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Frank Sinatra Jr.'s Vegas memories

“Something very strange happened,” says Frank Sinatra Jr. He is talking about the booking for his three- night stand at the Suncoast that finishes Sunday night, “Sinatra Sings Sinatra.” A veteran recording artist and singer in his own right, Sinatra fronts a 20-piece band that offers songs that conjure images not just of his dad but of a bygone era of Vegas history: “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “One for My Baby,” “Luck Be a Lady.”

Of course, these are different times. Sinatra, 66, finishes the story of his surprise. “They only wanted us for two nights. Suddenly they called us and asked, ‘Would you be willing to play a third date?” He laughs, happily: “I said, ‘Yes, I would.’ ”

That even in 2010 the name Sinatra sells tickets in Vegas is probably less unexpected to the rest of us. The name associated with this music carries as close to a permanent aura as any ever will in ever-changing Vegas. And it isn’t just that there is a street named after Frank Sinatra here. Steve Wynn’s newest resort, Encore, opened with the signature restaurant named Sinatra.

But the image of his father is not a focus to Sinatra. He has no opinion, for example, on if Sinatra should join the Beatles and Elvis as the subject of a Vegas Cirque show. Nor does he get involved in projects like “Sinatra: Vegas,” the 2006 box set documenting his father’s vintage Vegas performances. His contribution to his father’s musical legacy is not historical; rather Sinatra is focused on live performances, on keeping musicians in front of audiences.

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The son worries that, even in Vegas, the classic American songbook backed by jazz-inflected arrangements is at risk of becoming extinct as live entertainment. “Las Vegas is so different from the Vegas I knew. I am surprised anyone pays attention one way or the other to music anymore. I am always asked about Rod Stewart doing these songs. And I say, God bless him. He is letting his audience know about this music.” Of course, even Rod Stewart’s audience isn’t exactly youthful.

But for now, in Vegas anyway, people still pay attention enough to surprise Sinatra with their enthusiasm. Most recently, he was here a little over a week before the Suncoast shows sitting in the stands in the stadium-sized MGM Grand Garden Arena. Casually dressed, Sinatra was a low-key presence sitting with one friend. He was waiting to rehearse for a tribute concert to Michel Legrand being taped for PBS. He had committed to memory the arrangement of “His Eyes Her Eyes” that he was to sing.

Sinatra clearly enjoyed every moment of the orchestra in front of him. It was clear he is also a fan of songwriter and musician Legrand. Still, something about the scene made him sadly nostalgic.

“The hotel I worked for years and years and years, the Frontier, is gone. When I was here we had the El Rancho. The Sands has gone the way of time. The Desert Inn, which was my favorite, has gone the way of time.”

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These days he prefers his shows at the off-Strip Suncoast. “I like the Suncoast so much. It is miles from the Strip. It reminds me of the old Vegas atmosphere when things were a little more personal.” He lives in Beverly Hills and outside of work and social obligations no longer visits Vegas.

Sinatra recalls that he first came to Vegas 56 years ago. His memory is precise. He would have been about 10. For decades, from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, he performed for stretches in Vegas casinos. Recently he came upon some color slides he took: “When I was working at the Flamingo I took slides of people standing in front of the Flamingo with the highway behind them. Across the street you can see these tumbleweeds. That is now Caesars Palace.” Of course, his father would become one of Caesars’ most famous headliners.

When it was his turn to rehearse it took only a couple of attempts before everyone was happy with the result. These are all professionals in the best sense. Sinatra’s voice has a family resemblance impossible to ignore, yet the phrasing and manner are his own.

Legrand and Sinatra then met on stage for a few moments. But rather than leave afterward, Sinatra returned to his stadium seat to watch Patti Page rehearse. “She is so great. There just aren’t that many like her anymore.”

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