While messaging fellow record collector and on-line friend Jim Marshall the other night about our mutual love of Frank Sinatra, it occurred to me that I have been collecting Frank Sinatra albums for the better part of thirty years – more than half of my life. With over seventy Frank Sinatra albums in my collection, he is one of the musicians which I have had a constant love for throughout all the different stages of my ever evolving life. There were times in my youth where I idolized him to the points of hero worship. Times where I dressed like him, talked like him and adopted some of his ideologies. As I grew older, and became more “woke,” I began to understand more of the toxic aspects of his character and could see Sinatra for his flaws. But still today I can say that parts of my personality, especially when it comes to love, loyalty, friendship and family, have been influenced by the Sinatra way of doing things. But that’s really another story.
I don’t know when I first heard of Sinatra. He always just seemed to be there. But I do remember the first time I really “heard” Sinatra, meaning the moment and the song that connected to me in a powerful way realizing that he was one of the greatest singers in the world. I was sixteen years old, and like a lot of kids, I had a boat load of issues. Some of it was normal teenage angst, but on top of that I was living with a yet to be diagnosed depression and anxiety disorders. It was the 1990’s and mental health issues were not nearly as talked about as they are now, and it’d take me another decade and a half to get myself figured out to a healthy emotional space. Although I was a good kid who didn’t get into trouble, and while I had a very good home life and supportive parents, I was a little lost and constantly in my own head. In an attempt to calm my thoughts, I’d often “walk it off” by going for walks at night that lasted hours. With my yellow Sony Walkman plugged in my ears, I’d walk through the dark streets of my town with music playing as the soundtrack to my mania. This was how I started doing deep listening of music, and how I went from loving music to actually listening to it in an intense emotional way.
One dark and dank night I went for one of these walks and slipped in a Frank Sinatra cassette which I had taken out of the public library, back when you could take music cassettes out for loan (wow – this has really aged this story), and fretting over some unacquainted love (I was so insecure and awkward that all loves were unacquainted) I hit the streets to wallow in my mind and my music. Sinatra wasn’t new to me, but I didn’t have any deep relationship to him. I was listening to artists like The Doors, The Jefferson Airplane, Kate Bush, Prince and Elvis Costello at the time, and Sinatra was something just a little different. Well, I can remember that night hearing Sinatra sing “I’m a Fool to Want You” and something in the torment, the anguish and the drama just reached out of the dark damp air and struck me like a bolt of lightning.
“I’m a fool to want you
I’m a fool to want you
To want a love that can’t be true
A love that’s there for others too
I’m a fool to hold you
Such a fool to hold you
To seek a kiss not mine alone
To share a kiss the Devil has known.”
That was it. I was hooked. I got it. Sinatra had connected to my soul.
Its little wonder that “I’m a Fool to Want You” connected to me on a deep personal level because when it comes to Sinatra ballads, it is probably one of the most personal and revealing songs that Sinatra ever recorded. While he could put his own musical mark on any song he recorded, be it good or bad (and it was usually good), “I’m a Fool to Want You” hit deep within Sinatra as it was based on a truth so real within him that his honest anguish came out in the recordings. It was a song so real that Sinatra even had a writing credit on the song, which was rare for him.
“I’m a Fool to Want You” is interwoven into Sinatra’s relationship with actress Ava Gardner. A stormy and passionate love affair, Ava was Sinatra’s second wife, and considered to be the love of Sinatra’s life. However, their marriage was a rocky one, with passionate highs and devastating lows. The thing was that in Ava, Sinatra met his match. She was as tough and smart as he was, and she was one woman who could get under his skin and devastate him. Ava could bring the mighty Frank Sinatra to his knees – a place he rarely was and didn’t like to be.
“I’m a Fool to Want You” was first recorded in 1951 and written by Jack Wolf, Joe Herron with assistance by Frank Sinatra himself. It was released as a single but got little attention. At the time of its release, Sinatra’s career was in limbo, and he was suffering the biggest commercial drought of his career. It is hard to believe now, but when Sinatra had first hit the scene during the Second World War, he was little more than a teen idol for the legion of Bobby Soxers who swooned over him. He was not able to enter the service due to a punctured ear drum, and while the girls at home adored him, men hated him, much like your average boy scoffs at boy bands today. But when the war was over, and the men came home, the girls who fantasized about Frank Sinatra had grown up, and like so many do, moved on to other things beyond their musical crush. Sinatra was no longer marketable and was no longer making an impact in his career.
