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The Reprise Collection
SO FRANK IS SEVENTY-FIVE
By William Kennedy
So Frank is seventy-five, and what does that mean? I remember what it meant when he was sixty-eight in June, 1984. He was at Carnegie Hall singing "Pennies From Heaven" and "Fly Me To The Moon" and he was in great voice. When he did "Come Rain Or Come Shine" a woman in a box called out to him, "Frankie, baby, you're the best."
Frank asked her name and she said it was Angie and he said to her, "You ain't so bad yourself, Ange, you know what I mean?"
"I just wanted to warn you that I love you," Angie said.
"Is that a threat or a request?" Frank inquired.
"I'm leaving my husband for you," she said.
"I think we gotta talk that over a little bit," Frank said.
Angie turned to the audience below to tell us: "I'm gonna wash his underwear, too. I don't care."
''I'm gettin' scared now," Frank said, raising his glass of whiskey. "I'll drink to you."
"You're still twenty-five to me," Angie said. I'd bumped into Jilly Rizzo, a friend of Frank's, in a New York saloon a few weeks earlier and we talked about the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, for which tickets were scarce. Jilly said he could get me two, and what's more he'd introduce me to Frank backstage, and would I like that? I said that'd be a little bit of all right, and so there we were (Jilly, my wife, Dana, and me) in Frank's backstage parlor where half a dozen others were bending his ear. It was intermission between acts. Buddy Rich and his band, the warm-up act, had just concluded a hot session and Frank was on next. A roving waiter brought us a drink and I tried to imagine what you could possibly say to Frank. You couldn't gush. You couldn't say you'd been a fan for forty- eight years. Also, you had no friends in common you knew of. Yes, it's true you were in love with Ava thirty-five years ago and once watched her dance barefoot in Puerto Rico, but you couldn't bring that up, and you didn't know his new wife or kids.
Jilly broke the ice by telling Frank that I traveled with tapes, meaning, of course, Frank's tapes. So I talked then about my Pluperfect Sinatra tapes, which a friend of mine and I had concocted to take the best of Sinatra from forever forward to right now and tape them, leaving out all songs that do not make you climb the wall.
Frank listened to my Pluperfect story without much surprise, for his record producers had been doing this for him all his life: Frank Sinatra's Greatest Hits and Sinatra's Sinatra, for example. But I have to say that nobody ever put together seven tapes such as the Pluperfects, in which you climb the wall every time out.
In one sense the conversation was good practice for writing this memoir on behalf of Frank's seventy-fifth birthday discs, for I climb the wall more often with these Reprise tunes than I ever did before, given this many choices. There are certain exceptions we will not go into, and even if I am tortured I will not mention their titles, for this is not the critic's corner. This is a story of listening to Frank for forty-eight years, maybe forty-nine, and finding out what it means that he is now seventy-five.
So I told Frank how I'd planned to be a drummer in 1942 and when I saw Buddy Rich in a movie playing a tom-tom solo called "Not So Quiet Please" I went out and bought the record before I had a phonograph. I would set it on top of my dresser and let my eyes be the needle and I listened to that solo for six months before I came up with enough cash to buy a friend's used phonograph. Frank remembered the solo. It was in a movie called Ship Ahoy with Eleanor Powell and Red Skelton and Tommy Dorsey and guess who else: Frank. You knew that.
I then enhanced the conversation by asking him an historical question: how he decided to record "There's A Flaw In My Flue," one of my favorites among his romantic ballads, whose lyrics, in part, go like this:
Your lovely face in my fireplace, was all that I saw
But now it won't draw, 'cause my fire has a flaw.
From every beautiful ember a memory arose,
Now I try to remember and smoke gets in my nose ...
Frank liked the question and said he'd heard the song on Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall radio show, a segment called "The Flop Parade," and he thought it was funny; what's more Bing had never recorded it. So Frank - who felt that the executives at his record company never really listened to his songs - wanted to make that point; and he asked Nelson Riddle to orchestrate "Flue" for an upcoming record.
"When they played it," Frank said, "one of the record company guys says to me 'What is this?' and I said 'It's a love song,' I said 'There's a flaw in my flue, beautiful.'" And so it flawlessly became, and Frank made his point doubly, with a legpull that stands as a comic gem.
The other significant thing that happened at Carnegie Hall was my wife. She had been a tepid Sinatra fan, growing if not fond of, then at least used to him as I played his tapes. She knew him as an actor before I came along but not really as a singer and here I was clogging her brain with him on every trip we took. She would sometimes look at me and say, quietly, "Overdose," and I'd then have to put on the Kiri Te Kanawa tape.
But unbeknownst, Frank had been growing on her ever since she'd heard him do "Lonely Town" better than anybody else had ever done it, and then here he was singing "Mack The Knife" and "Luck Be A Lady" and swinging everybody's brain from the highest trapeze and even dancing (which also got to her, for she'd been both a ballerina and a gypsy on Broadway), and suddenly there she was on her feet like everybody else when he wound up with "New York, New York:" Dana, a convert, no longer susceptible to overdose.
That is the remarkable thing about Sinatra recordings: that you can listen to them not only forever, but also at great length without overdosing, once you have been infected. I say this not only on my own behalf but on behalf of the entire set in which I move, and which I have helped infect to the point that Frank is now a common denominator among this group of seriously disparate ages and types. I am the Methuselah of the set and can remember not only Frank's hits with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra when they were new "I'll Never Smile Again" and "There Are Such Things" - but also tunes that never quite made it - "Everything Happens To Me," for instance, which I knew by heart in 1943 and still remember from that era when listening to records was what you did with your friends when the baseball diamond was a major mud puddle.
