"Frank: The Voice," an Extraordinary Book about Old Blue Eyes

A review of James Kaplan's new biography of Frank Sinatra

James Kaplan, author of the new Frank Sinatra biography, “Frank: The Voice,” admits that writing this book was not going to be easy. “From the word go with ‘Frank,’ it was starkly clear to me that I was far out of my depth, miles out at sea where my limited experience was concerned.”

Kaplan, who co-authored “Dean and Me” with Jerry Lewis and “You Cannot be Serious” with John McEnroe, later adds, “If I wasn’t qualified, I owed it to Sinatra to qualify myself.”

While these comments should have been placed at the beginning of the book rather than on page 720, the author should be commended for his honesty, and truth be told, in many ways, James Kaplan did qualify himself.

Like many other celebrity biographers these days, the author relied on a hefty amount of previously published material. And I mean hefty: the bibliography consists of four pages, set in very small type. And though he extends “deep gratitude” to dozens of sources, from Mitch Miller to Mickey Rooney, the work is a bit short on incisive first-person interviews. There are, however, good quotes—albeit brief ones--from the likes of singers Connie Haines and Jo Stafford, Sinatra valet George Jacobs, actor Ernest Borgnine, director/author Peter Bogdanovich, Sinatra pianist Bill Miller, singer/musicologist Michael Feinstein, and record producer George Avakian

Needless to say, Frank Sinatra’s children were not interviewed, nor were widow Barbara or ex-wives Nancy and Mia Farrow. Kaplan probably didn’t even ask them. They would have told him what he could do with his book.

What Kaplan did do, in what was a yeoman’s job of research, was to gather virtually every book and article written about and/or related to Frank Sinatra , including reams of press reports, radio/television interviews and gossip columns from the pens and voices of Walter Winchell, Dorothy Kilgallen, Earl Wilson, Louella Parsons, Bob Thomas, Sidney Zion, Bill Boggs, Dorothy Manners, Leonard Lyons, Hedda Hopper, Westbrook Pegler, Lee Mortimer and various lesser-knowns.

He skillfully assembled these materials into an often compelling work that puts the reader smack in the emotional and historical middle of Sinatra’s time with Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, the brouhaha surrounding his exit from Dorsey’s band, his teen idol days, career decline and ultimate comeback. Sinatra’s stormy relationship and marriage to Ava Gardner, crucial to the years covered in “The Voice,” gets a goodly amount of space.

Kaplan’s descriptions of Frank Sinatra’s vocal artistry through the years and the critical association with arrangers, though coming from a non-musician, are touching, charming and on-the-mark. It’s clear that, in time, James Kaplan eventually “felt” what really went on with the man and his music.

Particularly fascinating is his explanation of how listeners could literally “hear” Sinatra’s decline coming on via subtle changes in the sound of his voice. But those readers who are interested in an in-depth and scholarly analysis of Sinatra’s singing and recordings should buy Will Friedwald’s exceptional book, “Sinatra! This Song is You: A Singer’s Art.” Those interested in The Chairman should, without doubt, have both books.

Much of the information within is not new, but it’s rarely been presented with this degree of detail, sensitivity and fairness. Many of the Sinatra books out there had an agenda of some sort. Kitty Kelly’s infamous tome, for example, had but one intent: to skewer the man in-print.

James Kaplan’s book simply relies on all—and I mean all-- the available research materials at hand to fashion a book that is, by and large, objective. That's a rarity, especially when it applies to Sinatra.

At 700-plus pages, “Frank:The Voice” ends in 1954, when Frank Sinatra was experiencing his miraculous comeback. But what about the years 1954 to 1994? Outside of a short tidbit or two related to the post-1954 years—Kaplan’s comment on Barbara Sinatra is a gem--it’s almost as if the last, very productive 40 years of Sinatra’s life didn’t happen. It would have been logical and intelligent for the author to comment on why he ended the story when he did.

I suspect that, at least in terms of how Kaplan works, covering another 40 years would have required another thousand or so pages at minimum, which likely would have made this book unpublishable.

Perhaps there will be a Volume Two and maybe even a Volume Three. I look forward to both.

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Bruce Klauber