28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2004
I only saw my hero, Frank Sinatra, perform once. It was at the end of his career - and his life. It was a strange evening; he was obviously at the end - he couldn't remember the words to his songs or read the teleprompter. Few people left however - the evening soon became about us - his fans - letting him know that we still loved him. "I LOVE YOU FRANK!" a huge, middle-aged, rough-looking man yelled out during a pause. Sinatra, taken aback by the violence of the outburst, chuckled and replied, "I love you too, pal." As Pete Hamill once pointed out, "Seeing Sinatra in ruins is like seeing the Coliseum in ruins - it's still magnificent."
Why Sinatra Matters is a must-read for any Sinatra-phile. In the Overture, Hamill cites Sinatra's death as the impetus for writing this book. He saw all these young reporters from MTV and VH1 doing stories on Sinatra (obviously prepared in advance) telling the world Sinatra was important, without really understanding why. It certainly wasn't just because he did it "his way."
This is a very short book. As Hamill points out it is not a "definitive biography" - although once he was in talks with Sinatra to write just that. It is, as the title plainly states, an explanation of why Sinatra matters - artistically and culturally - and why he always will. In terms of Culture, Hamill reminds the reader of a time when America felt it was morally obligated to persecute Italians - Sinatra helped change all that. Musically, the reasons are more complex. To put it succinctly, no one ever sounded like Sinatra before.
The book is great because it also sheds light on Sinatra the man, who is often lost in the obscurity of his own public image. He was not just some gruff tough guy - a kind of idiot savant who could churn out a great recording in one take. He was a fiercely intelligent, well-read, well-cultured, self-educated man who worked hard at his craft. The most enjoyable parts of the book are the conversations Hamill recounts between himself and Sinatra. Most shocking of all - to me at least - was to imagine Sinatra using the F-word!
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2002
Pete Hamill, beyond a doubt, is an excellent writer. He does a wonderful job here. The book is part bio, part history of immigrants in America, and part memoir. It works on all levels. Hamill treats Frank with the respect he deserves. The book is not a gossipy memoir--Kitty Kelly fans should look elsewhere. Instead, he makes the important arguement that Sinatra gave voice to first, a generation, and then an entire country. His artisty is what matters. The myth of the man is fun and gets most the attention, but that is besides the point for Hamill. And he is right. We all talk about the "Sinatra in a hat" (as Hamill dubs him) and the Rat Pack--but the music endures. It is, argues Hamill, what matters in the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. It is what will stand the test of time and give voice to a thousand broken dreams, hearts, and help us--like Frank after the Fall--get back up and start all over again. Thanks, Pete Hamill for getting it right.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 1998
I am the eleventh of twelve kids. I am 42, and come out of Brooklyn. I have walked the streets of Hoboken. It reminds me of Bay Ridge, but the Statue of Liberty is facing the other way, and the Twin Towers are so big and close. My father had a bar in Brooklyn: a place that catered to the lonely: longshoreman who didn't want to go home for whatever reasons, older women who were jilted by the latest bum. They drank, a concordat of losers. In silence, they smoked unfiltered cigarettes and listened to that guy on the jukebox. The guy who really felt their pain, decades before it became some rank political joke. The voice was Frank Sinatra's, and he was my hero since I could walk. Pete Hamill, whom I've been reading for over twenty-five years, has the lapidary's eye, the poet's words, in his brilliant analysis of Sinatra the man, and what his essence really meant. Speaking of Sinatra after his death, Hamill writes: "Now Sinatra is gone, taking with him all his anger, cruelty, generosity, and personal style. The music remains. In times to come, that music will continue to matter, whatever happens to our evolving popular culture. The world of my grand-children will not listen to Sinatra in the way 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 Hoilday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts in joy.....In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter. So will Frank Sinatra." This slim volume is the best thing I've read about Sinatra. Hamill hides no blemishes, and still gives us a totality of the man that no other biographer could. Alas, most great singers and writers now repose on the other side of the grass. We no longer have Sinatra in the flesh, yet, through his music, he will outlive everyone. And in the year 2067, a young adult will listen to the unparalleled majesty of his voice for the first time, and then go to the library to read WHY SINATRA MATTERS by Pete Hamill to make some sense of it all. KEVIN FARRELL
38 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2000
It is enough to say "Sinatra," any literate American knows that means only Frank Sinatra -- the singer, draft-dodger, actor, bully, womanizer, Mafia star, founder of the old Hollywood Rat Pack and the Chairman of the Bored.
