Why Sinatra Matters by Pete Hamill


We live in an age where an artist’s “Reienvention” is hailed as something special, something remarkable.  Every time Lady Gaga appears in a new frock, the media goes nuts, because, that is what their readers expect.  The thing is, Madonna did it before and David Bowie did it better than all but one, the man who never really reinvented himself, who was always there, from one generation to the next, Frank Sinatra.  To many in my generation, he was “Old People’s Music”.  We knew Nancy from the constant reworking of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and kids today probably know Frank Sinatra Jr. better for his appearances on Family Guy better than they have ever known his dad.  But through all the static and preconceived ideas, the music, that voice, still moves us and causes us to remember.

I discovered very early that my instrument wasn’t my voice, it was the microphone.
— Frank Sinatra

Thanks to Karina Longworth‘s brilliant podcast, You Must Remember This, I received a copy of Pete Hamill‘s long out of print book,  Why Sinatra Matters, now reissued by Little, Brown.  Hamill knew Sinatra briefly in the seventies and these recollections, along with a true love of his music, combine to create a compelling reminder of the man, his longevity and his incredible influence.  The book opens with a knew introduction with Hamill looking back on his looking back as HBO’s Sinatra documentary triggers a resurgence of interest in the man himself.  Hamill briefly tells us the genesis of the book and the briefest of foretastes of what is to come.  The book itself begins at the end, as Sinatra himself dies and Hamill is reviewing the lengthy obituaries.  Hamill rightly calls the obituaries stale as for any famous person, the papers start writing them the moment their subject become famous, or hit that over the hill age of 35 these days.  It is from the cookie cutter remembrances that Hamill leaps off.  For most of us, we remember Sinatra in his later years, the standards, the same greatest hits, the same collective amnesia of everything that came before My Way.  But here is where Hamill takes us back to the very beginning in Italy, to see the world and attitudes that shaped the skinny, scarred kid from Hoboken into the man who transcended so many generations.  

One thing they knew about prizefighters, for example, was that you never knew what a fighter was made of until he had been knocked down. Second-raters stayed down and took the count. The great ones always got up. Sinatra got up.
— Pete Hamill

The tale Hamill tells is compelling and focuses on the circumstances; racism, prohibition, Hoboken and America herself, that created the ambition in the man.  Given that most of the tale takes place in the beginning, Hamill’s argument is all the more forceful for showing us what created Sinatra rather than what he became.  The drive, determination and incredible hard work of those early days tends to be lost on us today where we think he arrived, almost fully formed, in the early 1940’s.  This is where the genius of Hamill’s writing comes in.  For every triumph, we see the effort, for every failure, we see the effect, for the determination, we see the cost to Sinatra himself and those around him.  As an argument, and Hamill in my case is rather preaching to the choir, it is a very effective one.  Seeing what created the man and the influences that shaped him puts Sinatra in sharp contrast to the Legend we all feel we know.  I loved this book and look forward to returning to it again, joining Pete and Frank, on that midnight in New York in P.J. Clarke’s bar with the Jack flowing and that music wafting over from the jukebox.

Why Sinatra Matters by Pete Hamill is available now.

You Must Remember This by Karina Longworth is currently available on iTunes and via Karina’s website.  It is ace, join us.  The current season is about MGM and the tales of the studio’s golden age.  They covered a lot of stuff up.  Episode two in the series, about Sinatra’s Triolgy triple-album, is wonderful and draw’s from Pete’s book.

Thanks for the autograph Pete.

Thanks for the autograph Pete.

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