatra's voice?
Mr. KAPLAN: There's this spookiness to the quality of this voice. And you can throw adjectives at it from now until the crack of doom and you can, you can get at it. You can talk about its evolution from this sort of young piping, more piping voice of his balladry days with Harry James and with Tommy Dorsey, and then the oaken, deeper quality, more cello-like that it acquires as he matured.
But ultimately what you have with Sinatra's voice is that quality that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. It's something that is extraordinarily powerful but very, very hard to define. I hope that's not too much of a waffle.
SIMON: In your own account, some of the swooning at a Frank Sinatra concert and screaming from young women - used to be referred to bobbysoxers - was orchestrated.
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes, it was orchestrated. Frank hired the publicist George Evans. As soon as he left Dorsey in 1943 and went out on his own, he hired the greatest publicist in New York, Evans. And when Evans began to see what he did to these girls - he went to a couple of concerts, he went to the Paramount, where there were seven shows a day but the girls wouldn't leave their seats -they came in at nine in the morning and they stayed all day, and if the seat got damp, the seat got damp - they ate there, they sat there, they stayed there, and when he sang, they raised such a commotion of screaming - pre-Beatles screaming, pre-Elvis screaming - and, yes, actually swooning here and there - that his jaw dropped open.
He began to see that this was something that he could really work with. But yes, he primed the pump. He would have a few girls scream at key moments in given songs and the others would follow suit.
SIMON: We can forget, given the legend he became, that I think it's fair to say that Frank Sinatra, particularly after Pearl Harbor, was one of the most despised men in America.
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes, he was particularly despised among the armed forces. He was derided as a draft dodger. The brave boys fighting overseas always had the feeling that Sinatra, who had a big reputation as a hound, was home wooing their women and worse. And you know, they had a point. He was doing his best.
SIMON: So Ava Gardner, both the greatest love and greatest despair of his life?
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes. Despair was built into the DNA of that relationship. Its roots were in white-hot passion, which usually managed to develop into white-hot hostilities and then resolve itself in sweet makeup sex.
SIMON: I don't think we've ever had anybody else use that phrase on our show before. Thank you, Mr. Kaplan.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KAPLAN: Glad I could help.
SIMON: Did he try and take his life over her?
Mr. KAPLAN: Let me put it this way. There were about three occasions in Frank's life, and possibly four, when he made suicide attempts. One of the suicide attempts - and this was really after Ava had in fact left him in 1953 - was extremely grave. He slit his wrist - one wrist - he bled a great deal and he really could have died.
SIMON: I want to get you to tell me, though, about - 'cause this touches on an important phase of his life - about what sounds a lot like somebody reaching the end of his rope and maybe a suicide attempt - after he saw a crowd in Times Square.
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes. He saw a crowd of kids waiting to see Eddie Fisher. This is 1952. But this needs to be put in context, this incident. It was not only that Eddie Fisher had supplanted Sinatra at the Paramount; his movie studio, MGM, had dropped him, his agents had dropped him, his record label was in the process of dropping him, the IRS was chasing him, the columnist for the most powerful newspapers in the country were constantly slamming him for being A) a communist and B) in the pocket of the mafia.
He was nothing and nowhere, and he was dead broke. And Ava Gardner was in the process of leaving him and all this was happening when he saw this crowd gathered at the Paramount Theater for Eddie Fisher.
SIMON: And yet Ava Gardner did him I guess what turned out to be, can we fairly say, almost the greatest favor of his career.
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes. She was very, very important helping get him the role that took him to the greatest comeback that has ever happened in American show business, in American culture.
SIMON: Of course the role is Maggio in "From Here to Eternity."
(Soundbite of movie, "From Here to Eternity")
Mr. SINATRA: (as Maggio) (Unintelligible). He likes to whack me in the gut. He asks me if it hurts, and I spit at him like always. Only yesterday it was bad. He hit me. He hit me. He hit me.
Mr. KAPLAN: By the time he did "From Here to Eternity," he had done eight or nine movies, many of them in a sailor suit for MGM. He was, as Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, which produced "From Here to Eternity," said: you're a singer, you're not an actor. That's how he was perceived, but he knew that this role of Angelo Maggio was him. He felt it in his bones that this could change his life.
SIMON: Your biography ends when Frank Sinatra wins the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for "From Here to Eternity." What did that gold statue mean?
Mr. KAPLAN: It was beyond a comeback. It meant that he could do something that nobody had ever thought he could do, and that was to play a credible dramatic role. And yet what was so striking to me in ending my - the narrative of what is to be the first of two volumes with this book, it felt to me like not a climax or a culmination, it felt like a dynamic pause in his life.
Frank Sinatra was such an uncomfortable man, such a deeply uncomfortable and hugely ambitious man that no prize, no achievement was ever really enough for him. So it meant everything and at the same time he had to go to Capitol Records and begin to make this string of amazing records. He had so much left to achieve and so much life left to live. It's an amazing juncture.
SIMON: Is there a song that, to you, kind of exemplifies the Sinatra of this era, your book ending in 1954?
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. KAPLAN: People always talk about one of his first recordings with Capitol, "I've Got the World on a String."
(Soundbite of song, "I've Got the World on a String")
Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) I've got the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow, got the string around my finger...
Mr. KAPLAN: Arranged by Nelson Riddle, the great, great Nelson Riddle. And when Frank heard this arrangement in the rehearsal and then sang it and sang it again, it is famously reported that he said, I'm back, baby, I'm back. And he meant it to the depth of his soul.
It's an incredible number to listen to. It still gives me goosebumps to hear it, not only because it's a great number but because it was the essence of his resurrection.
SIMON: Mr. Kaplan, thanks so much.
Mr. KAPLAN: Mr. Simon, thank you.
SIMON: James Kaplan, his new book, a biography, is "Frank: The Voice."
(Soundbite of song, "I've Got the World on a String")
Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) I've got the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow, got the string around my finger. What a world, what a life, I'm in love. Life is a beautiful thing...
SIMON: You can see a slideshow of photos from James Kaplan's new book at NPRMusic.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.