Sinatra Calling (Hold All Other Calls)

Summer Wind: When Frank Sinatra Jr. comes to Ocean Grove for the first time on August 27, he’ll be serving up a set of signature songs made legendary by his famed father. 

“Hello, I’m calling for Tom,” says the unmistakable bourbon-smooth baritone on the other end of the line. “My name is Sinatra.”

There are phone calls and there are Phone Calls, and when THAT voice and THOSE words gang up to rock your world, you drop what you’re doing and find a clutter-free place to park it for a spell. After a suitable pause to digest what you’ve just heard.

The Voice, of course, belongs these days to Frank Sinatra Jr., 67 year old son of the Chairman of the Board and a veteran entertainer for whom life has been more about “laboring under a giant shadow” than “made in the shade.” Arguably one of the most misunderstood showbiz figures of the past half century, the vocalist/ conductor/ pianist continues to have to “prove” himself to a vast segment of the audience who think of him as little more than a me-too on a musical family tree — while those in the know have long been hep to his style, his consistency, his unwavering commitment to the Sinatra musical legacy (he even calls his father Frank Sinatra when discussing the patriarch’s professional output), to the art and craft of big-band singing, and to the classic crooning tradition in general.

You might say that Frank Sinatra Jr. just wasn’t cut out to be a young person — the early years of his career included the inevitable amount of missteps (a country-western album, ill-advised covers of hits by the likes of The Turtles, and an inability to score his own hit along the lines of sister Nancy‘s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’“), controversies (he was dogged by rumors of his notorious 1963 kidnapping being a publicity stunt), and a general sense that Ol’ Blue Eyes — then in the swaggering, Rat Pack prime of his career — was hardly ready or willing to cede the spotlight to his smiling, handsome, niceguy kid.

By the time a mustachioed Frank Jr. began showing up on low-budget local New York TV commercials as pitchman for Lenny’s Clam Bar (“tell ’em Frankie sen’ you, an’ ya get a glassa wine on da house”), it seemed as if Sinatra the younger was searching for something — anything — that would stake his claim to a piece of the showbiz landscape that he could truly call his own.

Something happened to Frank Jr. after he rounded his 40th birthday, however. He lost some hair and added some pounds, sure, but he also emerged a smarter, more confident performer — confident enough to get on stage nightly with his aging dad as conductor and bandleader (as well as perform one of the better Duets on the old man’s final album); smart enough to stop groping for a pop hit and focus his own concerts upon the big-band, Songbook standards he knew and loved best.

A more relaxed Frankie also grew himself a sense of humor and a willingness to push the envelope of his oft-teased public persona — whether guesting with punk/funk superproducers Was (Not Was), cameo’ing with Brad Pitt in Cool World, or singing the Gumby theme on a Disney tribute album. It’s a willingness to be playful with his once overly earnest image that’s resulted in some fun roles on The Sopranos, Son of the Beach and Family Guy (a cartoon-world association carried over to Seth MacFarlane‘s real-world parties).

When Sinatra Sings Sinatra at Ocean Grove’s great wooden ship of Family Entertainment on Saturday, August 27, he’ll be seriously exploring the many facets of the Sinatra Sr. legend, in a finely tuned, critically acclaimed touring program that features a full 20 piece orchestra recreating the genius of the great Sinatra arrangers and collaborators. upperWETside was pleased and thrilled to speak to Frank Sinatra Jr.; flip the record over for more.

upperWETside: I have to start off with a personal note…I’ve been married three times,and wedding number two was a late-nite Vegas chapel affair, just like you described in “Wedding Vows in Vegas,” the song you recorded with Was (Not Was) back in the 1980s. I like to think of it as the theme song to that occasion.

FRANK SINATRA JR.: That song was actually a put-down of that whole scene, and while I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you, I think it holds true to this day.

What also holds up over the years is your public persona. It’s been a model of consistency, in a business where a lot of people tend to make regrettable choices as they navigate their way through changing times. Sometimes it seems you need only do your thing, and wait for a Seth MacFarlane to come along and help make that thing resonate with a new segment of the audience.

I don’t know if a lot of people realize it, but I am about to embark upon my 50th year in show business. I’ll be finishing year 49 right around the time I perform in Ocean Grove, which I understand is a wonderful hall for big bands.

But to be perfectly realistic, the ONLY reason I’ve lasted 49 years in this business is because I’m the son of Frank Sinatra — otherwise I’m just another guy in a tux singing old songs. I’ll put my musicianship up against anybody’s, don’t get me wrong — but I’ve never had a hit movie, a hit TV show, or even a hit record.

Yeah, but sometimes, for a singer, a hit song can really hang around their neck for life, when they’re dying to move beyond that one brief moment in their career.

A big hit record would have been nice!

I won’t argue that, but what I’m saying is you’ve presented a persona that you’ve been able to mature into comfortably, as opposed to being that teen sensation who dressed in the latest fashions. You’ve done it largely in a tux or a nice suit, without showing up in love beads or a disco outfit.

I think if you dig deeper you might find something a little regrettable! Back in the 1960s, 1970s, all of us were being encouraged to dress a little, what they called ‘contemporary’ — and things sometimes got a bit out of hand. I just told them, whatever you do, DON’T put me in a Nehru jacket!

I think my first awareness of Frank Sinatra Jr. was the old variety show you did as a summer replacement for Dean Martin, with the Golddiggers and Joey Heatherton. Oh, and The Times Square Two! And Stanley Myron Handelman! Whatever happened to him?

Wow, you DO go back, don’t you! That show was produced by Greg Garrison, who had a long professional relationship with Dean Martin. And Stanley Myron Handelman was such a wonderful talent, very inventive — I looked him up a few years ago and found that he’d passed away. But Stanley was much older than anyone imagined. He was promoted as a promising young comic, and all of us on the show — me, Joey Heatherton, the Golddiggers — assumed that he was around our age.

