The Frank Sinatra, Jr. Story
     
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When Franklin Wayne Sinatra was born, on January 10, 1944 in Jersey City, New Jersey, his famous father was in Hollywood making a movie. Frank Sr. told reporters that he hoped Frank Jr. would never become a singer--"no following in Dad's footsteps, that's for sure." With that kind of ambivalence early on, it's no surprise that it has been a rocky road for Frank Sinatra Jr., a supremely talented yet terminally insecure individual, a man who once described himself as the "Volkswagen in the Sinatra garage," yet who in all fairness should be considered one of the most interesting and skilled pop vocalists of the era.

Frank Sinatra Jr. took music lessons from age 5, studying the violin and piano, writing songs, and singing. But early on he made a childhood agreement with his father that he would try to grow up like an average kid and make it on his own with no help from "the Old Man," and from age 12 worked standard summer jobs ranging from camp counselor to bank clerk. He started his education in public school, but after enduring endless fuss and jokes about his dad, his mother sent him to a private school in Arizona at which he was miserable. He and his dad exchanged many letters; Frank Sr. would say things like "How's the Wild West, have you met Zane Gray?", and Frank Jr. would write back describing the place as the Black Hole of Calcutta: "Having a black time, future looking black, present looking black, black, black, black." When Junior returned home after 39 months away, he found a Pontiac Bonneville convertible waiting for him, solid black from bumper-to-bumper, with a note attached from Frank Sr.: "Here's a little reminder of all those Black years you spent."

As a teenager, Frank was enrolled in the Desert Sun School in Idyllwild, California, a small, isolated boarding school in the mountains. Unlike his previous boarding school situation, his time at Desert Sun was a positive experience that Frank fondly remembers today. At Desert Sun, Frank and a friend, Rick Shaw, did a performance for which they received much acclaim: For each of Rick's impressionist paintings, Sinatra Jr. composed an impressionist melody.

Eventually Frank Jr. decided he was ready to perform in public. A friend in Phoenix owned a failing nightclub called Andy Grand's, and Frank decided to help get the place going. He walked in one day and said, "Pick a date--I'm going to perform." The date was set as April 28, 1962, and Frank accompanied himself on the piano to a large and interested crowd.

On the Fourth of July, 1963, he went up to the leader of the band at Disneyland and asked for a chance to sing. Though he didn't give his name, he was recognized by some of the musicians, who were members of Tommy Dorsey's old band. Immediately impressed with his singing, they asked him to join them onstage for their July 6 Disneyland gig, a tribute to the Dorsey band. Frank agreed and brought the house down, singing songs like "I'll Never Smile Again," "Yes Indeed," and "There Are Such Things".

Encouraged by his reception, Frank Jr. put together a complete show and hit the road with members of the old Tommy Dorsey Band. Then, as now, his intention was never to compete with his father, but simply to try and make an honest living as a musician. However, a disturbing and horrific event quickly sidetracked his budding career. On December 9, 1963, Frank Jr. was eating dinner in his room at Harrah's Lake Tahoe, where he was scheduled to perform, when two men kidnapped him at gunpoint and put him in the trunk of their car. A cooperative but frightened Sinatra Jr. was in the trunk all the way to Los Angeles, where he was finally released as promised when a distraught Frank Sr. paid the $ 240,000 ransom.

Although the kidnappers were eventually captured and the money recovered, the incident haunted Frank Jr.'s career for years. Desperate attorneys for the drug-addled kidnappers came up with the bogus defense that they had been hired by Frank Jr. to kidnap him as a publicity stunt, and although the story was later proven to be completely false, as Frank Jr. put it, "The seeds of doubt have been sown on my integrity and guts and will stay with me for the rest of my life."

In 1964, Frank worked 345 days in the U.S. and overseas, interrupting his schedule of personal appearances only for courtroom appearances at which he served as a witness for both the prosecution and the defense. 1965 was even busier: he reportedly worked 358 days out of 365. As Frank Jr. put it, "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."

1965 also saw the release of his debut album, Young Love For Sale (Reprise), a collection of showroom standards performed with warmth, enthusiasm, and considerable skill, particularly considering the singer was himself barely of legal drinking age. Backed by The Sam Donahue Orchestra, the album is first-rate from start to finish, and were it not for the burden of operating in the shadows of The Greatest Singer Of All Time, the album surely would have made more of an impression amongst critics and the public. The toll on his confidence taken by the constant comparisons to Frank Sinatra is obvious from Frank Jr.'s tentative liner notes: "If, by the time my association with the band ends, if I, to myself-not to other people, but to myself--have not proved that I can sing as well as I'd like to, then, while I'm still young, I'll move on to something else. At the moment though, this is the best I have to offer."

