Frank Sinatra's influences
In September 1939 a young Frank Sinatra was photographed near the front of the stage of Chicago's Off-Beat club watching Billie Holiday, the languid jazz song stylist whose horn-like paraphrasing of a melody and rhythmic audacity demonstrated musical and emotional possibilities that most singers couldn't get close to. Although a much smoother singer than Holiday, Sinatra can be heard in the mid-1940s adopting a similar approach. His version, for example, from 1945 of You Go To My Head-a ballad that Holiday recorded in 1938- hangs back luxuriously from the beat and even duplicates her four-note variation on the third reprise of the title line. Sinatra's All Of Me -both the 1947 version with Siravo and that from 1954 with Riddle- utilises Holiday's "eyes that cry" deviation from the written tune, where she sings the ninth note on the chord instead of the tonic -a sophisticated melodic move.
Sinatra was rumoured to have had a brief affair with Holiday in the early 1940s and even to have attempted some drug running as she lay in hospital dying during the late 1950s; if this is true, it indicates the narcotic-despising Sinatra's regard for her. His tribute to her was certainly fulsome. "With a few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius" he said. "It is Billie Holiday whom I first heard in 52nd Street clubs in the early Thirties, who was, and remains, the greatest single musical influence on me". (When asked what Sinatra may have learnt from her, Billie shrugged. "Bending those notes", she said. "That's all I helped Frankie with":
On another occasion, however, Sinatra said: "Everything I know, I learnt from Mabel Mercer". The British-born queen of cabaret, known for her regal manner, rarefied repertoire and crisp enunciation, Mercer had been well-known in the supper clubs of Paris during the 1930s among the cultural émigrés, including Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter and the Prince of Wales, before moving to America when the war started. Songwriters such as Porter and Alec Wilder and singers including Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett made a point of seeing her in the 1940s during her long New York tenures at clubs such as The Blue Angel and Spivy's.
Mercer, who often resorted to an almost sprachspiel or parlando style of delivery often on little-known, song connoisseur's material, is an acquired taste. "People say: 'Why she can't sing for toffee'", she once admitted. "I know that - I'm telling a story". Her impact on Sinatra's feel for a lyric and for the narrative at the heart of a song, and his clarity of diction, is audible throughout his music.