|A Young Sinatra with Harry James in 1939.|
On July 13, 1939 Frank Sinatra’s voice was first released on a commercial recording—From the Bottom of My Heart with Harry James’ big band. The Brunswick release sold only about 8,000 copies, but set the singer’s career in motion.
Francis Albert Sinatra was born to Italian immigrant parents in on December 12, 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey. His father, Tony, was a city fireman, but his mother Dolly largely supported the family with her connections to the local Democratic Party and a busy home abortion business, which several times resulted in her arrest without interfering in the esteem in which she was held by neighbors.
Young Frank was spoiled by his mother and headstrong. After being expelled from high school in his freshman year for rowdiness he worked odd jobs, usually arranged through his mother’s political connections. She kept him in sharp clothes and pocket money while he chased girls, including a married woman which got him arrested.
By the early thirties he was singing in local dives and night clubs. His mother arranged—bribed or threatened depending on who tells the story—for her son to join a singing group experiencing local success. The newly named Hoboken Four was soon featuring Sinatra on lead. In 1935 they won the Major Bowles Armature Hour radio contest with more than 40,000 votes cast. Impressed, Bowles brought the boys back for more appearances under various names then signed them to a six month contract for a stage and radio tour.
After leaving the quartet, Sinatra returned to Hoboken where his mother got him a $15 a week job as a singer and master of ceremonies at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs. Meanwhile he haunted auditions in New York looking for a break. In March of 1939 he cut a demo recording with the Frank Mane. That went nowhere, but in June James hired him to a one year contract for $75 a week. Over the remaining months of the year the two recorded 10 more sides together, none of them hits. But All or Nothing at All would score big a few years later when re-released by Brunswick in the midst of the first wave of Sinatra mania.
In November rival bandleader Tommy Dorsey asked Sinatra to join him at a meeting in Chicago at the Palmer House. James recognized that Dorsey’s style would be better for his young singer than his own, which featured instrumentals and solos by the trumpet king with relatively few solo opportunities for a singer. James released him to Dorsey, for which Sinatra was always grateful.
His first appearance with the Dorsey band was in Rockford, Illinois in December, 1940. Within a year he cut more than 40 songs with I’ll Never Smile Again charting at number 1 for twelve weeks beginning in June. By May, 1941 he was ranked the Number 1 male singer by both Billboard and Downbeat magazines. Bobby soxers were mobbing his shows screaming and often fainting at his presence. The first ever teenage idol was born.
Despite the success, Sinatra’s relationship with the autocratic Dorsey was soon shaky, particularly because his original contract gave Dorsey one third of his lifetime entertainment industry earnings. When Sinatra started recording solo for Bluebird, with Dorsey’s approval, a good chunk of his earnings went into the band leader’s pocket. It was a deal that would have made Col. Tom Parker blush.
Late in ’42 he left the band and his contract was bought out for $75, 000 by Jules Stein, founder of MCA Records. Legend has it at Sinatra had pals in the Mafia who invited Dorsey to reconsider his contract with a gun to his head. Mario Puzzo enshrined that tale in a Roman a clef chapter in The Godfather. When the movie was made, Sinatra declined to play the singer obviously modeled on him and always vehemently denied the story.
Late in ’42 he left the band and his contract was bought out for $75, 000 by Jules Stein, founder of MCA Records. At any rate, Sinatra’s days as a band singer were behind him, but not his time as a teen idol. Throughout the war years he sold millions of records, stared on radio, made riotous public appearances, and began appearing in movies.
That a young, apparently healthy man could have such a lucrative career during the war years, however, aroused suspicion that Sinatra was somehow a draft dodger. Columnist Walter Winchell published a rumor based on an unsubstantiated tip that the singer had paid $40,000 to doctors for a phony health evaluation, the beginning of a life long feud between the two men. The FBI investigated and concluded that he had been legitimately labeled 4-F because of, “of a perforated eardrum and chronic mastoiditis and…mental instability.
When Sinatra’s confidential FBI files were released under the Freedom of Information Act in 1985 a new tidbit was reviled—the assessment of the psychiatrist who reviewed him:
During the psychiatric interview, the patient stated that he was neurotic, afraid to be in crowds, afraid to go in the elevator, makes him feel that he would want to run when surrounded by people. He had comatic ideas and headaches and has been very nervous for four or five years. Wakens tired in the A.M., is run down and undernourished. The examining psychiatrist concluded that this selectee suffered from psychoneurosis and was not acceptable material from the psychiatric viewpoint.
This diagnosis is highly surprising given that Sinatra was then daily appearing in front of large crows and was always thought by his friends to thrive on them. Although the diagnosis was not used in his official draft evaluation because his physical conditions alone would have disqualified him, this revelation reignited suspicion that the shrink, at any rate, was paid off.
Or perhaps Sinatra was even then what he proved to be later in his career—a very good actor indeed.