In this week’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I discuss Frank Sinatra’s little-remembered career as a part-time orchestral conductor. Here’s an excerpt.
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Most people think, with very good reason, that Frank Sinatra was the best popular singer, as well as the best interpreter of the Great American Songbook, who ever lived. Save for a few voice lessons, he was also self-taught and had no musical training of any kind, which makes it all the more remarkable that when not singing, he dabbled in conducting—and was singularly good at it, too….
Comparatively few of Sinatra’s latter-day fans, however, know about this side of his musical personality, for he was too modest about his conducting to regularly feature himself in that capacity. Fortunately, he did record seven albums as a conductor, one of which, Peggy Lee’s “The Man I Love,” is widely regarded as the finest record she ever made. In addition, he conducted on TV at least twice, in 1958 and 1980, and these clips, which have been uploaded to YouTube, will make clear to anyone who has played in an orchestra that Sinatra, trained or not, was fully in charge of the proceedings.
If you’re skeptical…well, you should be. Orchestral conducting simply isn’t an amateur’s game, especially when the amateur in question can’t even read music. But Sinatra did have the self-confidence necessary to persuade a roomful of hard-boiled professional instrumentalists to do his bidding, and many a well-paid symphonic conductor has skated by on scarcely more than that. As the violinist Carl Flesch observed, conducting is “the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary.” More important, he also had an acutely sensitive ear, as well as the innate ability to use manual gestures to make his musical wishes known. Some have it, most don’t. Sinatra had it in spades: Like Arturo Toscanini, no sooner did he step onto a podium than he knew what to do….
* * *Read the whole thing here.
“We’ll Be Together Again,” by Carl Fischer and Frankie Laine, performed by Frank Sinatra on The Frank Sinatra Show. This episode was originally telecast by ABC on May 9, 1958:
Sinatra leads the Columbia Chamber Ensemble in a performance of Alec Wilder’s Air for English Horn recorded in 1945. The soloist is Mitch Miller:
Peggy Lee sings “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, in 1957. The song was arranged by Nelson Riddle and the performance was conducted by Sinatra: