I first met Frank Sinatra when he played New York’s Paramount Theatre in 1942. That engagement launched him into orbit on the shoulders of the famous bobby-soxers with their screams of adulation and innocent eroticism. Frank was proud that they grew old with him, bringing their children and their grandchildren to his performances.
The friendship we forged lasted 46 years. My wife Harriet and I have heard Frank often in nightclubs, concert halls, recording sessions and one-nighters--one night only engagements in arenas all around the country. For us, the one-nighters were the most exciting. Each one was a separate adventure and yet, in many ways, they were as alike as peas in a pod. You landed in the dark and you left in the dark. The locales were interchangeable.
On a lovely spring evening about 20 years ago we entered the lobby of Frank’s hotel--the Waldorf Astoria in New York City--to shuffle off to Buffalo. Frank, Barbara and their guests make up a party of 12. A moment later we are in limousines, bound for Frank’s jet. A Sinatra one-nighter is timed with the precision of a West Point dress parade. Logistics fascinate him. He would have made a superb travel agent.
A few minutes after takeoff Frank is immersed in his crossword puzzle, which he does rapidly and in ink. Harriet and I reflect on his compulsive generosity to friends. A partial inventory in our home includes affectionately inscribed clocks and picture frames, a hi-fi system, a draft beer set-up and countless tapes and recordings. Over the years he has given us a golden Lab and a King Charles Spaniel that have greatly enriched our lives.
The seat-belt sign flashes, the plane lands in Buffalo and glides to a halt. We move quickly into waiting limousines. A police escort leads us to the arena’s stage door, Frank is out of the car and inside the building in an instant, barely glimpsed by the people behind the barricades. An usher takes us to our seats while Frank changes into his “working clothes"--a tuxedo. A few moments later a ripple of applause starts from the point where we entered. It builds as Frank comes down the aisle. By the time he enters the prizefight ring that serves as a stage, the audience is on its feet. He holds up his hand and nods several times without smiling. It is a gesture that says, “Let’s not get carried away with what’s past. We’re all here for tonight.”
He starts easily. “I’ve Got the World on a String” is a typical opening. Most of the songs are the standard Sinatra classics that his fans love, but each performance will include several new songs.
He knows that a few will take hold and become part of his repertoire. Invariably someone will call for a favorite that has not been heard. Invariably he will respond chattily, “I can’t keep singing all the same songs. We’d both get bored.” The audiences’ favorites are not always his own. “Strangers in the Night” is an example. Whenever he starts that song there is applause and he’ll say tolerantly, “You still like it?” He’ll shake his head in mild disbelief and sing on. Privately he’ll say that he never liked it, but always adds that “it has helped keep me in pizza for a long time.”
He pauses only briefly between songs, responding to the applause by saying, “Thank you. Pretty song,” and naming the composer, lyricist and arranger. Halfway through he calls a halt to chat with the audience for about 10 minutes. He does it extremely well and they eat it up. (On this night, I remember, then-Buffalo Bills’ running back 0.J. Simpson is in the audience. Frank acknowledges him as “a fugitive from Los Angeles.”)
A nod to the conductor and the second half of the evening gets under way. Midway through he sits on a stool, lights a cigarette and announces that, as the last of the saloon singers, he will sing a song about “a guy whose chick has split and left him in no mood to go out among us.” It is one of my favorites: “One for My Baby.” Memories take over. Almost everyone in the house has been consoled somewhere along the line by a Sinatra torch song.
Every singer strives to have a great finishing song. At this moment Frank’s finale is “New York, New York.” The audience begins applauding the minute the music starts. Ushers tap us on the shoulder and lead us out. By the time the song is finished and a standing ovation fills the building, we are in the limousines. Frank is not far behind. He jumps into the front car and the caravan moves out, sirens wailing. We are airborne before most of the audience has gotten out of the parking lot.
The ride home seems short. We are all exhilarated except Frank. Sipping a drink, he is simply a man coming home from work. Someone compliments him on his performance. He looks momentarily blank and then says briefly, “Yeah. Nice audience.” The truth is that he has all but forgotten it.
Before landing he tells us that we will be having dinner at an Italian restaurant. We arrive after midnight. The restaurant is closed but the door is held open for us by the smiling proprietor. Italian restaurateurs regard a Sinatra visit as a higher award than the Medal of Freedom. Excellent wines are on our table and drink orders are taken. Frank always orders ahead. Soon a variety of tempting antipastos are served, followed by several pastas and a Lucullian veal milanese. By the time we finish it is almost 2:30 a.m.
We stroll out of the darkened restaurant onto the sidewalk. The limousines stand ready to take us home. Frank kisses the women and hugs the men or shakes their hands. “Good night,” he says. “It was fun. Sleep well. We’ll talk tomorrow. See you soon.”
He has been out of the city less than six hours. He has entertained some 15,000 people memorably. He has earned a sum well into six figures. Another tiny brush-stroke has been added to the vast canvas of his career.
I will miss him always.