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L.A. Becomes Sinatra Fans’ Kind of Town

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Casual fans assume New York is king of the hill, top of the heap, A-No. 1. And Chicago is clearly his kind of town.

But as devoted followers anxiously monitor the health of the 81-year-old Voice, they are celebrating a part of Frank Sinatra’s legacy that has some of its deepest roots in Los Angeles.

The Sinatra Society of America, the largest Sinatra fan club in the United States, recently changed its address from New York, N.Y., to Toluca Lake, where Sinatra and his first of four wives, Nancy, had a home in the 1940s. In truth, the club’s strait-laced 30-year-old president, Charlie Pignone, moved the Sinatra Society with him when he came to Los Angeles to take a marketing job.

But he says the transition is fitting, a fresh set of footprints on the same migratory path that brought first the Dodgers and then the Giants to the West. The city, after all, earned the endorsement of the Chairman of the Board himself in his late-career tune, “L.A. Is My Lady.”

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Pignone remembers practically learning to walk to the strains of Sinatra in his upstate New York home, thanks to his parents’ deep affection for the music. Rather than dismiss it in favor of the Sex Pistols, though, his heart went ring-a-ding-ding as early as age 8 and he plunged completely into the world of Sinatra. Today, he tends the flame for a club whose 4,000 members are mostly older fans who witnessed their hero’s heyday. The club has few get-togethers, but through letters, e-mail and phone calls, Pignone sees more and more young people starting to catch on to what he has long appreciated. And that gives him hope.

“A hundred years from now, it will probably be considered like classical music,” he said of the Sinatra catalog. “There’s music now, you can go to the Viper Room and these other clubs, but it’s not what I would consider good music. The era [Sinatra and his contemporaries] played in, they were lucky to be there. You could go out every night and see people like Nat Cole.

“When [Sinatra’s] hitting notes and in the pocket . . . it’s a lost art form today. People are screaming these days or they’re rapping. It’s all very unappealing to me.”

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Pignone took over the presidency of the club while attending Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. By that time, he had already established himself as a super-fan, traveling the country to see shows and indoctrinating fellow students with the message of Ol’ Blue Eyes.

“When I would pop a tape in the car stereo, only a few people would say, ‘Turn that off,’ ” he reported proudly. “A couple of girlfriends didn’t like it, but what are you going to do?”

Pignone long ago won the confidence of former Sinatra band members Bill Miller and Al Viola, whom he met while on the road following Sinatra. He clearly revels in their company and memories, while they see Pignone as a bridge to a new generation of Sinatra fans.

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As would be expected, he has an extensive collection of memorabilia, though it doesn’t dominate the clean, one-bedroom that on many nights serves as Memory Lane for the three New York refugees. Several of Sinatra’s key backup musicians have lived in Greater L.A. for decades, including Studio City resident Viola, who, in his mid-70s, plays local clubs.

Viola and other musicians estimate that close to 90% of Sinatra’s recordings were made in L.A., most notably the renowned Capitol and Reprise albums from the 1950s and ‘60s. Like the New Jersey-bred Sinatra and countless other entertainers, Viola and Burbank resident Miller, a pianist who accompanied Sinatra from the early ‘50s through his last tour in ’94, initially considered Los Angeles little more than a backdrop for their work. Raised in Brooklyn, both mouthed the conventional expatriate lines about sunshine, movies and beaches until they looked up one day and realized they had spent most of their lives here.

Late on a recent weeknight, the pair sat in Pignone’s apartment, chasing a pepperoni pizza with red wine and anisette and pining for a pint of good spumoni. “That’s one thing you can’t find out here,” Miller complained.

Viola kept up a nostalgic patter, with Miller interjecting gravel-voiced observations about “the Old Man,” as both recalled the event that sparked their relationship with Sinatra: the 1956 opening of a club called the Villa Capri.

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“At that time L.A. was a happening thing as far as restaurants were concerned, and night life was very strong,” Viola said.

Soon after that Villa Capri show, the pair began a heavy recording schedule with Sinatra--five LPs a year, recorded at L.A. studios such as Capitol or United. That period saw the release of such classic Sinatra albums as “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” and, arguably his greatest, “Only the Lonely” in 1958.

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Though Sinatra’s chief spokeswoman, Susan Reynold, says the entertainer is “getting stronger every day,” he rarely ventures from his Beverly Hills home. Late last year, amid a series of hospitalizations, his manager, Eliot Weisman, acknowledged in the Sinatra Society newsletter that Sinatra had finally retired.

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In recent issues, the quarterly newsletter has chronicled the deaths of entertainment giants Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald and George Burns, to name a few. Each passing is acknowledged with a brief eulogy attributed to Sinatra.

Those close to him have spent years steeling themselves for the final curtain. But every time news of a health problem leaks out, the phone rings incessantly with calls from fans whose passion for the music prompts endless cravings for any details of Sinatra’s life, especially his health.

“Although the inevitable is going to happen sometime, it’s still going to be a shock,” Pignone said. “But at least we know he’s here. His presence is with us out here. He deserves a chance to take it easy, and this is a great place to do that.”


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