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The Life, Music and Genius of Frank Sinatra

In her music-filled lecture, “The Life, Music and Genius of Frank Sinatra,” Georgetown University professor and musicologist, Anna Celenza, traces the origins of the famous “Sinatra Sound” and analyzes his distinctive musical style.

In the excerpt below, Celenza discusses how Sinatra influenced other artists, and poses an answer to the question “What makes Frank Sinatra great?”

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The Life, Music and Genius of Frank Sinatra

Anna Celenza / Georgetown University

“Oscar Peterson said that he learned to phrase his melodies by listening to Frank Sinatra, but he wasn’t the only jazz musician… Miles Davis said he was very inspired by hearing Frank Sinatra sing. Lou Rawls, a hip-hop artist named Logic, Harry Connick Jr., Justin Timberlake, John Pizzarelli… Also Twyla Tharp, who was a fabulous choreographer. She created this piece called ‘The Sinatra Suite.’  If you go on Google and put in ‘Twyla Tharp’ and ‘Sinatra’ you’ll get videos of this, and Baryshnikov is the one dancing. You have to go watch it; it’s amazing. And Baryshnikov said that by really listening to Frank Sinatra sing, he learned to use his body in a whole new way. He learned to ‘phrase,’ physically, in a whole new way. So, these are just a few examples of people who were inspired by Frank Sinatra.”

“And so, to end my talk, I guess I would pose the question: ‘What makes Frank Sinatra great?’ Now if Frank Sinatra were here, he would say ‘It’s the music, Baby!” But he’s not. And I’m a musicologist who is at the end of my lesson, so I’m going to go over the ‘High Points’ so you can take your final notes.

What makes Frank Sinatra great?  First, he embraced technology. He really revived the way you use a microphone. He showed us how to phrase with microphones. He was very aware of technology. Second, he was constantly transforming. He didn’t sing things the same way his whole life. He was constantly thinking of the audience he was trying to reach, and the message that he wanted to give them. And then third, he overcame adversity. In the 1950s he was down and out, right? Everyone said ‘That’s it. Frank Sinatra’s washed up.’ But he came back!  We really like that in the U.S.  We like a ‘Comeback King.’ And that’s really, I think, in the end, what makes Frank Sinatra great.”

Learn More About Frank Sinatra’s Life

Frank Sinatra gave 20th-century America a voice. Through his music, stage shows, films and abashedly public private life, he offered audiences a vision of the “American Dream” that contrasted greatly with the suburban ideal of the hardworking man. Sinatra was entirely in tune with his audiences’ needs and desires. But this isn’t what made him great.

Why is Frank Sinatra famous? What is behind his “genius?” As this lecture demonstrates, Sinatra’s name lives on because of his distinctive musical style. His phrasing and tone, the timbre of his voice: these are the qualities that set him apart. Using numerous musical examples, Anna Celenza traces the origins of the famous “Sinatra Sound” and reveals how, over the last half century, it has influenced a disparate array of musical styles and genres that make up the kaleidoscopic nature of today’s American soundtrack.

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Anna Celenza is the Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music at Georgetown University. She is the author of several books, including Jazz Italian Style: From Its Origins in New Orleans to Fascist Italy and Sinatra, and her most recent book, Music that Changed America.  In addition to her scholarly work, she has served as a writer/commentator for NPR’s Performance Today and published eight award-winning children’s books, including Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite. She has been featured on nationally syndicated radio and TV programs, including the BBC’s “Music Matters” and C-Span’s “Book TV.”


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