To make matters worse, Sinatra had met Ava Gardner at a Hollywood party in 1950. The sparks between them ignited like fireworks, and a fiery love affair began. But Sinatra was still married to his childhood sweetheart Nancy. Now we all know Sinatra was no angel, and he had a wandering eye. But in the early days of his career, the movie magazines had publicized him as being a good Catholic family man with a perfect home life, a devoted wife and three adorable children. Although the relationship between Nancy and Frank had gone cold a long time ago due to Sinatra’s casa nova antics on the road, his love affair with Ava was something new, and something dangerous that was like a powder keg with a flame on a long wick, waiting to explode the façade of his ideal family life to smithereens. Sinatra asked Nancy for a divorce, but she refused. It was during this time that Sinatra helped co-write and recorded “I’m a Fool to Want You,” which was inspired by his feelings of infidelity to Ava.
But within a few months of the single’s release in 1951, the powder keg did explode. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper exposed Sinatra and Ava’s affair in her column and Nancy, embarrassed and at the end of her rope, sent Sinatra packing. Days after the official divorce, Sinatra and Ava were married. But their union didn’t go without its ramifications. The couple became the subject of scorn from fans, who felt betrayed that Sinatra was not the family man they believed, and Ava was braded a temptress that seduced Sinatra away from his loving wife. The Roman Catholic church officially brought down condemnation on them both, and the public backlash sunk Sinatra’s career even further.
With Sinatra’s popularity nosediving, and his albums no longer selling, Sinatra was at the bottom, while Ava still managed to maintain her career in film being one of Hollywood’s big box office draws. Often Ava was holding their life together, while critics said that Sinatra was riding on her coattails. An incredibly proud man, who believed in the “traditional roles” within a marriage, this caused a lot of embarrassment for Sinatra which he manifested into animosity. The result was a lot of press about drunken brawls, some often in public. Sinatra and Ava loved hard, but fought harder.
But better times were upon them. Thanks to Ava’s pull, Sinatra got the key role of the rough and scrappy sailor Maggio in the 1953 blockbuster, “From Here to Eternity.” The film went on to win twelve academy awards, including a best supporting actor award for Sinatra. It was a career defining moment for Sinatra, that not only put him back on the top of the public radar, but also redefined his public image as being a smiling teen idol to the Hollywood tough guy that more matched his personality.
Although he bounced back, his marriage with Ava continued to be tumultuous. Soaked in booze and brawls, the two also had problems with infidelity. Sinatra never stopped being a ladies’ man, while Ava had a fetish for bull fighters. Unknown by the press at the time, Ava had also had two abortions fearing that pregnancy and motherhood would interrupt her career. This didn’t sit well with Sinatra who was both Catholic and, while he was not the best husband, he loved being a father.
In 1957, while Ava was shooting a film in Spain, Sinatra received divorce papers. She was having an affair with bullfighter Luis Miguel Domingue. As a man who always wanted to be in charge, and who was more used to breaking hearts than having his heart broken, the divorce papers devastated him. Legend has it that the night he got the papers he headed over to the famous Capitol Records building in Hollywood and set up a recording session with Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra. Smelling like booze and despair, Sinatra poured his soul out in a rerecording of “I’m a Fool to Want You.” Still about Ava, the meaning of the song had shifted dramatically. That version found its way to Sinatra’s 1957 release “Where Are You,” and that was the version of the song which I listened to which made me understand that Sinatra was one of the greatest performers in the world that dark and stormy walk in 1992.
Sinatra and Ava did remain friends, and over the years they both acknowledged that they were the loves of each other’s life. Sinatra married another two times. Ava never did. After you’re married to Frank Sinatra, how can you go back?
In regard to their marriage though, Sinatra got the final word. In his 1968 film, “The Lady in Cement,” Frank Sinatra’s character Tony Rome walks into a sleazy hotel room and looks up at a velvet painting of a matador and mutters “I used to know a woman who collected bull fighters.”