Book Review: Sinatra! The Song is You : A Singer’s Art by Will Friedwald

Author: Will Friedwald
Title: Sinatra! The Song is You : A Singer’s Art
Publication Info: New York : Da Capo Press, 1997.

Rather than a straightforward biography, which in the case of Francis Albert Sinatra would include a lot of drama and scandal, Sinatra! The Song is You : A Singer’s Art focus on Sinatra as a singer.  Because of the musicological approach, I found the book challenging to read – and indeed have been reading it on and off for 4 months – but nevertheless still enjoyed it.

Friedwald has an encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly every song in Sinatra’s discography, including rare recordings only made for the military in WWII and recordings from Sinatra’s radio programs.  He discusses the creation, innovations, and effects of Sinatra’s music in a largely chronological order. The book is arranged in era’s of Sinatra’s career mainly based on collaborations with others like bandleaders Tommy Dorsey and Axel Stordahl and arrangers Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins.

The book discusses Sinatra’s role in performing the types of songs of that became known as “standards” and the singers role as interpreter (not to mention the challenges Sinatra faced when the music business shifted to a model where songs were “covered” rather than interpreted).  Sinatra lead the shift in prominence of bandleaders to singers during WWII and achieved unprecedented stardom.  But Sinatra’s real strength was reinventing himself consistently so that he could be a hitmaker over six decades.

I found this a unique and informative book. If you’re interested in the work of Sinatra, or in musicology in general, I recommend it.

Favorite Passages:

“Sinatra, on the other hand, positively celebrates his unhappiness. It seems totally typical of Sinatra that he recorded a song called “Winners,” which is dark and somber, highly depressing.  The flip side of this is “Here’s to the Losers,” which is joyful and upbeat … The implication is that winning is something to be taken seriously, something that carries with it grave responsibility; but losing is something you can have fun with.  The real joy in life is in losing.”


Where other singers, at best, work with lyrics and melodies, Sinatra dealt in mental images and pure feelings that he seemed to summon up almost without the intervention of composers, arrangers, and musicians as vital as their contributions were. (In fact, Sinatra was so sure of his relationship with his audience that he gladly acknowledged orchestrators and songwriters in spoken introductions to each number.  How could it take away from what he did to mention the men who put notes and words on paper when it was he who imbued them with all their meaning?)

Recommended books: