October 18, 2010
"You're A Sinatra Aren't You? Sing!"
Though Frank Sr. famously told reporters he hoped his son would never become a singer -- "no following in Dad's footsteps, that's for sure" -- Frank Jr. took music lessons from the age of 5, studying violin, piano, writing songs and singing. And he fell in love with the big band sound. "The real powerful band era didn't come till after the war was over, around 1948. Then came the era of the vocalist." But despite his father's admonition, become a singer he did. As he tells it, "When I started as a kid, I wanted to be a piano player and songwriter. I only became a singer by accident. I was in college, playing in a little band. The lead singer got tanked one night. A guy in the band pointed to me and said, 'You sing.' I said, 'Me? Why me?' He said, 'You're a Sinatra aren't you? Sing!' "
But living in the shadow of the "Great One" was hard work. "A famous father means that in order to prove yourself, you have to work three times harder than the guy who comes in off the street with a song to sing." And work hard he did--working some 358 days of 365 in a year. "A lotta years I was out there on the road pulling one-nighters. Then I got hired to sing in Sam Donahue's band in 1963. I was 19 years old."
Though 1963 was to be Junior's big break, it was also a year that still haunts him. While having dinner in his room at Harrah's Lake Tahoe before the show, he was kidnapped at gunpoint and held captive until Frank Senior paid the $240,000 ransom. Though the story was proven false, desperate defense lawyers for the kidnappers used the excuse that Frank Jr. had hired the men to kidnap him as s publicity stunt. But the accusations didn't seem to put a damper on his career. "Those days were so much more easier to work than it is today. There was no such thing as a $4 can of gasoline. And there were places to work. Now it's only rock music. Ask somebody who Gershwin is, who W. C. Handy is, they wouldn't have the slightest notion." But work he did--along side the greatest names in music. "I used to alternate with a young boy I had never seen before. He was clean-shaven. It was Stevie Wonder. We used to alternate onstage with Duke Ellington. Duke took me under his wing. And I listened to the sounds he made."
In 1988, he took a break from the spotlight to serve as his father's bandleader and conductor. As one by one, Frank Sr. outlived his orchestrators and conductors, Frank Jr. saw that his ailing father's connection to his fans was his father's lifeline and, at Senior's request, took the reins of his father's orchestra. Says Jim Fox, Junior's guitarist, "He knows the way Sinatra music is supposed to sound… He knows every third trombone part, every cello part… He was at a lot of those original Capitol recording dates… He can sound exactly like his dad if he wants to. He can turn on the classic Sinatra sound anytime."
Says Fox, Frank Jr. "has high standards. He doesn't want to work unless he has his 38 band pieces." That's exactly what's needed to produce the full, lush sound both Sinatra's are known for. And this weekend, for one night only, that is precisely the treat in store for San Jose as Symphony Silicon Valley and Frank Junior bring his father's music alive at the California Theatre in Sinatra Sings Sinatra. This gala event is a benefit for The Stroke Awareness Foundation.