I assure you, we go way back! I caught your act in Atlantic City a couple of times over the years — I must say I got a kick out of when you did “The Music of the Night” from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA — you’d leave the stage; there’d be thunder and stage lightning, and you’d come back on dressed in a Dracula cape and a Phantom mask!  

It’s funny you mention that. When the Broadway show became huge I thought about including that song in the act, and it was a very popular part of the show — with everyone except the musicians. They called it ‘corn on the macabre!’

I had a prosthesis made by a lady makeup artist in Hollywood — she made a copy of Lon Chaney‘s mask from the silent movie, and I got a Dracula cape to go with it. Before I ever performed the song, I watched Chaney over and over on the screen, with his magnificent body language. Years later I met Michael Crawford, the original Phantom on Broadway, and he said the same thing — ‘I watched Chaney for months!’

In your regular sets, you’d always mix it up between songs from different eras, different types of composers. People expecting to hear you sing your father’s hits would always get something nice; maybe something not so obvious like “River Stay Away From My Door.” But when you perform a whole set of Sinatra signatures, you must not know where to begin — you must have at least a couple full length shows worth of material at the ready.  

It changes from show to show. There’s so much catalog when it comes to Frank Sinatra’s career, I don’t want to do the same songs all the time.

Frank Sinatra PERE ET FILS at center, pictured shortly after the headline-making kidnap case. Clockwise from upper left: Frank Jr. with Joey Heatherton and The Golddiggers on  their TV variety show; a special-edition celebrity mag cover; performing with Brian and Stewie on FAMILY GUY; with dad and sisters on the only album the lot of them ever did together.

Now, we hear a lot of talk about this thing called the Great American Songbook, without anyone ever really totally nailing down exactly what it is. We can all agree on a certain core group of Tin Pan Alley songwriters, but where does it go from there? It’s almost like the U.S. Constitution — are you the sort of person who favors a strict interpretation, or do you look at it as an evolving thing?

That’s an astute question, and personally I think that the whole phrase ‘Great American Songbook’ is almost racist in a way. We’ve had such great songs from composers in England, France, Italy — a standard like ‘The Very Thought Of You‘ is lumped in with American songs, when it’s actually European. If it were up to me, I’d call it the Great International Songbook, or the Great 20th Century World Songbook.

So who in your mind are the present-day composers who belong in the Songbook? And who are the new singers that you think are the best interpreters of this material?

Norah Jones, certainly; Diana Krall — and with the men, Michael Buble absolutely. There’s a young guy in Baltimore named Dale Corn; he’s in his 30s — I heard his recordings and just loved it. I wrote the liner notes to his album.

With the composers, you’ve still got Paul Williams, Johnny Mandel, Leslie Bricusse, the Bergmans, Rupert Holmes. If you regard Paul Williams as the Lorenz Hart of the age, then Rupert Holmes is Frank Loesser; a writer of great ballads AND great character songs with a sense of humor. So no, I don’t think we should close the book on the Great American Songbook.

I’m glad you mentioned Loesser; one of my favorite Broadway songwriters — and as opposed to a lot of them, a guy who wrote songs that really served to advance the storyline of the show, that really fit the characters rather than being a stand-alone love song crammed into the second act.

I met his son, John Loesser, when I played the theater that he manages in Florida. But yes, Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed…those songs worked so perfectly with the book. And My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe — it doesn’t get any better than that.

(There follows an interlude in which Sinatra performs snippets of MY FAIR LADY songs in character as Henry Higgins, and tells anecdotes of the songwriters while imitating Frederick Loewe’s German accent)

Now, listening to you right there, I’m thinking that you’d very much enjoy playing Henry Higgins in a full-costume production of the show. Have you ever given serious thought to investigating that aspect of the business?

Oh, I don’t know; I’m not an Equity player — I’m a nightclub singer. I’ve been approached to do summer stock, and I always turn it down. I like to ad lib. I ‘m not sure I could say and do the same things eight times a week. It’s a whole other mindset — plus, I’ve already got four union cards in my wallet; I don’t wanna buy a fifth.

So where has your long career as a nightclub singer taken you? What are some of the far-flung places that stand out?

I’ve been to Australia many times; Slovakia — and two months ago I did a one-nighter in a place called Punta del Este in Uruguay. It’s a big resort a couple of hours from Montevideo. It took two days to get there, and when we landed a little airport nearby, I never saw so many private jets. There was easily two billion dollars worth of high-end aircraft. This is the place where the super-rich of South America go to play, and the theater was half empty that night because next door in Chile they had a major volcanic eruption. So all flights were grounded, and it took two days to get out of there, after what turned out to be a five day one-nighter.

Sounds like a fine setting for a James Bond picture — 007 being the only guy who’s worn a tux as many times as Frank Sinatra Jr.

Well, I can’t claim to look as good as 007. But I actually knew Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, the producer of all those Bond pictures, and he told me something that blew my mind — when he bought the rights to Bond in 1957, he was turned down by five different studios. Years later he got to rub their noses in his success.

Well hey, anything can happen in this business of show — I’m a firm believer in the notion that a lot of times you win the game in the late innings. And I imagine you’ll continue doing your thing at your pace, and let the rest of the world catch up to you. It’s something akin to job security.

Anyone who has even a little touch of job security is one of the fortunate ones. It’s a hard thing to come by in any field these days, and it’s especially hard to come by in show business. But as the man said, ‘Never Say Never Again.’

Tickets for Saturday’s 8pm show are priced between $35 and $45, and can be reserved right here.

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