Some sons run from their fathers. Others ride their fathers’ coattails. Frank Sinatra Jr., who died Wednesday of a heart attack at 72, charted an even rockier middle course.
“I was never a success,” he told The Washington Post’s Wil Haygood in 2006. “Never had a hit movie or hit TV show or hit record. I just had visions of doing the best quality of music. Now there is a place for me because Frank Sinatra is dead. They want me to play the music. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be noticed. The only satisfaction is that I do what I do well. That’s the only lawful satisfaction.”
Sinatra Jr., a gifted singer who, fortunately and unfortunately, was the only son of one of American popular music’s giantest giants, died while on tour in Florida, as the Associated Press reported. He is survived by a son, Michael. Nancy Sinatra, Sinatra Jr.’s sister, also posted news of his death on Facebook. “Sleep warm, Frankie,” she wrote.
Sinatra Jr.’s recent string of concerts, like many, many before, focused on his father’s catalogue. Frank Sinatra, who died in 1998, was born in 1915, and the centenary of his birth has brought many a tribute.
“The show that we’re doing is one of probably at least a half dozen big Sinatra tributes out there but I like to believe ours is different for one reason,” Sinatra Jr. told the Sarasota Herald Tribune just last week. “People know if they go they’re going to hear ‘Strangers in the Night,’ ‘My Way,’ and so on, but our show goes deeper than that. We assume you’re here because you love and know the music, heard all the legends, and now it’s time to know something about the man.”
If someone was going to do Sinatra, it seemed Sinatra Jr. was the best candidate. And he wasn’t phoning in “Fly Me to the Moon” for a paycheck.
“He can sound exactly like his dad if he wants to,” Jim Fox, Sinatra Jr.’s guitarist, told The Post in 2006. “He can turn on the classic Sinatra sound anytime. It just depends on what kind of mood he’s in. He has such high standards. He doesn’t want to work unless he has his 38 band pieces. He knows every third trombone part, every cello part. You know, he conducted for his dad. So he knows the way Sinatra music is supposed to sound.”
Sinatra Jr.’s familiarity with his father’s music may have been his birthright, but that didn’t mean the birthright came easy. Born in 1944, he was not close with his dad – one of the most famous performers of the 20th century. Much of his childhood was spent in boarding schools.
“When I started as a kid, I wanted to be a piano player and songwriter. I only became a singer by accident,” Sinatra Jr. said. “I was in college, playing in a little band. The lead singer got tanked one night. A guy in the band pointed at me and said, ‘You sing.’ I said, ‘Me? Why me?’ He said, ‘You’re a Sinatra, aren’t you? Sing!'”
Sinatra Jr. could sing – very well. His father certainly could have meddled – in the early 1960s, an endorsement from his dad certainly would have been a great career boost – but didn’t. The Chairman of the Board’s reported reaction to his son’s chosen career path: “If that’s what he wants.”
“His reaction went to his people, not me,” Sinatra Jr. said. “When he learned when I was a teenager and wanted to sing he had one question, ‘Can he sing?’ To me, nothing. He wanted me to have the right of my own determination, something I was also grateful for.”
But the young man’s career was nearly derailed by one of the strangest – and, perhaps, most forgotten – celebrity episodes of the 1960s: In 1963, like Charles Lindbergh Jr. before him and Patty Hearst after, Sinatra Jr. was kidnapped and held for ransom.
“Three men kidnapped 19-year-old Frank Sinatra Jr. from a motel in Lake Tahoe, Nev.,” The Post recounted in 1998. “He was held in a Los Angeles hideout for four days; the price of his release was $240,000. During that time, the family was distraught, and because of who the father was, the headlines were big and black and screaming across front pages around the country. Attorney General Robert Kennedy offered the government’s support, J. Edgar Hoover activated the FBI, and mob boss Sam Giancana volunteered his own special brand of crime solving (which the elder Sinatra refused).”
The bizarre twist in an already bizarre story: One of the kidnappers was a friend of Sinatra Jr.’s sister Nancy: Barry Keenan, a 23-year-old businessman in the grip of drug and alcohol addiction.
“One day I decided to do something radical,” Keenan told Ira Glass in 2002. “. . . Kidnapping seemed like a good idea, so I put a business plan together.”
More than 25 years later, Keenan – who served four-and-a-half years in prison after his capture and later became a successful real-estate developer – reported that Sinatra Jr. refused to give up his father’s phone number.
