Stranger than the night: The Sinatra I didn’t know

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From the Rat Pack's inimitable nights out in Las Vegas, through the many ‘hats’ that he wore in his colourful career, to the duets he featured in past his prime, Sinatra still lives on as a memory of a life lived to the fullest.

For those who are 65 and older and have memories of his modulated, honey-dipped baritone, Frank Sinatra is like old wine maturing on way beyond its expiry date. | AP


It’s almost twenty years since Frank Sinatra passed away. If he were alive today, he’d be 102, three years short of that number he alludes to in his ‘Young at Heart’ (And if you survive to hundred and five / Look at all you’ll derive out of being alive!).


So, here is the best part: we still get to hear of him, even from him; although it is all sort of elliptical, tangential, spliced in. We thought of him when his first wife, Nancy Barbato Sinatra, turned 100 earlier this year. And so on. I haven’t yet heard the new Seal album, Standards, in which he covers some songs Sinatra so inimitably sang, including ‘Luck, be a lady’, ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and ‘It Was A Very Good Year’. But that tells you something of the man’s enduring allure, even singers not known for singing in the genre Frank Sinatra was the epitome of continue to venture there after all these years. And now Seal will be seen and heard singing with Sinatra on a single timed for his birthday (‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’).

When Kenny G liberally smeared his extremely syrupy, treacly notes onto Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’, purists — mainly guitarist Pat Metheny — famously lashed out at it as deplorable “musical necrophilia”, not so much as the fact that Armstrong had been dead for at least a couple of decades as for the cheap gimmickry of it. After all, Armstrong and Kenny G are from different musical planets. Would you go that far? Consider: Clint Eastwood, who plays piano and composes jazz songs himself, in his sympathetic film Bird, had alto saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’  Parker’s solos pulled out of some of his live recordings and had contemporary musicians play around them — first-rate musicians like Ron Carter, Jon Faddis, Ray Brown, Monty Alexander. You could be snobbish and say that Ron Carter and the rest are superb musicians by themselves, but that’s not it either.


I didn’t know that Frank Sinatra was a self-characterised “18-carat manic depressive”, with a violent, violent temper, who was thrown out of the hotel in Las Vegas that the Rat Pack played at the height of his fame — The Sands — with two of his teeth knocked out.


Millions bought the Natalie Cole comeback album Unforgettable... With Love, where she duetted into platinum sales with her long dead father Nat King Cole. Tony Bennett has sung with Billie Holiday (‘God Bless The Child’), who died in 1959. And before Seal, Céline Dion sang a virtual duet with Frank Sinatra the year he died, ‘All the Way’, all of which goes to show that when a great singer passes on he/she is never quite dead, ever.



Sinatra himself can be blamed for unabashedly promoting this disembodied way of singing, long after he could no longer sing the way he used to. His album Duets, in which he recorded songs with artists as diverse as Luther Vandross, Barbra Streisand, Bono, Julio Iglesias, and yes, Kenny G, among others, was done without him sharing studio space with the person he sang the duet with. He came to the studio, recorded, left. Then the producer recorded the co-singers separately, often via phone-ins. So, by the time Bono responds, pitch appropriately, for example, “don’t you know you old fool you never can win?” (‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin), Frank Sinatra, then 78, might well have forgotten the lyrics he had sung when he recorded his bit by the time the record-producer beamed Bono into the track.



Till a couple of months ago, when I read Shawn Levy’s Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Peter, Joey, and the Last Great Showbiz Party, which was published the year Sinatra died (1998), I nurtured a somewhat one dimensional impression of Frank Sinatra: as an incandescent singer and somewhat lame actor (even counting the Oscar he took for a supporting role in From Here to Eternity). I had seen him in High Society, in which he had sung a great song (‘You’re Sensational’), Pal Joey (‘The Lady Is A Tramp’, ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’), and Von Ryan’s Express, in which he has a non-singing role. There were no downloads those days; friends burnt albums for you, and tapes you found in music shops you bought and heard, and you borrowed VCRs and saw the movies.

The last tape that I’d bought was Duets, by which time Frank Sinatra had more or less lost it. I’d read somewhere that Frank Sinatra collected wigs the same way some of us collected his albums. Gay it was who outed Sinatra’s hair pieces, and how Frank employed someone whose sole job was to carry some thirty hairpieces (he owned more than twice that number, custom-made) around in a special kind of satchel wherever he went, like Mary’s little lamb. I found that a bit excessive — how many wigs could you wear at a time, or even a single day or over a week, after all? Or could you change the wigs according to the occasion? For breakfast? For a formal occasion? For the night out… and Frank had plenty, plenty, plenty of these.



When the Rat Pack went to work on the sets of a film, Joey Bishop (the mouse in the rat pack) would turn up for work at 7:00 in the morning, Sammy Davis Jr. would show up by 10:00 as would Dean Martin and Peter Lawford. As for Frank if he showed up at all it would often be not before 4.30 or 5:00 in the evening. The same went for his recording sessions. He was a one-take man, most of the time. If the take didn’t work, too bad. He had torn up the music sheet and already moved on. It’s a reflection of how much he was in control of his voice that he did so many fine albums with this impatient work ethic. He had attitude. When Frank ran into his mentor for a while, Humphrey Bogart, the older man said, “They tell me you have a voice that makes girls faint. Make me faint.” Frank apparently needled him right back: “I’m on holiday this week!”. Much later, but before he died of throat cancer, Bogart was to observe: “Sinatra’s idea of paradise is a place where there are plenty of women and no newspapermen. He doesn’t know it, but he’d be better off if it were the other way around.”

Among others, Sinatra took up with Lauren Bacall, who had been married to Bogart, Jackie O, Marlyn Monroe, Ava Gardner… It would probably have been simpler for Franks various biographers, of which there must be more than four dozen at the very least, to list those women Frank didn’t hang out with afterhours.  I didn’t know that he had married Mia Farrow, his third wife, when she was nearly nineteen, and he fifty, and his children mostly older than her. When he broke the news to Dean Martin he apparently responded: “Frank, I drink scotch that is older than this kid!”



Or that Frank ran around with the Mafia, with mobsters like Sam Giancana “the ferret-faced Chicago don”, a known torturer, murderer with over seventy arrests on his record, who, Levy writes, “was to become so intimately linked to Frank’s and eventually Jack Kennedy’s.” Frank knew all the mobsters.

I didn’t know that Frank Sinatra was a self-characterised “18-carat manic depressive”, with a violent, violent temper, who was thrown out of the hotel in Las Vegas that the Rat Pack played at the height of his fame — The Sands — with two of his teeth knocked out, the same way as Charlie Parker had been thrown out of the club named in his honour — Birdland. Or that Frank Sinatra tried to kill himself variously with a razor, combinations of pills and alcohol, gas, gun; the bullet missed. In the end, we got lucky that Frank Sinatra was so, so, so much better — a genius even — at singing than he was at taking his own life.

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