In this loving portrait, Hamill explains Sinatra as an American icon. In so doing, he explains a lot about the values of the United States; this isn't a country where you become an "American" by getting off the boat or, in today's terms, wading across a river. Several factors are involved; starting with basic talent, then a single-minded ability to work hard, plus an instinct for self-publicity, and finally that most American of all characteristics -- redemption, the ability to rise above defeat and start over.
Sinatra is the only major star of the 1940's who remained popular into the 1980's and whose music has rarely been matched. The entertainment world has a voracious appetite for fresh young talent; for most, the formula for lasting success was nicely summed up in the 1949 film `Knock on Any Door' when Johnny Romano says, "Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse." Sinatra tried and failed to get the part of Romano in the film, it went to John Derek. John who?
Sinatra matters because he represents the American faith in redemption. He became the top vocalist in the early 1940's, was washed up by the end of the decade; then worked his way back to respectability and a roller coaster career. His story is as current as the year 2000, and Hamill's version of it will remain popular for years to come.
It's the story of pride; in Sinatra's youth, the Italians were regarded with less favor than illegal Mexican immigrants today. Rosemary Clooney had a hit with "C'mon-a my house," which embarrassed Sinatra and made many Italians wince; Sinatra mastered the delicate intricacies of English pronunciation which enabled him to add subtle yet commanding enhancements. He wasn't simply a crooner, there were hundreds of those when he began his career in the late 1930's. He worked exceedingly hard to create a sound and mood that still defines the loneliness of a long empty night.
Hamill brings out the character of Sinatra that made him a success. He ignores his dark alter ego, the "evil twin" that contributed nothing to the legend. This isn't a biography, although it covers much of Sinatra's life; the focus is on his success, then his redemption. For that reason, it's a better book than most biographies; instead of dates and places, Hamill explains what made Sinatra so popular.
How else do you explain a kid who was a high school dropout, but who recorded hundreds of songs that had more impact than any diploma? It's why he was finally awarded an honorary doctorate from a college; success wasn't in following the old rules, it was a triumph over the odds.
After reading "Why Sinatra Matters," it's easy to understand the success and intense hatred generated by two modern politicians -- Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Like Sinatra, both men were "born again" in terms of reviving their careers. Nixon came back as the "New Nixon" in 1968; and, in 1992, Hillary saved Bill's political career by going before the nation to forgive his amorous past.
"Most Americans love stories of redemption, of course, but men identify more often with the tale of the hero, the man who comes back wearing the scars of battle, harder and wiser than when he left," Hamill writes. That sums up Sinatra's career; and, in some ways, the redemption of Nixon and Clinton. Both politicians reverted to their old ways, a failing Americans cannot forgive.
Sinatra was an honored guest at Nixon's second inaugural. After Watergate, he said of Nixon, "You think some people are smart, and they turn out dumb. You think they're straight, they turn out crooked." I shudder to think would he would have said about Clinton.
