Music is definitely in Frank Sinatra, Jr.’s blood. Like his legendary father, Frank Sinatra, Mr. Sinatra is a singer, performer and recording artist. He is also a conductor and songwriter.
You will find Frank Sinatra, Jr. to be a wealth of information, a very interesting and passionate man as well as a lover of the Great American Songbook, those songs written in the early half of the 20th century. I would describe Frank Sinatra, Jr. as knowledgeable, honest and passionate.
Despite the fame of the Sinatra family name, Frank Sinatra, Jr. calls himself a “homespun boy at heart,” going on to describe himself as follows: “Frank Sinatra, Jr. today is an old man who tells people that he was never famous he just has a famous name, and as it happens the only thing that justified his life is that he practiced what he believed.”
What do you think?
FRANK SINATRA JR
Transcribed by Rosalind Winton
Our special guest is a singer, songwriter, conductor and recording artist. Ladies and gentlemen it’s an honor to introduce Mr. Frank Sinatra, Jr. It’s a great pleasure.
Well, the pleasure is mine. Surprised, last time we spoke, you had told me that you are fairly young, and I’m surprised that someone your age is interested in this kind of music.
There are some of us out there. (Paul laughs)
Yes, there are, all too few.
I want to go back a little bit. What are your most vivid memories of music you heard as a child?Most vivid memories today, looking back at those memories from the wrong side of 70, the only thing I can say is, that they’re kind of blurry, going way back, it’s been a long time since I was a child, but that was the best music, popular music that was ever made in America.
And was music playing around the house a lot?
Oh yes, the point is in order to be considered a person who made music, at least professionally in those days, the people who made that music were musicians. Something that probably, a great majority of people who claim to make music today are not.
And, by that you mean there are lots of musicians who are making music on computers, but they don’t have a proficiency in an instrument
That’s what they say and they don’t know anything about music and the whole story about that kind of person, years ago there used to be classes in certain schools in a subject that was known as musicology and they would give people degrees in what was called musicology. They would become musicologists, and there used to be a joke around the working musician community: a musicologist is a person who can read music, but can’t hear it, and today, most of what you hear, when you hear things on the radio that are current, and it has spilled over into television, there are, when I watch sports events on TV for example…there are commercials that are the most annoying, camp-made sounds in the world and they’re made by what we call in the trade today, garage bands, a few of these people, who get together in a garage somewhere with a few amplified instruments and they consider themselves to be musicians. They press a few buttons and a program comes out, which they use, it might have harmonic changes, or something, and this they consider making music and it’s unfortunate because all it is, is formulated nonsense. The louder and the more distortive, the better the auditory scientists refer to it as vibratory insult and this is regretfully the state of the art, if you want to call it art, where we are today. The industry has been taken over, has been taken away from the professionals and given to the garage bands and as it happens the business of being a real musician and dedicating one’s life to it has gone out of style and when I think back to the question you asked me about “what was it like when I was a child?” It was the greatest music that was ever made in America.
When did you start to realize that you were a very musical person?
I began to receive, personally, training at the age of 3 or 4. This goes back to the 1940s and because of my father’s work in those days, he always had guests in our home, who were great composers, lyricists, songwriters, orchestrators, and as it happens they, by degrees, began to tutor me. I can remember when I was 3 or 4, one of my uncles who was the head of the music department at Colombia Pictures in those days, back when each studio had a music department, and he gave me a book about the instruments in the symphony orchestra and I could look at the pictures that he would point to and identify each one of the symphonic instruments. At the age of 5 I was started on piano lessons, and in that situation I continued on all the way through college, I had once, had the desire to be a composer and a pianist.
You just mentioned “composer.” Can you recall when you first learned that you had the ability to write songs?
Well I had been writing melodies, much to the chagrin of my piano teacher when I was a boy, rather than practicing the lessons that she had given to me. I would be spending my time at the piano composing little melodies and little things of myself and after a time, something else happened, which was really quite remarkable. I could hear a piece of orchestral music on a recording, hopefully not too complicated a piece of orchestral music and by listening to it I could then play it with the correct harmonic changes on the piano and this as they say, by ear, and at that point in time it occurred to me maybe this was what I was meant to be, which is why after high school, when I went into college, I began to study on musical things and composing things and the like. In music school there are many, many compositions that one must write, some stress melody, some stress harmony. The classes for those things are called “composition.” Then there’s another one called “counterpoint” in which how do you write a counter melody to match a melody and so on, and then of course there is orchestration, there is rhythm and all the different components of writing music that make up the curriculum of someone who really wants to get into this.
