Cock your hat – angles are attitudes. Frank Sinatra
As anyone who has ever known me will attest, I am a great admirer of much of the music of Frank Sinatra. I’ve listened to the recordings of his early, sweet years with Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, the “swinging” Capitol and “ring-a-ding-ding” Reprise eras, and, finally, the defiant, brash “New York, New York” cry of an elderly “Chairman of the Board.”
I have followed, listened, enjoyed… and learned a lot about the appreciation of stories from his many recordings.
“Stories?” You thought I was going to say “music,” didn’t you? But while the best of Sinatra’s music holds me sway, it was his appreciation for lyrics and his interpretation of the story they conveyed that makes him unique for me. Another performer who was sensitive to the importance of lyric and who had a stunning ability to translate its emotion to the listener was Billie Holiday. Sinatra has credited her musical artistry as being a seminal influence on him.
Frank Sinatra used to study a song’s lyrics before he’d perform or record it. He would look to place little pauses that would give the lyrics emphasis; he refused to take a breath in the middle of a string of words meant to express a complete thought because he felt it compromised the meaning of the story being told; and he bent musical notes on just the right syllable to express the emotion behind the words so his listeners would feel – as well as understand – the story being sung.
Through his music, he was a teller of tales: happy ones, sad ones, lonely ones. Stories about guys who were on top of the world (“That’s Life”), who were besotted with passion (“You Go to My Head”), who got kicked in the teeth by love (“I’m a Fool to Want You”), and who tried, looking back, to justify their life and the decisions they made (“My Way”).
For Sinatra, the lyric was paramount. Ella Fitzgerald once referred to him as some little guy just singing a story.
I think that’s how he saw himself. He did not “write” the story, but he appreciated it. And he found a way to take it inside himself and then deliver it back to his audience, making them hear and feel it much in the same way he did.
A lot of people think the most famous of Sinatra’s recordings are autobiographical. That might be true for a few of his songs, but not for the majority of them. But he had the ability to make you think they were. Part of the reason for that was his respect for the lyric; the other part was Sinatra’s attitude. He was never wishy-washy about a song. If he decided to record it, he gave it his best shot. He “cocked” his hat, so to speak. He studied the song, often making little notes next to the lyrics – where to pause, where to bend the note. After all that, though, it was Sinatra’s own angle that gave the song (and the story!) life. Jaunty, sad, hopeful, morose… it was Sinatra’s emotional attitude that sold the song. At least, for me, it did.
Reading Sinatra’s quote, the story teller in me smiles. Can I tip my “creative” hat at just the right angle and achieve in fiction just the right attitude? I rather like the visual of that tipped hat and what it says to me about writing. There’s a certain bravado in putting yourself out there. For Sinatra, it was going out on stage and singing someone else’s story set to music. For a writer, it’s the daring attempt to get the emotions out of your heart and head and onto a page.
The way a hat is perched on a head can say a lot about the wearer’s attitude: tilted just right, it’s rakish and daring; tipped another way, it’s sinister, hiding something; and, when the brim is worn low, protecting the eyes, it speaks of loneliness and, perhaps, vulnerability.
When you sit down in front of your keyboard, how is your creative hat cocked? An angle is a viewpoint. It can be a creative projection. It can be an emotional slant. What’s your angle at any given moment, your attitude? Are you confident or a little frightened? Are you willing to put yourself out there in words, or are you holding back? For me, it varies from day to day.
I think that’s okay, though. It’s about the angle of your hat at any given moment. It’s the way you wear it. As Sinatra said, angles are attitudes – even the creative ones.