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Sinatra and Ali – "Their Way"
One had the perfect traits of a boxer – quick hands, unparalleled foot speed, great reach. The ability to dodge, and later take, most hits, all with the grace of a gazelle. The other had all the makings of a singer: perfect pitch, vibrato, presence, incredible phrasing, snapping of fingers. He was, in short, the voice.
When Ali commanded his stage, no one came near him. The self-proclaimed ‘greatest of all time’ made the world listen, but he didn’t need to raise his voice. It was a picture that was certainly worth a thousand words. Watch any Ali fight in his prime and you’ll understand.
The crooner was no different in his element. Singers come and go but this one was different. He inspired writers and arrangers, conductors and musicians to deliver the goods. He created the mood album, the saloon song, the swing with a smashing orchestra and much more. He spawned countless imitators, but only his voice and presence could light the stage for over fifty years.
Ali too elevated the game, transforming boxing from a mere sport into a spectacle, an event, while elevating the stock market, as well as the public, to new heights. And yet, when religious idealism got the better of Ali, he left the scene rather than sacrifice his beliefs. And while he may have given up the title of “heavyweight champion of the world”, he got another admirable one: the ambassador of the defense of what you believe at all costs. Later, when fate decided to let him regain his title after a two and a half year hiatus, he returned with a vengeance.
At first we tried not to notice the slower hands, the slower signature Ali shuffle, the not so quick reflexes. But that didn’t really matter. He kept winning, didn’t he? Maybe not with lightning-fast combo punches, but it looks like this magician has traded in his old bag of tricks for a few new ones. Most surprising was his relentless ability to take a punch. And how about the Ali Rope a dope? That little ploy on George Foreman that scorching night in Zaire some 35 years ago gave Ali what he had been fighting for for almost seven years: his title.
Sinatra also had his own bag of tricks and like Ali, he didn’t have to rely on just one style. So when the fifties said goodnight to the big band and hello to rock and roll and the Beatles, Sinatra could easily have been catapulted into extinction, but true to form, he remained relevant. He recorded with a wide range of arrangers, never settling into a groove he couldn’t get out of. Riddle, Jenkins, May, Costa, Jones, Count Basie, Mandel, Jobim. They kept the crooner alive and relevant without sacrificing his artistic roots. All The Way, Fly Me to the Moon, The Gal That Got Away, One For My Baby, The Way You Look Tonight, Girl From Ipanema. You had the idea. And like Ali, he could never leave well enough on his own. He needed to matter, he needed to feel a connection with the one thing that made him tick – his audience. So when most older artists are sitting on a golf course or a restaurant, reminiscing about the good old days, Frank was singing about them. Whether it was a very good year, That’s Life, My Way or much later New York, New York, Frank kept going to the office. He even reinvented himself as a performer. As he closed in on the great Five-O, Sinatra gave birth to another institution: The Rat Pack. Vegas would never be the same again. Talk about those pictures of a thousand words – the Marquess of Caesars would just read “There he is” and the room would be sold out before you knew who “he” was.
It was the same with Ali. Even after his Thrilla in Manila, when it looked like his tank was almost empty…well, that bunny kept going. For me, Ali’s greatness was summed up in a 1977 fight with the much younger, much stronger Ernie Shavers. Not a great fight. Not much dancing. No rope a dope. But after 14 hard punches, mostly to Ali’s head, Ali musters strength from who knows where and lands multiple punches in a row, nearly knocking Shavers out, if not for the sound of the final bell.
This fight said it all.
He had a heart to win, even when his body said no. The will and the determination to carry on when most others would be ready to throw in the towel.
I guess it was really because of all the fuss. Their resilience. Their ability to take a punch and get back up. And of course, their longevity. Ali taught me that the fight isn’t over until it’s over. Look how many fights he has won in the last few rounds. Sinatra’s lessons also taught me that a vocal hemorrhage, an abandoned record company, out of favor with the public, musical fads, were no reason a good singer couldn’t reinvent himself and reach new heights.
You could say that Sinatra and Ali had many rebirths, without many deaths. They both recited poetry, danced in their respective genres and drove up the ratings. Every time one of them was part of something, it BECAME something, just by their association with it. And the older they got, the more their mystique grew. It didn’t matter that the blows were so quick or the voice so nimble. The world always wanted to see them, to get one last glimpse of living legends, if nothing else.
Both were the best, both did it in their own way, and while I guess they may have stayed on stage a little longer than they should have, who could blame them? Wouldn’t you like to see what it was about?
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