What do you believe is more important, the lyrics or the melody?
Oh no, they’re equally important. They, um, one must compliment the other, they must be in great exactitude of purpose,. If you consider , now you seem to be very familiar with what they call today “The Great American Song Book.”
I try to be (Paul laughs).
Okay, no doubt you are aware of a great, great song, written in the early 1940s by the great Johnny Mercer and there’s a song called – let’s just use this as an example – “The Blues In The Night.”
Okay. The melody of that song cause ordinarily the melody always comes first, the lyric comes later. The melody of ‘Blues In The Night’ could only be a blues song. The melody is lonely, it has the blues harmonic changes, it is just by it’s very nature sad, and Johnny Mercer’s lyric is absolutely reflective of that state of mine and it matches, it marries to that melody perfectly.
And that melody was by Harold Arlen.
Harold Arlen, another one of our more important songwriters through the years. Mr. Arlen who just was absolutely incredible. I wish I could have met him, he was just magnificent, at the time when he would write some of these great, great songs, a lady by the name of Lena Horne, very popular in those days and she said that Harold Arlen was the blackest white songwriter she had ever listened to, because he understood the blues idiom so perfectly.
Well when you consider, when I was a boy, Mr. Leslie, understand, when I was a boy, radio stations, which routinely played people like Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole. People who played Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five. P eople who played these records, the ones who played Jimmy Witherspoon and Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb and Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington, were often times accused of playing “racial records” as they were called.
Who was the first person to record or perform a song that you wrote?
The first person and the only person has been me. My songs I regret to tell you are not in demand and never have been. I’m the only one that ever did anything with them.
Aside from the songwriting, you’ve recorded albums. You’ve performed. You’ve conducted. What part of music would you say you’re the most passionate about?
Well, it has to be all of them. You cannot take favorites. They all demand great concentration, great attention, it is like any other practice like that. An attorney who walks into a law case, a surgeon who goes into the operating theatre, anything like that, you must clear your mind of everything other than the job at hand and it is so vital to do this. This is how things of this nature have to be handled and I have never really picked a favorite.
You told me, the last phone conversation we had that you also hosted a radio program. What did you find that experience to be like?
I had had an idea for many years that people at night, bearing in mind that the average American family works of course, five days a week usually and that now is changing and the average American family has a certain routine. All of us, I think are married to such a thing, we get up in the morning and we have our breakfast, we kiss our spouses and our children goodbye and go off and work and we come home in the late afternoon and then there’s dinner and spending time with the kids, perhaps doing homework or whatever it is and then, as the hour goes late, when the children are in bed it is time then for the parents to have just a little bit of relaxation time, usually that comes in the form of television, obviously, but I had an idea that perhaps, since…. you remember no doubt, the great three words that would come up at nine o clock, nine thirty, ten o clock and ten thirty, “film at eleven.”’ The news would be the last thing they would see at eleven pm before they would switch off the TV set and go to sleep and I watched this year after year and having traveled the United States, all the states over and over and over again, it occurred to me that the story about the newscast today is quite correct, they say the newscaster on late night television, the newscaster opens up the hour by saying to you “good evening” and then spends the next 60 minutes informing you why it isn’t. (Paul laughs). This is of course, you know a flippant statement. It occurred to me some time ago that maybe somebody would like to have a little bit of relaxation that would prepare them to go to sleep, so I created a radio program that was not to be run before 10:00 at night, 10:30 at night, it would run for an hour, less commercials and then it would gradually get down and down into the music, more gentle more loving, so that when the time came to turn off the radio and go to sleep, it would be the last thing people would hear at night and it was to be a kind of a electro-acoustical tranquilizer and this was the theme of my radio program.
What was it called?
It was called “Radiance.”
“Radiance.” In keeping with nighttime. It seems like so many of the songs from the American Songbook had the word “moon” and so many of them included the idea of nighttime, I mean just if you want to take the example of songs Frank Sinatra recorded: “Moon River,” my goodness “Fly Me To The Moon,” he did that entire album of songs with moon in the title.
There was an album, his Producer Sonny Burke created a record called “Moonlight Sinatra,” but they did not include “Moon River” or “Fly Me To The Moon.” “Moon River” was a very famous motion picture song, which won the Academy Award that year in 1961 and “Fly Me To The Moon” is actually a misnomer. The name of that song is “In Other Words.” Everybody just calls it “Fly Me To The Moon.”
