When Tony Bennett belted "I've Got the World on a String" at the recent Grammy special celebrating the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra's birth, you could hear, if not see, the years melt away to a time when the tuxedoed Chairman of the Board would have been in the front row, glass of Jack in hand, swinging along.
The 89-year-old Bennett was the closest to a Sinatra contemporary to perform on the CBS show – the only old-school crooner left, really, anywhere near his league.
Yet there they were: latter-day acolytes, on stage not for the prime time exposure but for a man born Dec. 12, 1915. The Sinatra influence coursed through every syllable sung by John Legend, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Harry Connick, Jr., and Seth MacFarlane – sounding echoes of the singer who was The Voice, long before "The Voice."
Sinatra, who first hit it big when FDR was president, died in 1998. But to paraphrase one of his signature tunes, the Frank Sinatra centennial has been a very good year.
The tributes, including an upcoming PBS concert special, speak to Sinatra's enduring gift: a voice built for the loneliness of the wee, small hours of the morning, but made to be shared for many days to come.
His timeless appeal rests, in part, in the differing chords he strikes across a wide, multi-generational audience. The bobby soxers frenzy Sinatra inspired in the 1940s presaged the mania sparked by the Beatles two decades later. Like the Beatles, his musical maturation prompted fans to hitch a ride during various phases of his career and hang on.
Sinatra went from a Big Band idol to reinventing himself in the 1950s as a cool romantic with the more sophisticated “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!” album. As the Beatles ignited a youth culture revolution in the 1960s, Sinatra and his Rat Pack created the cool refuge of Las Vegas. The 1970s brought a Sinatra revival with “Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back” and his version of "New York, New York" – heralding a long victory lap, complete with duets with likes of Bono, who, with U2, performed a song especially written for (but never recorded by) Sinatra on the Grammy special.
Bono and his bandmates are old enough to remember Sinatra, if not in his prime, then in the afterglow of his era of swagger in which the fiery son of Hoboken behaved like a rock star before there were rock stars, offering no apologies (even when they were due).
Sure, Sinatra got under our skin. But more importantly he dug into our ears, en route to the soul, on the wings of a soundtrack that appears destined to resound for the ages.