Think Frank Sinatra would have been a fan of Justin Bieber? (Photos: Getty Images)
It would have been Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday on Dec. 12, but it’s the likes of Justin Bieber who’ll be reaping rewards. For the teen idol, Sinatra is the gift that keeps giving. “I think it’s generally agreed by musicologists and social historians that Sinatra was our first teen idol,” Stanislao Pugliese, Hofstra University history professor and editor of the book Frank Sinatra: History, Identity and Italian American Culture, told Yahoo Celebrity via email.
Before Sinatra, there were, of course, both pop-culture idols and human beings of the teenaged years. But there was no single entertainer who simultaneously harnessed those elements.
The historical record on the late singer, Oscar-winning actor, and Rat Pack ringleader, who died in 1998 at the age of 82, his singular career nearly spanning the 20th century that he dominated, generally holds that Sinatra came into his powers via a series of fabled 1942-1944 concerts at New York’s Paramount Theatre.
Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1941. (Photo: Getty Images)
At age 29, married, and the father of two (eventually three), Sinatra would be no modern casting agent’s idea of boy band material. But it was another time. World War II was on. A lot of dreamboats, from Hollywood and elsewhere, were shipping to boot camp or overseas. Sinatra, whose draft number hadn’t come up yet, and who, in December 1943, would be tagged unfit for service because of a perforated eardrum, was available — and, as a former singer of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra just striking out on his own, eager to please.
“He may have been almost 30, but his image was of a skinny young man who needed nurturing,” Pugliese said. Sinatra was also a novel alternative to the reigning pop star of the day. “Bing Crosby was a favorite uncle, a paternal figure,” said John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester. “There was nothing really sensual about Bing Crosby as a pop singer. The reason why Sinatra was so popular with those girls was he was young and sensual.”
Bing Crosby (right) just didn’t have the sex appeal that Sinatra did. (Photo: Getty Images)
At the same time, “those girls” were emerging as a demographic force. “American businessmen, many of whom have teen-age daughters, have only recently begun to realize that teen-agers make up a big and special market,” observed a 1944 Life magazine photo essay on the tribe alternately known as the bobby-soxers.
It would be one thing if Sinatra were merely the right guy in the right place in the right time, but his team helped make everything right. Per oft-told lore, Sinatra’s PR guru, George Evans, primed the early Paramount shows with teens hired to swoon as Sinatra crooned.
Sinatra definitely had the attention of the Young Voters for Roosevelt Committee in 1944. (Photo: Getty Images)
“The publicist would even take groups of girls to the basement to rehearse them, giving them precise cues when to yell ‘Oh, Frankie! Oh, Frankie!’ — not just during the loud parts, but whenever Sinatra let his voice catch,” biographer James Kaplan wrote in his 2010 volume, Frank: The Voice.
Teens and idols would never be the same. Soon, neither group needed to be coaxed or coached. Playing to the kids, and the kids going crazy — it was an effortless synergy. Sinatra discovered it. Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, the boy bands of the 1990s, Justin Bieber — these acts and more tapped into it.
Covach said he could see Sinatra recognizing himself in the “screaming-girl part” of a Bieber’s existence. “If Frank were alive today, the first thing he would probably say was they went for me that way first,” Covach said.
Sinatra led the way in other respects: As the first teen idol, he was also the first to age out of his young audience and see the bottom fall out of his career. That Sinatra fought his way back, emerging bigger than ever, having transformed from willowy singer to seen-it-all, done-it-all “Chairman of the Board,” is another story entirely — and not one that many teen idols get to tell.
“Really an extraordinary trajectory,” Pugliese said of Sinatra. “Unprecedented in American history and probably not replicable.”