By 1967 he had signed with RCA Victor, where he cut a series of fine, overlooked singles that successfully combined the big-band sound he loved with the pop-rock sound that was popular at the time. (Frank Jr. has always maintained a dislike for rock music in general and his enthusiasm for in recording rock-oriented material has always been half-hearted at best. However, the Ivan Mogull-produced sides he recorded for RCA feature top-notch material and arrangements by the likes of Nelson Riddle, and Frank Jr.'s performances are among his best.) He continued to tour incessantly; by 1968 he had performed in 47 states and 30 countries! Meanwhile, he began taking small movie roles, and was seen constantly as a guest on popular television shows. This culminated in being given the co-hosting job on "Dean Martin Presents the Golddiggers," the summer replacement series for "The Dean Martin Show". This led in turn to CBS giving him his very own hour-long TV special in 1969, "Frank Sinatra Jr. With Family and Friends," on which he was joined by his famous sister Nancy and father, as well as folks like The Jack Benny and Sammy Davis Jr.

In 1970, Sinatra Jr. co-starred with Dale Robertson and Toshiro Mifune in an unusual and little-known Japanese film titled The Walking Major. Frank was excellent in his role as a serviceman who walks across the entire length of Japan to raise money for a children's charity. That same year he took on an odd gig and made airplane history in the process by being the first act on American Airlines' Boeing 747's equipped with flying "lounges" for customers' entertainment on New York to Los Angeles flights.

1971 saw the release of Spice, Sinatra Jr.'s first album for RCA-subsidiary Daybreak Records. Here he collaborated with "Master Spice Mixer" Nelson Riddle, producer Sonny Burke , vocal arranger Jimmy Joyce, and Sinatra Jr.'s frequent touring band, the Larry O'Brien Octette, on a collection of his favorite songs of the previous 40 years. The songs range from a current Free Design cover, "Tomorrow Is The First Day Of The Rest of My Life" ("lyrically, it borders on the metaphysical"), to older chestnuts like "The Trolley Song" and "Indiscreet," arranged and performed with utter mastery by Frank Jr. and his ace group of musician pals. The album's sound is a powerful mixture of then-contemporary pop with the lush arrangements Nelson Riddle is known for, with Frank Jr. in his finest, most confident form. The undisputed highlight of the album is one of three songs composed by Sinatra Jr. himself, the dramatic "Black Night." Here, Frank Jr. attempts a new kind of love song, a short story in which "the night is not pleasant, the wind is not beautiful, and the moon is lousy!" With Nelson Riddle's "equally evil arrangement," the goal is accomplished in spades; "Black Night" is a stunning, evocative song that musically encapsulates the darker side of Frank Sinatra Jr.'s persona and is as personal a statement as any vocalist has ever committed to vinyl.

Just a year later, Daybreak released a second Sinatra Jr./Riddle/Burke collaboration, the His Way album. The album was a worthy follow-up to Spice, featuring an unpredictable assortment of hand-picked "contemporary, up-to-the-minute songs" made entirely his own by Frank Sinatra Jr. Highlights include the downbeat ballads "The Fool Who Dared To Dream" and "This Way Mary" (from the movie Mary Queen of Scots), as well as the big-band/pop amalgam "Now Is The Time," which recalls the breathtaking sound of his '60s sides for RCA. As with Spice, the production and arrangements are absolutely top-notch all the way, and Frank Jr. continues to surround himself with innovative musicians. Sinatra Jr.'s material from this era has a unique quality: while possessed with a powerful voice, Frank Jr. is not on a quest for power; his ambivalence towards his career is palpable on stage and in his song selection. He brings an extra emotional resonance to these specially chosen songs, giving both Daybreak albums an extra edge that belies their surface mood of innocence and sheer pop exuberance. Unfortunately, aside from a one-off single for MGM in 1973, His Way was to be the last recorded evidence of Frank's distinct musical vision for many years to come.

In 1976, Sinatra Jr. got involved with the nation's Bicentennial Celebration by composing a 15-minute song/monologue entitled "Over The Land". It was performed by Frank Jr. at the Armory on July 4, 1976, and was later chosen to be one of the 1,000 works of art to be preserved for the 2076 Tricentennial Celebration. (21 years later, Frank Jr. performed an expanded version of the piece at Washington DC's Kennedy Center; it unfortunately has yet to be committed to disc.) During this time, Frank also reportedly served as Vice President of the Eastern League (minor league baseball) team the Bristol Red Sox.

When Churchill Records suggested in 1977 that Frank record a country and western LP, he sought some advice from Eddy Arnold and got to work on what would become the It's Alright album. The recording sessions were held in Nashville with the multi-talented Billy Strange at the helm. While the album has some terrific moments (such as the magnificent "31 Summers And Too Many Falls"), overall it does not sound as though Sinatra Jr. is working in his preferred element.