It nicely sums up Sinatra. In understanding him, you learn a lot about America.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2000
When Frankie died, I felt I had lost an uncle. Not the uncle you hear from when misfortune occurs or fortunes are won. No, the kind of uncle who is there like a guardian angel, guiding and protecting you. For me, Frank Sinatra was my American Uncle, symbolizing the rich, great country I always heard about and envisioned through his music. I remember first hearing him while being tossed toward the ceiling by my real uncle, on a wet, stormy day in Australia. I had never heard a voice like that before, and after I slammed into the ceiling, and the family stood around waiting for me to cry, I simply sat, dazed, still listening to this new magnetic voice. I didn't know it at the time, but I was listening to America. Hamill's book returned me to that never-fogotten afternoon. For Hamill, in his elegant spot-on prose, doesn't just write about Frank, he writes about a country which changed the world. When he states that Crosby was America's Husband, while Sinatra was America's Lover, he hits it right on the head. Hamill writes what I've always wanted to say, about Frank, his times, and the world which Ol Blue Eyes helped to change. From its cover art to its last sentence, this is one elegant piece of work. I'd never read any of Hamill's work before, but now I have a new treasure to uncover, if any of his other offerings come close to this. As Frank would say, "It's marvelous, baby."
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 1999
I purchased this book fully knowing what the title proposes. We all know it's the music. I give it four stars because it's about FAS and written by someone who knew and liked him, although it strays a bit from what is a great premise. It's also quite honestly a classy *looking* little volume. The cover won me over as much as the title. Are there design awards for these things? It's been sitting on top of my collection of Sinatra books for a couple of months since I was savoring it, waiting for just the right time and mood to read it in one sitting. It's definately a book for the true fan to have (after I secured my own copy I got 2 others from friends who know my love for anything Frank). I ate up every quote from Frank in the book, and the author's accounts of personal meetings with the man. It seemed to me the author showed us this could have been a much more detailed and thorough biography in the making. At times I felt I could have been in the middle of the most comprehensive account of the singers life and history of the 20th century, and not just reading an essay about why he matters. I was not turned off by this. I just got a good reading on his "times" that I enjoyed but wasn't counting on it. What is in here about Frank is important enough to read whatever some people may think is not relavant. Frank is important enough to music and this country to write about anything connected to him. It is a good read, written and packaged with class by a good writter who knows his subject. Incidently, Hamill is the type of guy that the Sinatra children should seek out next time they need a good contributor to balance out any new cd releases liner notes. I cringed when I saw the intro on the '57 In Concert cd by Kelsy Gramer. Those of you who have it know what I mean. *Any* work put out there about Frank deserves class...
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2001
I agree with the reviewer who wrote that the question posed by the title could have been answered in 10 pages. The music matters, and no one got inside a song like Frank Sinatra.
That said, Hamill is a marvelous writer and this is a terrific read for those who are unfamiliar with his story. I devoured every page anyway. The quotes by Sinatra are fascinating, and Hamill's admittedly remote acquaintance with his subject (they met several times in New York) lends this relevance and legitimacy. Hamill also dwells on what is commonly considered the apex of Sinatra's career, his classic albums at Capitol, and even takes a swipe at Gordon Jenkins' string-laden efforts during this period -- so, not a good book if you want an overview of Sinatra's musical legacy. If Sinatra saw enough in Jenkins to have him as an arranger from the 1950s through the '80s, clearly there is something that Hamill is missing that Sinatra cherished.
But -- this is Hamill's heartfelt homage to someone whom he considers an artistic hero of sorts, and his rather narrow focus is completely appropriate for this sort of book.
I would recommend this book to any Sinatra fan. However, you should also read Will Friedwald's "The Song is You" for an exhaustive story of the music. I also enjoyed Donald Clarke's "All or Nothing At All", which is more of a biography with pertinent commentary.
