If you mention the legendary American singer and actor Frank Sinatra, most people will immediately think of New York New York – one of the most famous songs of all time. Although it was originally written for Liza Minnelli in 1977, Sinatra made it his own.
He had retired in 1971, after 36 years at the top of the entertainment industry, when he decided to make a comeback two years later. He began his famous live shows at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and it was during this second phase of his career that he recorded what was to become his signature song.
The iconic singer was 64 at the time and had a succession of hit albums and singles behind him, as well as having starred in some legendary Hollywood films. Written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, New York New York has been voted number 34 in the American Film Institute’s poll of the top 100 songs ever in American cinema.
Birth of a legend
Sinatra was born on 12th December 1915 in New Jersey. His father Marty was a boxer and a firefighter and his mother Dolly was a midwife. His parents later ran a tavern and it was here that Sinatra first began singing, accompanied by the piano, to earn extra money.
He developed an interest in big band jazz from a young age and his idol was Bing Crosby. He was expelled from school for “general rowdiness” and never graduated.
However, this didn’t do him any harm, as he began singing at local social clubs in his home town of Hoboken and became a professional singer in his teens.
His big break came in 1938, when he was 23 and working as a singing waiter at the Rustic Cabin in New Jersey. The venue was connected to the WNEW radio station in New York and Sinatra started performing live with a band during a show called the Dance Parade.
In 1939, well-known saxophone player Frank Mane arranged for Sinatra to record a single called Our Love. Band leader Harry James then signed Sinatra up with a recording contract and his second single, From the Bottom of My Heart, was released later the same year.
This marked the start of a truly astounding recording career. Sinatra released 69 albums and 297 singles, while his live shows were legendary. He became a member of the famous Rat Pack – a group of entertainers on the Las Vegas casino circuit that included Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.
In the 1940s, he pursued an acting career in Hollywood, making his debut with a small, uncredited role in Las Vegas Nights in 1941. He went on to star in some of the greatest Hollywood musicals of all time, including Anchors Aweigh with Gene Kelly in 1945 and On the Town, also with Kelly, in 1949. The latter is ranked number 19 on the AFI’s list of best musicals of all time.
He also played some non-singing roles, including a memorable performance in the romantic drama, From Here to Eternity, in 1953, in which he played a soldier stationed in Hawaii prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour.
Opposite Doris Day, he starred in Young at Heart in 1954 and he played a psychopathic killer in Suddenly the same year. He was nominated for BAFTA and Academy Awards for best actor when he played a heroin addict in The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955.
He starred opposite Marlon Brando in the epic 1955 musical Guys and Dolls and then with his hero, Bing Crosby, in High Society in 1956.
New York New York
After coming out of retirement in 1973 and beginning his live shows at Caesars Palace, Sinatra entered a golden era of his career, recording one of his biggest hits, New York New York. It was originally the theme song for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name and was sung by Liza Minnelli.
However, when Sinatra recorded the song in 1979 for his album, Trilogy: Past Present Future, it was a massive hit and he released it as a single in April 1980. It was a top ten chart hit in the US and the UK and became his signature tune for the rest of his career.
The lyrics are about a small-town guy who dreams of going to the big city of New York to make a new life for himself. He says he wants to “wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep” to find he’s “king of the hill”, describing how he wants to “make a brand-new start of it.”
He believes your destiny is in your own hands once you arrive in New York, saying, “It’s up to you,” and announces, “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today.”
It was a fitting theme song for Sinatra, since his own career had started in 1938, thanks to New York’s WNEW radio station. The song has become a part of popular culture and is often played at social events in New York, such as the annual Times Square New Year’s Day celebration.
Frank Sinatra continued performing live right up until 1997. He had played more than 220 live shows between 1990 and 1992 in 17 different countries! He died following a heart attack in Los Angeles in May 1998, at the age of 82. His legacy lives on to this day in his wonderful music.
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