The Song Is You

They called him “The Voice.” Capital T, capital V, with the definite article “the” signifying his eminence, his personification of the attributes any voice ought to have.

Frank Sinatra, born one hundred years ago this week, is regarded by many as the pre-eminent singer of songs in the 20th century. But what qualities that earned him that sobriquet?

I turned to Will Friedwald’s “The Song Is You” for some help describing the Sinatra style, and here’s a little of what I found there:

While Sinatra has a wonderful voice, he is not a vocal virtuoso. … But what he has substituted for pure technique in the very good years since his youth has proved far more meaningful. His ability to tell a story has consistently gotten sharper even as the voice grew deeper and the textures surrounding it richer. (19)

With Sinatra, all vocal considerations – and even all musical considerations – come second to his fundamental mission, which is to tell a story in the most expressive way possible. His formidable musical and dramatic skills immediately blur together. (22)

The result is total credibility. No popular recording artist has ever been as totally believable so much of the time as Sinatra. “Frank was very attentive to lyrics,” explained Alan Livingston, who signed Sinatra to Capitol Records in 1953. “If he was looking at songs, the lyric would be his first consideration. Frank wanted to know what that song said and whether it appealed to him or not. He said, ‘I’ll leave the music to somebody else. I pick the lyrics.’” (24)

Sinatra makes any word sound like what it is, as the late lyricist Sammy Cahn observed. “When he sings ‘lovely,’ he makes it sound ‘lo-ovely’ as in ‘weather-wise it’s such a lo-ovely day” [in Cahn’s “Come Fly with Me”]. Cahn demonstrated to me, caressing and extending the long soft vowel at the center. “Likewise, when he sings ‘Lonely’ [in “Only the Lonely”] he makes it into such a lonely word.” (19-20)

The late Gordon Jenkins once explained: “Frank does one word in ‘Send in the Clowns,’ which is my favorite of the songs we did together, and it’s the damndest thing I’ve ever heard. He just sings the word farce, and your whole life comes up in front of you. He puts so much in that phrase that it just takes a hold of you.” Where other singers, at best, work with lyrics and melodies, Sinatra deals in mental images and pure feelings that he seems to summon up almost without the intervention of composers, arrangers, and musicians, as vital as their contributions are. (17)

“Lovely.” “Lonely.” “Farce.” It is indeed astonishing how a single word, sung with truth and specificity, can trigger an avalanche of sensations.

Ironically, there are plenty of examples of Sinatra altering the lyric of a song in performance, either accidentally or intentionally, but those occasions don’t diminish the magnificence of his “way with words.”

As a teacher who works with singing actors, I strive to help my students develop not just a voice, but a Voice. A capital-V Voice is heard when someone has something distinctive, arresting, surprising to express. A capital-V Voice emanates from the soul, and conveys the humanity of the vocalist. It flows from a deeply personal and specific understanding of the song, and particularly the lyric of a song. The skill of the vocalist and the skill of the songwriter come together in a unique alchemy that can stir our souls, and this soul-stirring is what an audience craves more than anything. “The song is you,” wrote lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, and Sinatra embodies this principle even as he sings these words.

The centenary of The Voice is a good occasion to renew our commitment to the primacy of the lyric in song interpretation. What does your Voice have to say?