“I told him we could get this thing over with quickly and asked for the phone number of his dad,” Keenan told The Post in 1998. “He says, ‘I’m not going to give you anything . . . you’re going to have to shoot me now.'”
Though the episode ended without violence – and, perhaps, proved the mettle of its intended victim – it spawned an unfortunate rumor: that the kidnapping was a mere cry for attention.
“Look, back in those days kidnapping was a capital offense,” Sinatra Jr. told The Post in 1973. “And the publicity stunt bit was the only defense those kidnappers had. And the newspapers used that stuff because they gotta sell papers.”
Sinatra Jr., who dropped out of a music program at the University of Southern California in his third year, was back on the road soon enough.
“I guess my parents were curious to find out how long I’d stick with show business,” he said. “And I – I was curious too.”
He stuck with it for the rest of his life. But unlike some of his peers, he didn’t ditch the big band and string arrangements for a distorted guitar and a bad attitude.
“I was never an admirer of what used to be called rock and roll and never have been an admirer of rock and roll,” he said last week. “It was terribly simplistic compared to the melodies and harmonies of what I consider better music.”
Sinatra Jr. was not without admirers among his own rebellious generation, however. In his autobiography “Chronicles,” no less a personage than Bob Dylan reported being quite impressed with the singer after seeing him in New York.
“Why him and not somebody on the hip circuit?” Dylan wrote, perhaps intuiting his readers would be confused that he had gone to see Sinatra Jr. at all. “No hassles and nobody chasing me, that’s why . . . that and maybe because I felt a connection – I reckoned that we were about near the same age and that he was a contemporary of mine. Anyway Frank was a fine singer. I didn’t care if he was as good as his old man or not – he sounded fine, and I liked his big blasting band.” Dylan added: “Frank Jr. seemed pretty smart, nothing faked or put-on or ritzy about him. There was a legitimacy about what he did, and he knew who he was.”
This self-assurance – that Sinatra Jr. was a living legacy, but also his own person – was on full display more than a decade into his career, when it was perhaps clear he was never going to make a splash.
“What makes you think I can’t do anything on my own?” Sinatra Jr. said. “What makes you think I always have to prove myself?” (A reporter who saw him perform wrote: “He even sang one of his own songs.”)
Never able to escape his father’s shadow, Sinatra Jr. slid into it. Though an established, if not widely celebrated, musician and actor in his own right, he became his dad’s conductor in 1988.
“I had heard indirectly, because I was not close to it, that he had gone through a series of orchestral conductors,” Sinatra Jr. said last year. “There was something missing, obviously, otherwise he wouldn’t have made all the changes. And one afternoon in the middle of 1988 he called me. ‘Why don’t you come out and conduct for me?’ Well, when my friends who were in the room revived me with the smelling salts, I said, ‘You can’t be serious.’ He said, ‘I’m dead serious. I can’t get these guys to give me what I want to get. Maybe another singer can understand what a singer is trying to do.’ I took that as a terrific compliment.”
The Chairman of the Board often made light of his son’s presence from the stage.
“Frank wasn’t one for a lot of sentimentality,” comedian Tom Dreesen, who often opened for Sinatra, said last year. “He wasn’t going to say to the audience, ‘That’s my son, and I love him!’ He used to joke about it. He would introduce Frankie Junior and then say, ‘This is my son – his mom told me to give him a job.’ But the truth is, it meant a lot.”
It wasn’t necessarily a heartfelt reunion – but it was more than a gig.
“I was in his life the last seven years that he was giving concerts and as his music director that was when I spent the most time with him,” Sinatra Jr. said last year. “In a certain degree, we became closer, but by that point in time, to be perfectly honest, there were so many issues and so many people vying for his time that we never became as close as I would have liked. But it was better than having no time at all.”
After his father’s death, Sinatra fils carried the banner for Sinatra pater – and not just onstage. He appeared as himself in an episode of “The Sopranos” – a cameo that made anyone familiar with his father’s alleged mafia ties smile – during which he was called “Chairboy of the Board.” (“There’s a resemblance,” Tony allowed.) He appeared as himself on “The Family Guy.” He sang the national anthem at a Yankees game last year – the team plays “New York, New York” after every home game.
He was the keeper of his father’s flame – but kept it his way.
“Sinatra had this magnificent talent of picking the right stuff for him,” Sinatra Jr. said in 2006 of his father. “In those days, of course, there were a lot of songwriters to pick from. Today, who’s left? . . . Most of it has long since passed. But it’s OK. You can always reach into the past.