Who Was Frank Sinatra?
On December 30, 1942, two days before the new year, a slender singer walked onto the stage of the Paramount Theatre in New York City. Over three thousand fans—mostly teenage girls—shrieked and screamed in excitement. Some cried tears of happiness.
“The sound that greeted me was absolutely deafening,” the star said later. “It was a tremendous roar . . . I was scared stiff.”
The singer’s name was Frank Sinatra. He sang romantic songs in a soft and low voice. This style of singing is called crooning. And Frank was a crooner. But Frank didn’t write his own music. In fact, many of the songs he sang had been written many years earlier. They were considered old standards. But when Frank sang, he put a new spin on them—holding some notes longer, while releasing others in short bursts.
Frank was also good looking and dressed nicely. He had bright blue eyes, white sparkly teeth, and curly thick brown hair. He was twenty-seven years old, but he could have been mistaken for someone much younger.
Frank began singing. He sang slow songs that were filled with emotion about love and heartbreak. His voice sounded as soft and warm as a fleece blanket. The girls were in love with Frank’s songs. They thought they were in love with Frank, too!
When the show ended, teenagers in the crowd rushed to the backstage door. They wanted to be near Frank. They hoped to get his autograph. The crowd spilled out into the New York streets and caused traffic jams. The teens loved him because he had a voice that sounded like nothing they had ever heard before.
Before that night, Frank had been singing with a sixteen-piece orchestra as part of a big band. He had recently left to sing on his own. Frank didn’t realize how popular he had become and how much his music would inspire fans for many years to follow. Chapter 1: The Only Child
Francis Albert Sinatra was born on December 12, 1915, in Hoboken, New Jersey. His mother, Natalie “Dolly” Sinatra, was less than five feet tall and weighed just ninety pounds. But Frank, as he was called, weighed over thirteen pounds, which made the home birth difficult for Dolly.
“I just didn’t want to come out,” Frank jokingly said many years later when describing his birth.
The doctor worked hard to help Dolly deliver the baby. But when baby Frank arrived, he wasn’t breathing. Frank’s grandmother grabbed her grandson and ran cold water over him. Frank gave a loud cry. He was alive!
The doctor successfully saved Frank and his mother, but the delivery accidently hurt Frank—especially one ear, a cheek, and his neck. Frank had scars for the rest of his life. The eardrum of the injured ear was punctured. (It had a hole in it.) Dolly was also injured; she could not have any more children.
Frank lived with his mother and father, Martin Sinatra, in a cold-water apartment on Monroe Street. This meant that the apartment had a sink that ran only cold water. To take a hot shower, they had to use a bathroom shared with other families in the building.
Dolly was a tough, outspoken woman. She worked as a chocolate dipper in a local candy factory. She was also a midwife, someone who helps deliver babies. When she wasn’t working, Dolly sang at weddings and family events and sometimes even at restaurants.
As loud as Dolly could be, Martin Sinatra was quiet and shy. He listened to what Dolly told him to do, and mostly he did it. Martin was a boxer when Frank was born. When Frank was older, his father became a firefighter.
Dolly’s and Martin’s families both came to the United States from Italy. They were very proud of their Italian roots. Frank grew up to be a proud Italian American, too.
When Frank was a child in Hoboken, there were Italian, Irish, Jewish, German, and Black neighborhoods. Frank’s family lived in the Italian neighborhood. Frank tried to get along with everybody. Sometimes, kids called one another mean names based on what race or religion they were. Not Frank. He didn’t think race or religion mattered. He thought people were just people.
“Something rubbed me the wrong way,” Frank said about the name-calling when he was older.
Frank did have a temper, though. Sometimes, kids called him Scarface because of the scars left from his difficult birth. Frank did not like that at all. Once after this happened, he marched to the home of the doctor who had delivered him. He had planned to yell at him for causing the scars. Luckily, the doctor wasn’t home at the time.
Frank’s mother and father worked a lot, so Frank’s grandparents often watched him. But when Frank’s parents were around, they spoiled their son. Most families in Hoboken had a lot of kids. The Sinatras had only Frank. They bought him nice clothes and toys. Kids in his neighborhood called him Slacksey because he seemed to have a new pair of pants for every day of the week. He also was one of the few kids in his lower-income neighborhood who had his own bicycle.
“Being an only child made all the difference,” said one of Frank’s neighbors. “He didn’t have to share with brothers and sisters. He even had his own bedroom. None of the rest of us had half of what he had.”
In 1926, when Frank was eleven, his mother and father opened a bar. They called it Marty O’Brien’s. They used an Irish name because Hoboken was filled with Irish immigrants. They thought they would get more customers that way. Frank spent a lot of time at the bar as a kid. The bar had a self-playing piano. Sometimes, Frank would stand on top of the piano and sing along with the tune, performing for the customers. Sometimes, he would receive tips for his singing, and that made Frank very happy. Chapter 2: On The Rise
As Frank grew up, he continued to sing. He performed with his school and church choirs. When Frank wasn’t singing, he listened to the radio. In the days before television, families tuned in to the radio to be entertained. He also went to see others perform live. Once, he heard a singer named Bing Crosby. Bing sang quietly. He let the microphone carry his voice around the room. Frank had never heard a singer do this before.
Frank saw Bing Crosby as his first idol because he sang so easily. He thought Bing was so relaxed and casual. Frank loved to sing at his school’s dances. What he didn’t love, though, was actually going to school. As a teenager in A. J. Demarest High School in Hoboken, Frank didn’t do his homework. He skipped school often. And when he was there, he sometimes got in trouble for pulling pranks. One time during an assembly, he released pigeons in the auditorium.
In 1931, when Frank was sixteen, he left school for good. Frank’s father was disappointed in his son. Marty couldn’t read or write himself, but he wanted his son to have a good education. He called his son a quitter. Frank explained that his dream was to be a professional singer, and he begged his dad to give him a chance to make that happen.
Frank began singing in clubs at night and on the weekends. He sang with small bands. He wasn’t paid much to sing, so he also worked many jobs during the day. He delivered newspapers to people’s houses. He also worked at the Hoboken dockyards, loading and unloading boats docked along the Hudson River.
In September 1935, not long before his twentieth birthday, Frank got his first big break. He auditioned for a national radio show called Major Bowes and the Original Amateur Hour
. The best singers were selected to perform with other Major Bowes winners on a tour throughout the United States. Frank sang with three other singers from his hometown. They called themselves the Hoboken Four. Frank’s group won first prize!
“Frank stood out as the best in the group,” said a former Major Bowes staff member. “After the show people would flock backstage. The others would be asked to sign an autograph or two, but Frank was practically torn apart.”
Copyright © 2023 by Ellen Labrecque. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.