As Bono once observed, Frank Sinatra didn't care much for rock music. But the U2 frontman spoke for many baby-boomer pop stars when he added, "The feeling is not mutual. Rock 'n' roll people love Frank because Frank has got what we want: swagger and attitude."
Now, 10 years after Sinatra's death (on May 14, 1998) at 82, the charts are littered with artists who hadn't yet launched careers by the time Ol' Blue Eyes shuffled off his mortal coil. To these performers, most of them in their 20s and early 30s, Sinatra is surely a relic of an ancient era: a booze-swilling, pinkie-ring-wearing crooner who just happened to cover many of the great American songbook's greatest songs before Rod Stewart got his chance to have at them.
"Frank Sinatra is an all-timer, the true definition of class and style," says Alicia Keys, 28, who in February performed a virtual duet with Sinatra on "Learnin' the Blues" — singing and playing piano while accompanied by footage of the late superstar — to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Grammy Awards.
Rising singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, also 28, says Sinatra "helped define a genre that I believe will be a staple of popular music forever. He is as 'cool' as it gets."
"He was always an icon to me," says John Legend, 29. "I always thought of him as one of the great singers. His voice was distinctive and magical."
John Mayer, 30, says he's "only now realizing how sophisticated (Sinatra's) work was." In fact, he's "seriously thinking about (making) my next album" a homage to 1955's "In the Wee Small Hours," one of Sinatra's classic collaborations with conductor and arranger Nelson Riddle.
Such admiration may seem ironic, or anomalous, at a time when many singers represented on commercial radio and "American Idol" appear more concerned with flaunting their technical prowess than mining the sometimes subtle emotions embedded in lyrics and melodies, whether their own or someone else's. Sinatra, who in concert was famous for introducing and praising songwriters, took the opposite approach: He always believed in the singer serving the song, rather than vice versa.
"The rock-bottom basis of Sinatra's fame was his extraordinary interpretive talent, his way of connecting with a lyric," says veteran musician and music historian Michael Feinstein, who worked with Sinatra and plans to release his own tribute — "The Sinatra Project," a collection of new interpretations of classic Sinatra tunes — in September. "He held the music, and the way it was performed, sacred."
Feeling the phrasing
If that reverence isn't shared by all contemporary singers, it's clearly appreciated by some high-profile representatives. "You felt every word he said," Keys says. "I appreciate his phrasing the most." Mayer, too, cites Sinatra's rhythmic intuition: "When you sing along to a Frank Sinatra record, you're always a little early in singing the words, you know? His delivery was so soulful."
Pop baritone Josh Groban, 27, considers Sinatra "the ultimate song stylist. He was telling stories with songs. He showed it was OK to let different nuances come through. No one has sounded like him before or since, and that's something every young artist would want to strive for."
But Sinatra's enduring influence, as Bono suggested, isn't purely musical. Says Keys, "He definitely had an impact on contemporary artists well beyond music — from his fashion sense to his 'crew,' the Rat Pack."