In the 1950's there came In The Wee Small Hours, which conditioned your life, especially with a young woman with lush blonde hair who used to put the record on and pray to Frank for a lover. All that perfumed hair, and it came undone. That certainly was a good year, but it remained for another album, Swing Easy, to teach you how to play a record twelve times in one night, which was merely a warm-up for 1983 when you listened to "New York, New York" for the first time seriously and then played it sixty times until 5 a.m., also calling your friends in New York and San Juan and Aspen and permitting them to stop sleeping and get out of bed and listen along.
The true thing about this phenomenon is that you do not have to have Frank on video, or in a movie or TV show, or even invent conversation in person with this fellow who is a stranger. You really don't need those presences. All you need is the music the man has made and that has been with you all your life, and which is even better now because you have all the songs of his maturity (which is why these four discs are so valuable, for they collect tunes he did early on and here does so much better.) He was new in the 40's and still growing in the 50's into such masterpieces as "Drinking Again" (1967), by Johnny Mercer, the greatest of all torch songs Frank ever sang, and also such breakouts as we have here - "I've Got You Under My Skin" (1966) and "The Lady Is A Tramp" (1974) that put earlier white bread versions out in the back yard. Of course these views are open to argument, but even so I will brook none of it here. This is my memoir.
There is another superb thing Sinatra does, which is Irving Berlin's schmaltziest work - "All Alone" and "What'll I Do," among others, shameless, cornball, wonderful throwbacks to the Tin Pan Alley time when schmaltz was A number one, king of the hill.
It was the schmaltz and also too many trumpets that turned off my son, Brendan, when I played Frank in the car. (He once listened to Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys singing in 1929, and decided the music was prehistoric.) We would fight over tape time in the car, he opting for The Police, me for guess who. This was 1983 and Bren was 13. Now he's in college and last month he told me, "We were at a party and this horrible music was on and this girl and I put on a tape of Frank and danced until somebody shut him off."
Two weeks ago he asked my advice on dance tunes and I recommended Swing Easy and the albums with Duke Ellington and Jobim, and so now Brendan also travels with Frank tapes, in case of emergency dancing.
The finale of all this is that Frank turned up in our home town, Albany, as the opening act for the brand new Knickerbocker Arena, with 18,000 seats. Would Albany turn out for him in any numbers? Word had gone out, as it always does with these myth-making events, that Frank wasn't well, might not show up, that Liza Minelli was standing by to go on if he crumpled. What's more, Ava had just died and so maybe this was not one of those very good years.
And yet here he came on January 30, 1990, six years older than when I'd last seen him, looking smaller and - how not? - older, his seventy-fourth year just barely under way. He's wearing his single-breasted tux with an orange pocket handkerchief, his hair totally silver, adding to his years. Then he opens his mouth. "Come fly with me," he sings and a cheer goes up from the yes, 18,000 who have packed the place to hear and see this legendary character who only seems to grow old.
A lifetime of staying young at center stage: how can anybody be so good for so long? You listen and know that this is not Frank in his best voice ever but it doesn't matter. It's his sound, his cadence, his tunes, him, and it's as good as it can be and that's still very, very good. He moseys to the improvised bar on stage with the Jack Daniels and the ice bucket and he sits on the bar stool and says, "I think it's about time to have a drink. I don't drink a lot, but I don't drink a little either." And then he opens his mouth again: "It's quarter to three ... " and the crowd roars and he calms them with his old torch. And then, finally, he segues into "New York, New York" and the spotlights circle the crowd, which is stomping, and Frank is making love to all here. He opens his arms, points to everybody ... "It's up to you, New York, New York ... "
Then it's over and the spots cross on him and the aging bobby soxers, having come full circle from 48 years gone, reach up to shake his hand, and he fades down the stairs and out, and you follow him with your eyes because he is carrying the sound of your youth, the songs of your middle age. And then you think, the song is you, pal, the song is you.
Collection Producers: Mo Ostin, Joe McEwen, and James Isaacs
Digital Mastering and Remixes by Lee Herschberg
Special Consultants: Ric Ross, Jonathan Schwartz
Art Direction: Larry Vigon
Design: Larry Vigon & Brian Jackson
Photography: Ed Thrasher
Special Thanks: Molly Reeve, Bob Merlis, Ed O'Brien, Roz Schrank, Loreen Brown, Jeri Heiden, Nancy Gilkyson, Liza Gerberding, Thane Tierney, David Lynch, Arlene Grzeszak, Adam Somers, Jim Miller, Risa Morle
Very Special Thanks to Frank's kids.
Warner Brothers Records, a Time Warner Company. 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694. 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019-6908 © 1990 Reprise Records for the U.S. and WEA International Inc. for the outside of the U.S. ® 1973, 1974, 1976, 1980 Warner Bros. Records Inc. ® 1981,1983 Warner Bros Records Inc. for the U.S. and WEA International Inc. for the world outside of the U.S. ® 1984 Bristol Productions and Qwest Records © 1990 Reprise Records for the U.S. and WEA International Inc. for the world outside of the U.S. Made in U.S.A. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.