Let's be Frank

Music - Ashley Kahn charts the cultural deification of Hoboken's favourite son

If you are standing on the extreme west side of New York City, say around 14th Street, and look out across the Hudson River, a small New Jersey town sits proudly on the far side. Take a ferry or the PATH train across, and Hoboken reveals itself as a small, mostly working-class town: tight little streets criss-cross its one-mile square, a reduced version of Manhattan's dense grid. Row upon row of three-floor walk-ups. Scores of family-run, possessive-titled restaurants such as Delfino's and Anthony's. Bakeries renowned regionally for their garlic bread, and delicatessens for their mozzarella. An iron-fisted mayor named Russo.

Despite the influx of New Yorkers fleeing high rents, the heart of Hoboken remains steadfastly Italian. Walk down 5th Street and turn left on to Monroe. There, across from Ottomanelli's Liquor Store & Deli, look down: a bronze star gleams from the sidewalk, Hollywood-style, which reads: "The Voice - Francis Albert Sinatra." Behind it stands a small, one-storey building with a black awning and gold letters: "From Here to Eternity". Inside, there's a 400sqft space representing the idea of a small nightclub: a bar (but no bottles), a few tables and chairs (all empty), and a very thin stage. Accented by unframed photographs tacked willy-nilly to the red, wood-panelled walls, a modest, almost tacky air lingers over the whole affair.

"It's a museum, a tribute . . . whatever you want to call it," admits Ed Shirak, the owner of a local chocolate shop and self-appointed keeper of Sinatra's memory in the singer's home town. Hoboken's favourite son was born in 1915 at 415 Monroe Street (now an empty lot next door). Following Sinatra's death in 1998, Shirak sank a few thousand of his own dollars into this one-room shrine. It opened its door a year ago to a small crowd and an ex-governor, a few headlines, and a ruling from town elders that it violated zoning laws. "All the city's done is name a park after him," counters Shirak. "People go there and say: 'What's this?' At least here," he says, pointing out the signature at the bottom of a thank-you letter sent by Sinatra and his wife on receiving a shipment of chocolates, "they can see something of him."

This December marks the 85th anniversary of Sinatra's birth, and just over two and a half years since his death. Shirak's modest salute is but one of a groundswell of mostly individual efforts that have been made during that period. The efforts vary greatly in funding and in fashion, but all share a need to give expression to the desire to celebrate Sinatra's legacy, to remember an "Everyman", as Mel Torme - another jazz-based vocal master - once called him. "A singer whose style touched a chord in the broadest part of the American psyche."

Let's count the ways, high and low. Sinatra's daughter Tina - whose recent bestselling biography, My Father's Daughter, confirms his Mafia ties and blasts his third wife, Barbara, for wedging herself between the man and his children - seeks to cast Ol' Blue Eyes in bronze. The singing statue (a pushed button would bring forth "New York, New York" and other classics) she envisioned for New York's Times Square found support from the mayor, but was then rebuffed. First, midtown councilmen expressed dismay at the already crowded sidewalks in the area. Then historians dredged up a photo showing Second World War servicemen hurling tomatoes at the idol's image on the marquee to the legendary Paramount Theater, originally located across the street from the intended site.

As revealed in another recent book, The Sinatra Files: the secret FBI dossier, edited by Tom and Phil Kuntz, Sinatra drew public ire during the Forties by apparently finagling his way out of military service. True or not (the author maintains that Sinatra's claim of a punctured left eardrum was accurate), the thought of his likeness for ever facing the city's sole armed forces recruiting station held too much historical irony even for local politicians. Undeterred, Tina is now focused on an alternative site in New York, or as far south as Washington DC.

On a more tasteful - and accessible - pedestal, Capitol/EMI has released the CD box set Concepts. One of the most attractive and refreshingly lightweight (as compact as a slim book) collections to arrive in a long time, it showcases Sinatra at the height of his "hat years", 1953-61. All 16 of his Capitol albums are included, from Songs for Young Lovers to Point of No Return, with music mostly arranged by the legendary Nelson Riddle and lucid, entertaining notes by his biographer Will Friedwald. (Concepts may be available in the UK only as an import, but is worth the trouble and expense locating.)

Meanwhile, in a legal cat-and-mouse game over Sinatra's name and music, Tina has sued to prevent a Las Vegas resort from staging a Rat Pack salute that revives the singer's early Sixties phase. And Frank Jr - himself a crooner in his father's image - has gone to the law over another singer's use of big-band arrangements given to him by Sinatra. Legal actions notwithstanding, mainstream popsters such as Barry Manilow continue to craft their song lists to reprise his better-known hits. And it's open season for copycats: talent books employed by hotels and casinos are bulging with listings for Sinatra soundalikes, Sinatra tributes, Sinatra revues.

The wave of wannabes conjures perhaps the only other idol known for generating still-active imitators: Elvis Presley. And the parallel works in even more telling ways. Like the Memphis rocker, Sinatra channelled popular black music of his day, moulding a timeless signature sound that crossed generations and transcended musical evolution. Like the humbly born hill-billy, Sinatra climbed from modest roots as a member of a marginal subculture to a glamorous lifestyle, adopted and adored by the general public. Like the swivelling stage and screen star, Sinatra pursued a multimedia career path: from record and radio to Hollywood and, eventually, Las Vegas. (Note to Tina: perhaps the desert paradise is a more appropriate location for that statue?)

And like Elvis, in death, Sinatra's ascension to cultural deification has begun, and never mind the women, booze, fiery temper and other detracting life details. Presley was deputised as a federal drug enforcement agent, despite his penchant for self-medication; it is an inherent part of his legend. Likewise, the chairman of the board is as famous for his Mafioso flirtations as for his music. (Tony Bennett, the apologist at Sinatra's demise, claimed: "In his youth, he acted like he was in the underworld, but he's absolutely different, there's so much tenderness and he cares for people.") The "American psyche" prefers a hint of sin or contradiction in its cultural saints, the high with the low. No wonder the Sinatra tributes range from the local and low-budget to the global and elegantly designed. And yet . . .

In August 1977, when Elvis met his ignominious end - overweight and overdosed - thousands flocked to Memphis in a populist outpouring of respect. Crowds mobbed the avenue outside his mansion, blocking traffic. FTD - the country's leading floral delivery service - marked its most successful business day ever.

But when Sinatra slipped away in May1998, whatever protocol Presley's death established for the passing of a popular musical hero was denied the legions who worshipped The Voice. Access to his funeral was kept to an extreme minimum; his family were (and still are, in Tina's tell-all) squabbling over who should have led the last rites. There was no locus - no Graceland - to which popular sentiment could converge. Decades before, Sinatra departed Hoboken for good. But for the rare ceremony - such as receiving an honorary degree from a local vocational school in 1984 - he never returned.

"I know it's simple," Shirak says of his one-room museum. "But people come from all over - a tour guide called this week scheduling 50 visitors from Australia. There's not much here, but they leave fulfilled. They never say: 'Is this all there is?' "

Walking away from the often-locked door to his shrine (Shirak will walk the seven blocks from his chocolate store and open it by appointment), I held little hope for his on-going struggle with Hoboken city hall. Just then, a hired limousine arrived and stopped. A tourist couple speaking - German? Dutch? - hopped out. Excitedly, they handed their camera to the driver and stood arm in arm by the sidewalk star, beaming.

Ashley Kahn's Kind of Blue: the making of the Miles Davis masterpiece is soon to be published by Granta Books