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Revisit: Sinatra: An American Icon



Frank Sinatra was one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, an artist of such uncommon talent that he was known simply as “The Voice.”  Popular music’s first true teen idol, Sinatra began his career making girls swoon and fronting big bands during the years of World War II.  By the time of his passing at age 82 in 1998, he had achieved a rare artistic pinnacle: that of an American icon.

He came from Hoboken, New Jersey and humble Italian-American roots.  He learned to sing mostly on his own.  From the start, he reached for the stars and got there when few figured he would.  He made records and movies, too, winning GRAMMY Awards and Oscars.  He demanded artistic excellence from himself and everyone around him, and got it almost always.  When he sang the lyric, “I did it my way” from his hit song, “My Way,” such words never rang more true.

Frank Sinatra would have turned 100 years old in 2015.  This centennial exhibition, curated with the cooperation of the Sinatra Family, is the story of one of the greatest recording and performing careers of all time.  But it’s also the story of the man behind the music and the life behind the legacy.  Sinatra would have not had it any other way.

The exhibit debuted at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on March 4, 2015, before heading to the GRAMMY Museum L.A. LIVE on October 21, 2015 and the HistoryMiami Museum on March 4, 2016.


The fedora has become synonymous with the name Frank Sinatra.  By the 1950s, Frank had adopted that soft hat with the wide brim and made it his own.  That voice, those blue eyes, and that slightly-tilted fedora remain an instantly-recognizable trademark of the legendary Sinatra.

An American Living Room

The living room was the center of social activity in the typical American family in the 1940s.  Entertainment came primarily from the radio.  Families gathered around the radio, which was large enough to be considered a piece of furniture, and listened to dramas and comedy shows, as well as music programs.  Frank Sinatra was frequently heard on the radio in the 1940s.

In the exhibit, visitors were able to hear an episode of Songs by Sinatra, which was heard live on New York radio on April 24, 1947 over the CBS Radio Network.  Frank’s guests included Irving Berlin, Jane Powell, and the Pied Pipers, with Axel Stordahl conducting.

Hoboken and MOB

Frank Sinatra was born and raised in Hoboken, a densely populated New Jersey town located on the west bank of the Hudson River, just across from the New York City sections of Greenwich Village and Chelsea.  Popular for being the birthplace of baseball, Hoboken thrived as a port of entry in the late 1800s and early 20th century, due to its close proximity to Ellis Island.  During World War I, hundreds of thousands of American servicemen departed Hoboken for Europe.  After the war, immigrants from Italy and Ireland dominated local Hoboken neighborhoods.

Marty O’Brien’s was the name of the saloon owned by Dolly and Marty Sinatra in Hoboken, N.J.  At the time, Hoboken was divided into ethnic neighborhoods. With their business located in the city’s Irish neighborhood, Dolly and Marty thought it best for it to have an Irish name.  Marty O’Brien’s became a popular hangout for Hoboken firemen, of which Marty Sinatra was one.  It was also the place where young Frank Sinatra began to sing.  “My dad’s roots were in the saloon, and he never forgot that, never lost that,” remembered Nancy Sinatra, Jr.

The exhibit featured a walk-on trolley car, allowing visitors to experience the sights and sounds of a Hoboken, N.J. trolley ride.

Early Years

Francis Albert Sinatra was born on December 12, 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey.  The only child of Italian immigrants Dolly and Marty Sinatra, young Frankie showed singing talents at an early age.  Hearing street corner crooners in his Italian neighborhood and listening to the likes of Enrico Caruso and Bing Crosby, Sinatra dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a professional singer.

Early performances at local socials and taverns led to a 1935 radio performance on Major Bowes Amateur Hour in which a group Sinatra sang with, the Hoboken Four, took first place in a call-in contest.  Other performances, with groups such as Bill Henri and the Headliners, followed at the Rustic Cabin, a popular dinner and dance nightspot in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

From the start, Sinatra had his eyes on stardom.  Obsessive in planning out his career, Sinatra was confident he’d be discovered. In 1939, when big band trumpeter Harry James heard Sinatra perform on the radio, he sought out the young singer and invited him to join his newly formed orchestra.


