In 1963, Sinatra told a Playboy interviewer, "I don't know what other singers feel when they articulate lyrics, but being an 18-carat manic-depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradiction, I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation." That's one of the most revealing statements ever to issue from a pop supernova. In The Frank Sinatra Reader, the accounts of Sinatra as a romantic balladeer are fresher and more informative than the ones of his hard-swinging style and tough persona. (Audiences used to the huskier and more powerful and individual Sinatra voice of the 1950s and on would not recognize the reedlike instrument that made bobby-soxers swoon.) E.J. Kahn Jr.'s New Yorker study of Sinatra, "The Fave, the Fans, and the Fiends," begins with this dry assessment: "Frank Sinatra is a professional singer with an extremely pleasant voice." There's something neat about an unsigned Time item from 1954, despite the dubious judgment that "his style remains pretty much the same." Sinatra talks candidly about the bad taste of Columbia Records A&R chief Mitch Miller, whom he blames for the near-demise of his singing career between 1949 and '52: "Instead of a real interest in the lyrics or the melody, all Miller cared about was gimmicks." Later, you can picture him snapping his fingers when he says, "Everything's ahead of me, man. I'm on top of the world. I'm buoyant."

The Reader includes the most famous piece ever written about him, Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" (1966), which epitomizes a subgenre that could be called "Sinatra mood prose." It frames a consideration of the singer in his Chairman of the Board phase (roughly from the late '50s to mid-'60s) with a look at an eight-day period when the taping of the TV special Sinatra -- A Man and His Music had to be postponed because of ... a cold. Though overwritten and erratically reported, the piece contains a terrific vignette of Sinatra hassling writer Harlan Ellison at a private club and mercilessly telling him that the 1966 film he scripted (and Sinatra appeared in), The Oscar, is "a piece of crap." Joe Morgenstern's 1965 Newsweek story presents the clearest picture of how much authority Sinatra wielded at the top of his game -- it reports on the rumor that Jack Warner was grooming him to inherit the Warner Bros. studio.

If you want some visual aids while listening to the albums or poring through The Frank Sinatra Reader, you might pick up Lew Irwin's Sinatra: The Pictorial Biography (Courage Books, 120 pages) and disregard the error-laden text. You can't trust the photos in Irwin's book, either, but they have wonderful stories to tell -- whether fact or fiction. Most often, Sinatra is fiddling with a piano, jabbing at a music stand, or seducing a mike. But we also see him hugging daughter Nancy with first wife Nancy at his side, and then cutting wedding cake with his enduring love Ava Gardner. Hopscotch over the decades, and there he is at Kennedy's inaugural, then yocking it up with the Reagans. In the coming weeks, movie channels will replay the Hollywood pictures; TV specials will portray Sinatra as a figure who helped set the American beat for half a century. But it all goes back to the music. "The Song Is You," he sang in a number he loved so much he recorded it four times. At the end of the December of his years, his songs are us.

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