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Frank Sinatra Old Time Radio

December 12: Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra

Portrait Of Frank SinatraDecember 12 would be Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. We would like to wish Ol’ Blue Eyes a happy one.

franksinatraaschildSinatra is a bit of an enigma. There is no getting around it: Frank was cool. Frank made sure that everyone knew he was cool. Frank got his first breaks in showbiz because of his mother’s influence, and he was still cool. When his career started to take a nose dive, he attempted suicide, and Frank still managed to be cool.

Frank Sinatra was an incredibly talented singer and showman, and that is what ultimately made him cool.

Frank was born in 1915, the only child of Italian immigrants. His father served as a Captain in the  Hoboken Fire Department, and his mother was active in Democratic Politics. Little Frank began singing “professionally” at the age of eight, standing on a bar top and singing for tips.

sinatraYoung Frank Sinatra was invited to leave high school after just 47 days because of his rowdy behavior. He supported himself as a newspaper delivery boy and later as a shipyard riveter, but music was his calling. He listened intently to swing jazz, but never learned to read music. In 1935, Mama Sinatra convinced a local group, the Three Flashes, to become the Hoboken Four. The group appeared on Major Bowes Amateur Hour and was voted first prize.

In 1939,  Frank signed a one year contract with the Harry James Band. Before the year was out, James allowed Sinatra to move on to Tommy Dorsey’s Band. Dorsey had Frank sign a contract that awarded the band leader one third of the singer’s earnings in show business. (It was later rumored that the contract was bought out for a few dollars by mob-boss Sam Giancana. The incident was fictionalized in The Godfather.)

The exposure from singing with the Tommy Dorsey Band put Sinatra on the top of the music industry polls, and suddenly his records were in demand by teenage “bobby soxers”. This was a major shift for the record industry, records had always been marketed to grown-ups before.

tumblr_mlkgll5dIs1qeg3g9o1_500The Musician’s Strike of 1942-44 helped to fuel Sinatramania, along with a few lucrative radio gigs. His first starring vehicle was on CBS’s 15 minute Songs By Sinatra, starting in late 1942. In Feb, 1943, he became the featured singer on Your Hit Parade. A budding movie career led to appearances on Lux Radio Theater and Screen Guild Theater. His growing popularity made him a popular guest for the radio comedians like Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Bergen and McCarthy and Jack Benny. He was also welcomed on the programs of other popular singers like Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters and Dinah Shore.

Frank appeared on a number of AFRS programs during the War, such as Command Performance, GI Journal and Mail Call. However, some who served have related that Frank himself was not well loved, even resented by the troops. Frank was seen by the troops making lots of money and surrounded by pretty girls back home. He was 4F because of a ruptured eardrum, but there were persistent rumors that Sinatra bought his way out of serving (rumors that are thought to have started in reaction to his Democratic Politics).

In 1950,  Frank’s vocal cords began hemorrhaging on stage, and he began to realize that the teenagers who used to swoon for him were moving on to younger idols. He made a couple of less than successful forays into television.

Frank-Sinatra-and-John-F-Kennedy sands las vegasHis career began to rebound with a supporting role in From Here to Eternity in 1953. The same year he returned to radio, this time in a dramatic role as Rocky Fortune. Fortune lasted for a single season. It was the story of a temp worker/ jack-of-all trades who weekly stumbled upon a situation that required his amateur crime-fighting prowess. The program benefited from great writing and the time slot immediately following Dragnet on Tuesday nights.

In the mid-fifties, Sinatra became part of the Holmbly Hills Rat Pack, a group centered around his drinking buddy, Humphrey Bogart. After Bogart’s death, the group began to orbit around Frank and his Las Vegas buddies, notably Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

A lifelong Democrat, Sinatra changed his politics after being snubbed by President Kennedy. The President had been invited to stay at Sinatra’s estate during a West Coast visit; however, the Justice Department had reservations because of Frank’s supposed mob connections. Kennedy enjoyed the hospitality of Bing Crosby in Palm Springs, and Frank moved his loyalty to the GOP.

You can get away with that sort of thing when you are as cool as Frank Sinatra.

 

Categories
Big Band Musical Old Time Radio

Big Band and Swing Bands in Old Time Radio

bob crosby & margaret whiting with modernariesMusic has always been an indispensable element of radio broadcast. The station which would eventually become WHA, Wisconsin Public Radio, began its first music broadcasts as early as 1917. It is not surprising that we have a number of terrific music programs on the shelves here at OTRCat, which showcase a number of different musical styles. If we were to choose a single style of music to typify Old Time Radio, that style would have to be Big Band Jazz.

The origins of Jazz are muddied and complicated by both the passage of time and the fact that they were the result of many influences coming together. The most vital elements were the melding of the syncopated rhythms of Africa with the melodic traditions of European music.

When the slaves were freed after the Civil War it meant artistic freedom as well as economic. As more blacks sought fulfillment through artistic expression, they explored the remembered tribal rhythms, combining them with the melodicism and “square rhythms” of the European tradition. These musicians abandoned the “Oom-pah Oom-pah” styling from European courts and peasant villages.

rag timeThe newly freed musicians explored beats, melodies and harmonies that were more “ragged”. Ragtime musicians were among the first to achieve financial success from their music. Success brought imitation as well as innovation.