The great crooner Bing Crosby was Frank Sinatra’s earliest and most important influence.  After hearing him perform live in 1935, Sinatra made up his mind to be a singer and to follow in the footsteps of Crosby.  Sinatra loved the tone of Crosby’s croon and admired his phrasing talents, meaning the way in which he manipulated the lyrics of a song around its melodic line.  Later Sinatra would be praised for his own phrasing.

Sinatra also admired and drew inspiration from jazz singers Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.  “Early on, my phrasing developed from a combination of musicians and singers that I heard…Louis Armstrong had a great effect on me.”

The First Teen Idol / Early Films

In the 1940s, teenage girls and young women, commonly called “bobby-soxers,” became the base of young Frank Sinatra’s audience, making him America’s first true teen idol.  The bobby-soxers had a particular look.  Most wore poodle skirts—a tight-at-the-waist, yet flared felt skirt that often featured a French poodle design along with black and white saddle shoes and turned down bobby socks.  When Sinatra sang, they screamed.  Some even swooned.  His handsome looks, coupled with the emotionally drenched ballads that formed the core of his show, made Sinatra the biggest star in most every bobby-soxer’s universe.

Frank Sinatra began his film career in the mid-1940s.  His most notable films in the early post-World War II period included Anchors Aweigh (1945), in which he starred with Gene Kelly as a couple of song and dance sailors on leave in Hollywood.  In It Happened In Brooklyn (1947) Sinatra played a former GI returning to Brooklyn after the war to pursue a career in entertainment, while The Miracles Of The Bells (1947) featured Sinatra’s first non-singing role.  For On The Town (1949), Sinatra again teamed up with Gene Kelly; the film featured the music of Leonard Bernstein.

Columbia Years

Frank Sinatra began to record for Columbia Records as a solo artist after leaving Tommy Dorsey and his band in 1942.  During the war years and beyond, Sinatra would record nearly three hundred sides for Columbia and cover many classics from the American Songbook.  Standards by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne gave Sinatra the very best material to sing. Most of the song arrangements came from Axel Stordahl, who was careful not to let the instrumentation of any number get in the way of Sinatra’s voice.

Sinatra enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success until 1948, when changing tastes in music, the gradual end of the bobby-sox craze, and personal challenges (a divorce, run-ins with the gossip press, overuse of his voice, and disagreements with Columbia’s Mitch Miller) led to Sinatra’s diminished popularity.  In 1952, Sinatra and Columbia Records parted ways.  Soon after, Sinatra signed with Capitol Records and began the second phase of his recording career.

Studio A / Capitol Years

Frank Sinatra’s favorite place to record was the legendary Studio A at the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood, California.  Sinatra recorded 19 albums for Capitol from 1953 to 1962.  More than three hundred tracks were cut in Studio A with some of the era’s most talented arrangers, including Nelson Riddle and Billy May.  The majority of these songs were included on Sinatra’s pioneering “concept” albums.  These recordings would set him apart from nearly every other vocalist in the 20th century.

The GRAMMY Museum recreated Studio A where visitors were able to listen in to historic studio session chatter from 1960 as Sinatra recorded the song “Nice ‘N’ Easy.”

Chairman of the Board / Reprise Records

Frank Sinatra became a record company executive in 1960 when he formed Reprise Records, a division of Warner Bros. Records. He quickly acquired the nickname, The Chairman of the Board. Sinatra now assumed full control of his career—something, at the time, recording artists only dreamed of.  With Reprise, Sinatra made both business and creative decisions and often acted as the label’s talent scout. The early Reprise roster included fellow Rat Pack members Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin, as well as Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford, and Rosemary Clooney.

Sinatra sold Reprise Records to Warner Bros. Records in 1963, though he continued to record for the label, creating landmark albums like September Of My Years and Sinatra—Jobim, and hit singles such as “Strangers In The Night,” “My Way,” “Summer Wind,” the duet with his daughter Nancy, “Somethin’ Stupid,” and his show-stopper, “New York, New York.”

Tuxedo Gallery Overview / In Concert

Onstage, Frank Sinatra was a perfectionist.  His attention to musical detail was legendary, and he made most of the musical decisions. He surrounded himself with the best musicians and arrangers of his era.   He was punctual and professional in his presentation, and every performance carried his signature standard.