I have dozens of Sinatra albums, and I still discover amazing new aspects to music that I have heard for years. Sinatra definitely matters, and this book was written by another guy who misses him.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I like this book because it isn't like all the other Sinatra biographies out there. In fact, it isn't really appropriate to call "Why Sinatra Matters" a biography at all. Author Pete Hamill was an acquaintance of Sinatra's and much of the book is built around conversations that the two men had together, which is very interesting. This book gives a general overview of Sinatra's upbringing and rise to stardom. Hamill explains how Sinatra's childhood and Italian American background contributed to the development of his music. Sinatra's "fall from grace" is also examined, but Hamill is quick to point out that the only thing that really matters is that Sinatra was able to overcome his obstacles and make an incredible comeback. There has never been another singer like Frank Sinatra and there never will be again. Sinatra continues to represent so many things to so many people, which is why his music will live on forever.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2003
Pete Hamill is a fine reporter who knew Frank Sinatra as a friend. Sinatra was an enigmatic, charismatic and complex singer of the American soul. Perhaps no singer in 20th century America popular song could get inside a lyric and make it his own like the great "ole blue eyes."
Hamill's opening chapter in which we sit beside Sinatra and his cronies in a Brooklyn bar in 1970 is like something out of Hemingway in its description of a man, era and city.
Hamill points out that it was Sinatra in music, Laguardia in politics and Joe Dimaggio in sports who raised the immigrant Italian ethnic group to greatness in insular, xenophobic America of the 1940s.
Sinatrta could be obnoxious and cruel but he could also be
generous and kind,
This book reminds me of the Penguin Lives series as it is a good starting place for anyone who wants to learn more about Sinatra, his women, his era and most importantly his music. The music will live forever in the American soul.
Sinatra did it his way and Hamill does a fine job of writing in this interesting little book. A good read to take on vacation or a long flight. I recommend it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2004
As an ex oldies rock and roll disc jockey who managed to squeeze two or three Sinatra tunes in every week, I looked forward to reading this book, especially since it was written by one of my favorite chroniclers of the American passing scene. I was not disappointed. In this little book, or elongated essay, Pete Hamill makes a compelling case for the value of Frank Sinatra to the America psyche. He contends that Sinatra matters because he created the American male image of being tough, yet at the same time tender. He also states that Frank matters because of his music, grounded in loneliness, yet still optimistic. I also learned something. My world has often been surrounded by those of Italian heritage, and Hamill has made me understand them better. First, he relates the beginning of the awareness of the Italian Mob/Mafia in our country. He claims the myth began in 1891 when eleven Italian immigrants were accused of killing a corrupt police superintendent in New Orleans. Although all 11 were found innocent, a mob of several thousand people, roused to rabble by incendiary newspaper articles, attacked the jail where the men were waiting release, and killed them all. (This is another glaring incident that was never mentioned in my America-is-never-wrong high school or college history lessons.) Hamill does indeed say the mob/Mafia was a factor in America, but came to fruition, decades after the New Orleans incident, through the stupidity of our country's prohibition. He also explains why Italians call themselves Genoese or Sicilians, not Italians. It's because there really was no united Italy until 1871. Instead of the country, an immigrant thought of his region of birth as his homeland. Hamill spends a good deal of time pointing up the importance of Sinatra's Italian background. He points to pre-war 1940 when Mayor LaGuardia, Yankee Centerfielder Joe Dimaggio, and Frank, each of Italian ancestry, were three of the most beloved individuals in the country. In this work, Hamill discusses Frank's childhood, the immense impression of Bing Crosby, Frank's big band years, his beginnings as a solo vocalist, his career collapse coinciding with his marriage to Ava Gardner and the hatred many returning soldiers felt toward the 4-F crooner, concluding with his artistic rebirth beginning with his Oscar winning role in "From Here to Eternity." Much of Hamill's insight is culled from conversations he had with the singer during the 1970s and `80s, although there are a couple of times he delves deep into Sinatra's head as a youth and I wondered, "How could he ever know that?" But, except for those few lapses, this is a right-on book about one of the world's greatest entertainers. At the end of the book, Hamill proposes a list of must-have Sinatra recordings, must-see Sinatra movies, and a bibliography of books dealing with Sinatra and his era. I have all the recordings, seen all the movies, but Hamill has inspired me to read some of the books. (But not Kitty Kelley's character assassination, thank you very much.)