Voice Of The Century – 'And Not Even Close'

A young Sinatra and adoring fans. Photo:  John T. Burns/AP
A young Sinatra and adoring fans. Photo: John T. Burns/AP

by Ray Setterfield

July 13, 1939 — When the Harry James Band recorded “From The Bottom Of My Heart” in New York on this day, the new vocalist was a skinny youngster called Frank Sinatra, cutting his first single. He was on a two-year contract and paid $75 a week.

Though the song may have come from the bottom of Sinatra’s heart, it was a flop, selling just 8,000 copies – small-fry by any standards. Undaunted, Sinatra went on to become one of the biggest-selling recording artists ever, notching up sales of more than 150 million records worldwide.

He was particularly popular in the United Kingdom where, later in his career, he gave regular concerts at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London. So it came as no surprise when, in 2001, BBC Radio announced that Sinatra had been voted the “Voice of the Century”.

“It wasn’t even close,” said DJ Paul Gambaccini, describing the result as “an emphatic victory for fabulous Frank.” About 45,000 votes were cast by the public but the BBC also took into account the views of singers and music experts.

Sinatra would probably have been pleased to note that trailing a long way behind him at Number Two in the poll was rock ’n’ roll king, Elvis Presley. Ol’ Blue Eyes, as he became known, once described rock music as “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear.” Others in the eclectic top ten included Bing Crosby, John Lennon, Ella Fitzgerald and Freddie Mercury.

Sinatra did have one thing in common with rock stars such as Elvis and The Beatles: in the 1940s he, too, was besieged by hordes of screaming, swooning teenage girls. They were known as “Bobbysoxers”, so-called because of their ankle-length white socks, and they caused mayhem at Sinatra’s live performances.

Despite his success as a recording artist and, to a lesser extent, as a movie star, Sinatra’s reputation will be forever tainted by his alleged connections to American gangsters. It is said that John F. Kennedy's wafer-thin victory in the 1960 presidential election was swung by his father, Joseph, after a talk with Sinatra.

Under an alleged deal, the singer would ask the mob to encourage their unionised workers to vote for the young Democrat. True or not, it is a matter of record that JFK squeaked to victory against Richard Nixon with the crucial help of votes by union members.

That was perhaps a case of wily Joe Kennedy doing things his way. Sinatra, of course, became famous for doing things “My Way” – the song that was to become his signature tune. The trouble is, he hated it.

In an interview in 2000, Tina, one of Sinatra’s daughters, revealed: “He came to hate the song. He thought it was self-serving and self-indulgent. But it stuck and he just couldn’t get it off his shoe.”

In the words of another Sinatra song: That’s Life.

Published: July 1, 2016

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