“I have been very fortunate with audiences all my life; it’s really a love-in,” Sinatra once reflected.  “I’ve had that almost all the time.  I don’t know what it is, and I will not try to explain it, but it is something that warms me deeply.  So, when I work I try to entertain them better than I did the last time.”

The House I Live In / Activist and Humanitarian

Frank Sinatra won his first Oscar for his work in the short film, The House I Live In.  Released in September 1945, the film featured Sinatra talking to a group of young people about why prejudice and anti-Semitism should have no home in America.  Sinatra also sang and recorded the film’s title song by Lewis Allan and Earl Robinson.   In 1998 “The House I Live In” was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame.  In 2007 the film was honored by the Library of Congress and included in the National Film Registry.

Throughout his career, Frank Sinatra promoted racial and religious tolerance.  In his role in the film, The House I Live In, and on numerous radio programs, Sinatra advocated for these ideals when it was far from fashionable to do so.  Sinatra especially believed tolerance and freedom to choose were essential components of what it meant to be an American.

Sinatra also supported many charities. Over the course of his career, he privately donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to his favorite causes and frequently did benefit concerts.  Sinatra preferred not to be seen as a philanthropist, but many individuals and charitable institutions gained from his generosity.

Later Films

The early 1950s was Sinatra’s lowest ebb as an entertainer.  His relationship with Columbia Records had soured and his movie career was stuck in neutral.  Sinatra needed a break, a defining role in a major movie that would thrust him back into the bright spotlight.  He got that with the film, From Here To Eternity.

Based on the James Jones novel of the same name, From Here To Eternity was a World War II drama based on army life in Hawaii, prior to Pearl Harbor.  Many music and film historians credit Sinatra’s success in From Here To Eternity as the turning point in his career.

After his success in From Here To Eternity, Frank Sinatra energetically resumed his dual careers: actor and recording artist/performer.  Sinatra made a string of memorable movies in the 1950s, including The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and Pal Joey (1957), for which he won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical.

In 1960 Sinatra starred in the Rat Pack classic, Oceans 11.  But it was his powerful performance in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) that movie fans remember most.  Sinatra even tried his hand at directing in 1965 with the war movie, None But The Brave. Later that year, Sinatra gave one of his most gripping performances as Colonel Joseph Ryan in Von Ryan’s Express.

In his final film years, Sinatra starred in a series of detective movies, including Tony Rome (1967) and The Detective (1968).  In 1970 Sinatra made Dirty Dingus Magee, a Western in which he played a down-on-his-luck outlaw. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s Sinatra did some occasional acting but his main focus was touring and performing around the world.

Painting Studio

For Frank Sinatra, painting was not just a personal passion, but also a way in which to relax and spend time with his family.  At his California desert home in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs, Sinatra set up a studio where he would paint and often interact with his grandchildren.  All of the objects exhibited were from that studio.

Sinatra was mostly self-taught as a painter.  Frequently, he would create spur-of-the-moment paint sketches for family members and close friends.  His more serious work delved into the realm of abstract expressionism.  Using oil and acrylics, Sinatra’s paintings often featured captivating shapes and bold colors.

Sinatra never sold his paintings.  Instead, he gave them away to friends, hospitals, and charitable institutions.  The paintings presented in the exhibit were from the Sinatra family collection.

Last Years

In the 1980s, Frank Sinatra’s final full decade as an entertainer, he performed more than he recorded.  His biggest concert ever occurred in 1980 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, drawing 180,000 fans.  Sinatra also performed regularly in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and did several world tours and numerous benefits.  Later in the decade, Sinatra asked his son, Frank Sinatra, Jr., to be his music director. His last official shows occurred in Japan in December 1994, just a few days before his 79th birthday. His final performance was in Palm Springs on February 25, 1995.

Sinatra released a number of albums in his twilight years, none more successful than Duets and Duets II, the last two albums he ever recorded.  Included on the albums were such major stars as Bono, Neil Diamond, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, and Barbra Streisand.  There were also several posthumous duets, including chart-topping cuts with Robbie Williams and Celine Dion.  Duets and Duets II both achieved platinum status and introduced Sinatra to a new generation of fans.

During the last chapter of his career, Frank Sinatra received dozens of accolades and major awards, including a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994.  Frank Sinatra passed away on May 14, 1998 in Los Angeles, California.  He was 82.