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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Observations on a book: Pete Hamill - Why Sinatra Matters.

There are books, and then there are books and then there are more books.

Some books you read, enjoy, then  put on the shelf where they gather dust until, eventually, they go into the charity bag.

Other books you wonder why you bought them in the first place, maybe an unexpected, unwanted gift. Whatever. However, there is also that magical moment when, you stumble across a book that may have begun life in one of the former categories but, like the moment when you discover the girl whose pigtails you once pulled at school no longer has braces on her teeth and is now wearing a bra, things change.

This is that book. there have been countless books on Sinatra, I have a shelf full of them, most of which are gathering dust.

Not this one. Written just after Sinatra's death in 1998 it's about the great man and yet it isn't. The highs and lows, the loves and the Mob are in there, neither glorified or brushed over, more as a dusky background to an amazing life.

The book opens in 1970, or thereabouts. The author is sitting in the backroom of a late night bar, with Frank, sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, Jilly Rizzo and a few of the few who ever got close to the greatest singer of his era. Outside it's raining and such is the power of the author's descriptive powers that you are there with him in a rundown bar on Third Street in Manhattan. You can taste the Jack Daniel's, smell the rain.

So yes, the book is about Sinatra but, unlike any other biography (if this is indeed a biography) you've ever read. Hamill  attempts neither deification nor vilification but places the man, his life, his music in relation to the times.

Today, when the Black Lives Matter movement is so justifiably in the forefront, the author also points out that the early Italian immigrants were also being lynched and quotes the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti cause célèbre. Sinatra, when asked why he contributed to the NAACP said it was because he knew what it was to be a member of  a minority group.

Hamill quotes from an interview he did with Dizzy Gillespie: "The professional is the guy that can do it twice."

"Wow, is that true" said Frank.

The author goes on to say "The world of my grandchildren will not listen to Sinatra in the way that four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives. Long after his death, Charlie Parker still plays his version of the urban blues. Billie Holiday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts in joy".

By coincidence, I talked with a cousin whom I'd never had contact with for some years. During the course of our telephone conversation she told me that her 22 year old grandson had just discovered Sinatra ...
Lance.

Pete Hamill: Why Sinatra Matters. Published 1998 by Little Brown & Co. Ltd. ISBN. 0-3316-34796-5

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