As troops demobilized in the port of New Orleans after the Spanish American War, several military bands dumped their instruments on the local market. Black musicians were quick to purchase these instruments, although they often had to teach themselves how to play. This self taught ethos fit well into ragtime improvisation, but the surplus brass and woodwind sounded best when played in conjunction with other instruments.

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The loose structure of Jazz needed some discipline to avoid becoming a caterwaul. Bands came together and “arranged” their music by rehearsing the pieces over and over again until they felt and sounded “right”. The membership of these bands changed regularly, sometimes weekly. Success depended upon musicians who could quickly fit in and bandleaders who could tame these disparate elements. This constant personnel change enforced the change which would become the hallmark of Jazz.

White musicians quickly became enthused about the artistic freedom and possibilities of Jazz. They also brought a measure of formality and discipline to Jazz, at least to the extent that Jazz could be formalized or disciplined. One of their greatest contributions  greater formality and structure in arrangements. This structure would be beneficial as the bands became popular through the magic of radio.

Big Band Music popularity came in two distinct phases, both of which worked remarkably well for radio play. Beginning in the mid-twenties, Big Bands, typically 10-25 pieces, began to dominate popular music. This Sweet Jazz period was highly melodic, often quite danceable, but far too disciplined to truly be called Jazz. Some of the best surviving OTR examples from this period include, Live at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, and the Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors.

paul whiteman

The disciplined approach made for some terrific music, but the enthusiasm of jazzmen for their craft is hard to contain, especially as more instrumentalists became bandleaders. The clarinets of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet stand out as examples. Improvements in electronic technology also gave vocalists a chance to come to the fore. Even the strongest human voices strain to be heard over the volume of a band, but through amplification, crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby could be heard in front of a swinging band, and pretty girl singers could be appreciated for more than their looks.

From the time it began to separate from Sweet Jazz, Swing was music for youth. There was little better than attending a concert performance of a favorite band, but if that was not possible, a dance party to records or even the radio would have been a welcome substitute. Like America itself, Swing Music “grew up” during WWII.

swing-dance-vintage

The War had a combination of effects on popular music. It concentrated some of its most ardent fans in troop camps and gave performers, both in and outside of the service, a ready and enthusiastic audience. Many bands experienced personnel shortages as players were drafted while those who held together found their popularity soaring. Big Band Swing became the de facto sound of the USO.

The War wasn’t all good for Swing Music. One of music’s most shining lights, Glenn Miller became a casualty of the War. Many bands folded when members joined the service. For most of the War, musicians were on strike against the recording industry. This gave even more importance to individual vocalists. Finally, listener tastes changed after the War.

Fortunately, the music lives on  thanks to the great recordings of Old Time Radio!

Categories
Life with Luigi Old Time Radio

Life with Luigi: Old Time Radio Show Comedy

America has always been the land of promise. Life is rarely easy for immigrants, as they do all they can to fit into the hustle and bustle of American life and culture.

Luigi Basco came to America from Italy, and promised his mother that he would write every week to tell her of his adventures. These letters are the basis of the wonderful radio show, Life With Luigi.
The action takes place in the immigrant community of post war Chicago. The show is peppered with over done accents and caricatures of the different immigrant groups. But, like the ethnic send ups from Fred Allen‘s Allen’s Alley and The Goldbergs, they are done with affection and respect rather than ridicule.

Like many situation comedies, Life with Luigi is driven by it’s characters. Luigi himself, played by stage and screen star J. Carrol Naish is a hopeful and hard working young man who is often lost in the fast culture of America. (Naish himself was of Irish decent, and through his career played Native Americans, Latinos, Italian and Middle Eastern characters, but never Irish.) Luigi has a deep love for both his adopted country and the native land he has left behind. He attends night school to qualify for American citizenship, and is taught by the lovely Miss Spaulding, played by Mary Shipp, whose patience and affection for her students is more than admirable. Luigi’s classmates all put there own spin on the American experience, especially Schultz, played by Hans Conried, who manages to steal most of the scenes he is in.

Another scene stealer is radio veteran and future Fred Flintstone, Alan Reed as Luigi’s patron, Pasquale. Pasquale has “made it” in America, running a spaghetti restaurant. There is only one thing Pasquale needs to be truly happy; he needs to find a husband (preferably Luigi) for his sweet but overweight and not very bright daughter, Rosa, played by Jody Gilbert. Every episode features Pasquale hatching what is best described as a “Fred Flintstone-esque” plot to bring Luigi closer to Rosa, and Rosa gives us the cutest shy giggle whenever she enters a room that Luigi is in.

Life With Luigi was created by producer Cy Howard, who was also responsible for radio’s My Friend Irma. Luigi made the transition to television featuring many of the radio players, including Naish and Reed, but the series didn’t last.

Life With Luigi has also been called an Italian counterpart to The Goldbergs, which was a chronicle of Jewish immigrant experience in New York City. Both of these shows would likely have trouble on the modern, politically correct climate of the modern networks. But it should also be noted that in both programs, the racial stereo typing was done more with affection than a mocking tone.

J. Carroll Naish is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6145 Hollywood Blvd.