Adam Gopnik always has something to say that’s worth my time. This article is no different.
One More Spin of Frank Sinatra
By Adam Gopnik August 4, 2021
This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of “The Voice of Frank Sinatra,” the first recorded album by the Italian-American singer from Hoboken. Through all that time, and through many labels and shifting styles—through fifty-nine albums, from those first crooner hits to the incomparable records, by turns swinging and saddened, of the nineteen-fifties, and on to the final late lost shore of the duets, when Sinatra, like El Cid in his last battle, was kept upright on his horse by his loyal fans and collaborators—his music has remained the landmark of American popular song. Alec Wilder, in his landmark 1972 book on American popular song, said that Sinatra could sing anything well except “Jealous Lover” and “American Beauty Rose.”
For decades, there was a special connection between Sinatra’s music and what is now called “terrestrial radio.” A curious extravagance of disk jockeys spent entire careers spinning Sinatra records—partly because there were so many recordings and so many of them so good, partly because the range of emotion was sufficiently large that a single hour could pass from upbeat to deeply melancholy and still remain consistent in quality, and perhaps mostly because there was something . . . epic about every Sinatra take. Many of these radio personalities, like William B. Williams of WNEW-AM, who first called Sinatra “Chairman of the Board,” died long ago. Others have slipped on into silence. And, some, such as Mark Sudock, who has a fine scholarly program on the Internet radio station Metromedia, have emerged more recently. But some of the Sinatra standbys stayed on for a long time after the singer’s death, in 1998. Herewith, a brief summary of the twilight of Sinatra radio, and a quick salute to a couple of the hardier cases.
For those with a Sinatra-minded passion, the news, earlier this year, that the radio personality Jonathan Schwartz had left the airwaves for good after fifty years was a shock and a jolt. So much so that one of his listeners sent Schwartz an e-mail paraphrasing John O’Hara’s famous line upon hearing the news of George Gershwin’s death: “Jonathan Schwartz ended his show . . . but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
That e-mail—printed out and pinned to Schwartz’s bedroom wall—now holds pride of place among the retired broadcaster’s surroundings, near portraits of the Gershwin brothers and of his father, Arthur Schwartz, who wrote “Dancing in the Dark” and many other songs, and an aerial photograph of Palm Springs, where Schwartz met Frank Sinatra so many years ago.
In the late sixties, Schwartz had a kind of double identity in New York, playing “progressive rock” (Hendrix, the Who, Cream, etc.) on WNEW-FM while still maintaining a love of Sinatra’s music. In 1999, he moved on to the public-radio flagship in New York, WNYC, where he played hits of the American Songbook, Sinatra most of all. His long tenure on the city’s airwaves came to an end, in 2017, when he was fired by WNYC for what the station described as a violation of its “standards for providing an inclusive, appropriate, and respectful work environment.” (Schwartz issued a statement, through his lawyer, stating, “I profoundly disagree and am extremely disappointed with WNYC’s decision.”) Schwartz carried on with his passion to a smaller Internet audience on Live 365 radio, on what was called “The Jonathan Station.”
Schwartz, who is in his eighties, stopped his Sinatra program abruptly, one Saturday afternoon in February—without forewarning even his producer. He did this, he says now, for multiple reasons, not least that he recognized his mind had begun to row in ever-tighter circles. (“I think I was talking too much about my father,” is the way he puts it.) He also had the sense that, having been on the air for as many decades as he had, it was at last time to leave it. “I’ve been talking for so long!” he says, “and now I can stop.” The joke, of which he is well aware, is that he was famous, in part, for not talking, for the long, pregnant pause: “That was . . . Mel . . . Tor . . . [ever quieter] mé . . . ”
Schwartz’s love of Sinatra’s music was independent of his friendship with the man. Indeed, when Schwartz opens a nondescript-looking drawer in his desk, it turns out to be longer and deeper than one had thought any drawer could be—and filled with the total works of Frank Sinatra on CD. “ ‘Close to You,’ ” Schwartz says. “A great work of art.” “Move back a little. You’re only seeing the beginning. The drawer goes on forever.” Yet, though his personal relationship with Sinatra would last throughout the singer’s life and was not inconsequential (“Sinatra took me in. I was very lonely, so for someone to bring me in was . . . something”), Schwartz was not an uncritical admirer of his character or all of his work.
Sinatra’s career had three distinct chapters, divided by his record labels: the early Columbia crooning, which made bobby-soxers swoon; the mid-fifties Capitol LPs, which are still the core of his achievement and among the best recorded American music; the Reprise work of the sixties, when, on his own label, he made much great music and much mediocre music, too. Then comes a longer descant of mixed-up work, including bad versions of pop tunes and ambitious attempts at pop epics. (“Cycles,” an album full of these, Schwartz has been known to throw right across a room.) Schwartz devoted himself, and his programs, almost entirely to the Capitol Sinatra, and often to a narrow band within it: the recordings masterminded by the composer and arranger Nelson Riddle.
Schwartz’s one bitter memory of Sinatra turns on this golden era: “I gave him a huge party, Nelson Riddle. We were somehow together, Nelson Riddle and me. And I gave him a party and invited every conceivable singer. Rosemary Clooney. Mel Tormé. Peggy Lee. And everyone came. Except one person. Because it was about Nelson. It wasn’t about Frank. He was the only one who didn’t come. Because the party was for Nelson. Can you imagine?”
Schwartz’s one regret in things Sinatra is that the singer, despite an early attempt, never recorded a truly first-rate version of what Schwartz, and not Schwartz alone, considers the greatest single American song, Kern and Hammerstein’s “All the Things You Are.” “It’s a flawless song,” Schwartz says, while sighing over the absence of a Sinatra realization of it. “Well, almost flawless. There’s one bad line: ‘Someday I’ll know that moment divine . . .’ ” (“Divine,” ‘like “paradise” and “flame,” are words regarded by purists as de trop.) “But I’m of an age when I can still hear the song and listen past ‘divine.’ ”
The need for Sinatra radio may seem as baffling, in the streaming, Spotify-dominated age, as the demand for vinyl records. But, like that need, it depends on the creation of something retro in feeling but not merely nostalgic in implication. People buy vinyl because the quality is warmer. Sinatra-lovers like to listen to his music with commentary from a familiar voice because it warms up that experience, too. It creates a community of listeners, and that community is the special province of the one disk jockey who has been most single-mindedly faithful to the singer over the last sixty-four years: Sid Mark. Since a fateful night in 1957, Sid has been playing almost nothing but hundreds and hundreds—and then thousands and thousands—of hours of Sinatra, first on his Philadelphia radio program “Friday with Frank,” then on his much-missed New York program, “Saturday with Sinatra,” and finally on his still widely syndicated show, “The Sounds of Sinatra.” “At a celebration at Hofstra once, someone estimated that I had played a hundred and seventy-five thousand hours of Sinatra,” he told me recently. Sid was the first subject that I ever reported on for this magazine, and, thirty-four years later, I found him unaltered: the sonorous voice, the gracious manner, and the complete devotion to Sinatra’s music.
Sid easily recalls the birth of his passion. “I was doing a one-hour show on WHAT called ‘Sounds in the Night’ . . . and the all-night guy didn’t come in. The manager asked, Can you stay on the rest of the night? It was a show that was called ‘Rock and Roll Kingdom,’ and I wasn’t going to do that. I was a Count Basie fan. But I knew that, well, no one’s listening—from on high, I mean. So I asked the audience, What would you guys like to hear? There were two new Sinatra LPs out, and someone said, Why don’t you do an hour of Sinatra? I said, O.K., I’ll call it ‘Friday with Frank.’ The all-night guy got fired for not coming in, and they kept me on, and they thought I was still doing ‘Rock and Roll Kingdom.’ It took seven months for them to catch on, but by then there were so many calls from college kids that they couldn’t kill it, and sixty-four years later I’m still doing it.”
It was the single-mindedness of Sid’s devotion that led, in 1966, to his audience with the man himself. “It was just after the ‘Sinatra at the Sands’ album came out, and I worked hard to sell it in Philly,” he said. “We outsold New York, Chicago, Los Angeles—and his office called and said, Thank you, could we do something for you? I said, I’d just like to shake his hand. And they said, It’s not possible to shake his hand. They offered Buddy Greco as a consolation prize. I said, I know Buddy Greco already. They said, What you are requesting’s not possible.”
“And then, out of the blue, I got a call from Frank’s inner office, inviting me to Vegas to see him perform. I said, I’ve been packed for ten years.”
“When we got there, we were being shuffled all over the hotel. I said to someone, We’re here to see Frank! And they said, Everybody’s here to see Frank. So I called the singer Sylvia Syms, a true Sinatra friend, and she said, I’ll call Jilly—and then they came to get us. Took us into a dining room with nobody in there, felt that they were pulling my chain—and I turned around and he’s standing right next to me. Took us over to the table. He knew my show, knew the call sign, knew the sales numbers. And he said, Do you have tickets? You’ll sit at our table? And don’t forget you’re coming to the after-party. And then the friendship blossomed.”
“What was his secret? Well, every guy wanted to be him, and every woman wanted to date him. Sammy said, I gotta be me, but I’d rather be him. Rod McKuen said, Whoever made all of us made one of him.”
Having turned eighty-eight not long ago, Sid still looks cautiously to the future. “My son Brian runs Orange Productions now,” he reflects. Orange Productions is Sid’s company, named after Sinatra’s favorite color. “Brian, after all these years, finally said to me just recently, Would you ever take a Sunday off? I’d be happy to do the show. And you know what? I think I’m going to let him do the thing. All he has to do is feel his way around the records.”
Adam Gopnik, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1986. He is the author of, most r