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Frank Sinatra demonstrated a winning personality on radio
Frank Sinatra poses with an NBC microphone for a portrait to publicize one of his many 1940s radio programs. - photo by Chris Hicks
Star Wars fans wont like this column one bit. After this paragraph, it isnt mentioned once (though Im sure its prominently, perhaps dominantly, covered elsewhere in this section of todays paper).

Frank Sinatra had a lot of nicknames over his 60-some years of performing: Ol Blue Eyes, the Voice and the Chairman of the Board, chief among them, and earlier, the Sultan of Swoon and Swoonatra.

The latter two came as a result of his sending bobby-soxers into a delirious frenzy when he sang. Yes, decades before Elvis Presley and the Beatles concerts were drowned out by screaming teenage girls, Sinatra was prompting the same phenomenon.

Sinatra referred to himself as simply a saloon singer.

Whatever you may think of him personally, from his mob connections to his womanizing, theres little question that Sinatra was one of the greatest interpreters of what we of a certain age refer to as the 20th centurys Great American Songbook. Perhaps the greatest.

As a result, Sinatra conquered nightclub, concert and stadium venues, earned radio and television fame, and became an Oscar-winning actor with many classic films to his credit. And he sold a lot of records, more than 150 million worldwide, according to Wikipedia (and other sources feel the number is actually much greater).

Last Saturday, as you may have heard, would have marked Sinatras 100th birthday had he not left us in 1998 at age 82. And over the past couple of months, there has been plenty of newly released Sinatra-themed entertainment for all you Frank-ophiles out there.

Sinatra 100: An All-Star Grammy Concert was a two-hour TV salute with everyone from Tony Bennett to Garth Brooks to Celine Dion to Carrie Underwood. All or Nothing at All is a four-hour HBO documentary on Blu-ray and DVD. And there are all kinds of new CD collections.

But one I had not heard about, though I was delighted to discover it, is Frank Sinatra: A Voice On Air 1935-55, a wonderful four-CD collection (with a 56-page booklet) released by Columbia/Legacy and filled with songs from the crooners radio appearances.

The performances on these discs represent Sinatras entry-level professional experiences as a shy young singer with different groups/bands, and then his earliest solo efforts as he rapidly gained stardom.

And because the material here is mostly chronological, fans can chart Sinatras progression as he gains confidence and quickly becomes a song stylist to reckon with.

First up is a quartet, the Hoboken Four, on a 1935 episode of Major Bowes Amateur Hour; then, in 1937, his jazz combo the Four Sharps is introduced by comic Fred Allen, who quizzes Sinatra (You have an odd name), followed by a 1939 clip of Sinatra during his brief tenure with Harry James and His Orchestra.

Most of the first disc is devoted to Sinatra singing with Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra. He was with Dorsey for nearly three years, and these excerpts are from 1940-41 performances on Dorseys radio show, followed by a string of solo appearances on a variety of programs.

Subsequent discs feature Sinatras own radio shows from the 1940s through the 50s Reflections, Songs By Sinatra, Light Up Time, Broadway Bandbox, To Be Perfectly Frank and The Frank Sinatra Show (the latter in several incarnations) along with guest appearances on a wide range of other programs, from Your Hit Parade to The Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore Show.

There are serious moments, mostly in reference to World War II, and some sentimental digressions with Sinatra giving shoutouts to his young daughter.

And a lot of the byplay includes jokes about how skinny Sinatra was at the time, as when someone says, I saw him in the back of the Paramount Theater signing autographs; it looked like one pencil writing with another.

All of this is great fun for both Sinatra buffs and fans of what we now refer to lovingly as Old-Time Radio. And the interplay with hosts, guests and comics (from Bob Hope to Doris Day to Dean Martin) reveals Sinatra evolving into an affable, quick-witted radio personality.

But really, its all about the music.

The real draw here is the range of songs, some familiar with different arrangements than fans may be used to, and many that Sinatra never recorded after singing them live on these shows.

Examples include Lover Come Back to Me, Dont Fence Me In, Long Ago and Far Away, This Cant Be Love, Tenderly and many more. He also warbles such novelty tunes as Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better) and Personality. And dig his comic handling of Its De-Lovely with Milton Berle, and the wacky Cement Mixer with inimitable Slim Gaillard.

Of course, this is early Sinatra, when his voice was a bit higher, before his tenor deepened and became even more expressive, before the familiar cocky, ring-a-ding swinger wearing his hat at a tilt with a suit jacket thrown over his shoulder, an image that became iconic in the 1950s and 60s.

But thats not a criticism. Sinatra fans know the difference between his early and later stages and these early songs validate the crooners reputation during the first 20 years of his professional career as a singer that could spin a tale musically like no one else.

Not bad for a saloon singer.