Unwilling to further change his style to keep up with the times, Sinatra Jr. found work hard to come by during the next few years. He was picked by Norman Lear to host a TV variety show pilot, but nothing much came of that. He grew a mustache and began work on a role as a wealthy stockbroker/bike jock on a movie called Do It In The Dirt, co-starring Keenan Wynn. How far into filming they got on that one is questionable, but it doesn't sound like Frank Jr.'s dream project exactly, and in any case, it never saw release.

In 1982, Frank worked on a tribute record to the famous arranger Billy May, to be titled Billy May For President. T-shirts bearing the slogan were printed up by Sinatra Jr., and the album, credited to "Pat Longo's Super Big Band featuring Frank Sinatra Jr." was issued in 1983 by Town Hall Records. Sinatra's enthusiasm for the project is evident on every song, and one of his own compositions, "Missy," is clearly the standout cut on an album of big-band standards.

The Longo project was almost a foreshadowing of Frank's future direction, as throughout the 1980's Frank honed his live act further by dropping many of the contemporary songs from his act and instead concentrating on the big-band songs that he preferred. His shows began to focus more on the great musicianship of the ace musicians he toured with, and he ignored audience requests to perform songs associated with his father. Reviewers, while still focusing too much on their imaginary competition between father and son, were finding it harder to lazily dismiss Sinatra Jr. so easily; a Los Angeles Times review of a 1985 performance commented that his voice had "matured into an elegant baritone lightly touched with the buzzing edge that made the elder Sinatra's sound so appealingly new" and further commented that "Sinatra Jr.'s vocal instrument is now the real stuff, as good as his father's ever was." Sets from that period consisted mainly of material that had never appeared on Sinatra Jr.'s albums, including lounge standards such as "It's A Marshmallow World," "Straighten Up And Fly Away," "The Girl Next Door," "You Don't Know What Love Is", and "River Stay Away From My Door". Unfortunately, his recorded output during this time dwindled down to nearly nothing, though he did lend his voice to a couple of tongue-in-cheek projects: he contributed a great version of the "Gumby" theme song for a Disney-produced tribute album, and handled the lead vocals on a faux-lounge song by the then-hip band Was (Not Was), "Wedding Vows In Vegas". He also appeared briefly in the Ralph Bakshi semi-animated film Cool World alongside Brad Pitt, Kim Basinger, and their animated caricatures.

By the late 1980's, Frank Jr. was one of the few singers left that actually toured with a full big-band (by the end of the 1990's, he may have been the only one!), and his shows were as educational as they were entertaining. However, beginning in 1988, he took a break from the spotlight in order to serve as conductor and bandleader for his father for The Voice's final years of live performing, earning the respect of the musicians and those in the audience for the devotion and skill he brought to the job. In addition to his work for his father behind the scenes, Frank Jr.'s lively duet with Frank Sinatra on "My Kind of Town" was considered by many listeners to be the highlight of the elder Sinatra's best-selling Duets II set. The two also teamed up to appear together in a popular commercial for Michelob Beer.

Finally, in 1996, the Frank Jr. loyal were rewarded with his first full-length album release in nearly 20 years. As I Remember It was released on compact disc by the highly-respected classical label Angel Records. On this 32-track album, Frank Sinatra Jr. tells the story of the Sinatra Legend through careful, thoughtful narration, and perfectly rendered mini-versions of Senior's best songs. Frank Sinatra Jr. is every bit as compelling a personality as his father was, but in a completely different way--and the peculiarity and genius of both men come across on this fascinating album.

In 1998, Barry Keenan, one of the kidnappers who had wreaked havoc on Frank's life and career so many years back, inexplicably began popping up in the media to present his side of the story and to try and spark interest in a film project on the kidnapping he was trying to sell to Columbia Pictures. The Sinatra Family was understandably not amused by Keenan's bizarre attempt to recast the situation in a better light, and spent a lot of time in court trying to prevent him from capitalizing on his deeds as per the so-called "Son of Sam Law" barring criminals from making money off their crimes. Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court struck down the "Son of Sam Law" in February 2002.

Recently, Frank Jr. has appeared in humorous roles on episodes of HBO's hugely successful "The Sopranos," as well as the Howard Stern-produced comedy series "Son of the Beach". He continues to perform in Las Vegas and elsewhere, singing with a full band and orchestra in shows that concentrate mainly on paying musical tribute to his legendary father. While easily the best pop vocalist working today in his own right, it is the nostalgia for his father's immortal work that ensures that there will always be a packed house whenever Frank Sinatra Jr. takes the stage.


-written by Gregg Turkington




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