And that song had also an interesting situation, when the astronauts aboard Apollo 11 went out in 1969 to land on the moon for the first time, the NASA beamed “Fly Me To The Moon” to the boys in the capsule–to Collins and Armstrong and Aldrin.
Very interesting. Of the albums that you recorded, do you have a favorite of yours?
Gee, I wouldn’t know what to say. My albums never did get any attention. My first album, when I was singing with the Sam Donahue Band that was not a favorite, that was in 1965 and I’d just become 21 years old. I didn’t make another record album again after that until 1971 and that was my first album with Nelson Riddle, with the great Nelson Riddle who was my music teacher and that album was called “Spice” and that was a pretty good record. Afterwards there was another album in ’72 and from that I didn’t have a third album, a fourth album rather until 1977 and at that point in time, the big thing in the music world was Country music. Country music had been around for decades, but now, everybody was making Country albums and they sent me, the people I was working for at the time, they sent me to Nashville in 1977 and we made an album called “It’s Alright,” that was a pretty good record. After that I had no album until 1996. As you can see, my records were not exactly best sellers, they were not really in demand.
The one in ’96, was that “As I Remember It”?
That was “As I Remember It.”
I happen to like that album a great deal. What inspired you to record it?
There is a great theatrical producer in New York City, a man who I worked for many times, his name is John Schreiber and he’s a marvelous show producer. John Schreiber, in 1995, became aware of the fact that Frank Sinatra, who was very much alive then, was becoming 80 years of age and he decided to have a 3-night music festival in New York City—3 concerts. Each night would begin with 80 minutes, followed by a 20 minute intermission and then 80 more minutes, and this 3 nights in a row and it was a salute to the music of Frank Sinatra and he invited Linda Ronstadt who was the youngest. He invited Rosemary Clooney. He invited Jack Jones, Big Joe Williams was there, all the people who make this kind of music were invited to perform and when it got to the final 80 minutes on the final night, he gave me the entire 80 minutes and I was singing and conducting the same orchestra that I had conducted for Sinatra prior to his retirement. So here I was sitting on a music stool at a music stand with the music in front of me, a symphony behind me with Frank Sinatra’s rhythm section and we’re in Carnegie Hall and I told people stories in the audience about where some of these great songs had come from and they were absolutely taken by this and then we would do these numbers and the reaction was quite severe and when the evening was over, I returned to my dressing room and I was introduced to a man who gave me his business card. He was the President of the Capitol Records EMI Record Group and he said “you know, what you did down there would make just a dandy little record album” and I said “whenever you’re ready.” Now this was in the summer of 1995. In September I got called by that same gentleman and he said “we want to put you on our Angel label, which is primarily our classic label,” with this album. So we went back to New York, I hired the same orchestra who had been with me at the concert. They were the same musicians who had played Sinatra for year after year after year and we went and we made that album and that probably comes closer to being something of a success than any record I’ve ever made, Mr. Leslie. The record qualifies to be put in the category with movies like “Citizen Kane” and many years later “The Manchurian Candidate,” movies that at the time of their initial release mean absolutely nothing. Nobody even pays attention to them. Only years later did they become famous, they call such an entity “a sleeper.” well, as I remember it, is a sleeper, today, somebody told me recently that record is for sale on eBay for $185 dollars a copy, if it can be found.
I have seen it for even more.
Well, the only thing I can tell you is, it was a great effort. We put it together, we had the finest people in the New York music community. Half of our strings, our French Horns and people like that were right out of the New York Philharmonic. We had the best people, all of whom who had played Sinatra music with Sinatra through the years and we put it together with the interspersel of underscore as you’ve heard, since you seem familiar with the album and when we were finished in New York recording it, everybody in the orchestra was talking about the underscore we were doing. There were, for example a woodwind ensemble of ‘I’m a Fool….. um… “Wee Small Hours” rather, then we had a brass choir of “I’m A Fool To Want You,” then we had a cello quartet of “My Way” and the musicians just ate it up alive. They were just so magnificent and they wondered what all of this was about and on the last day, in the last session I said “listen everyone, you’ve worked so hard on this and I really believe when it’s all put together and you finally get to hear it in it’s entirety, you’re going to be really happy you were a part of this.” They didn’t know what was coming in the sense of the linkage. After the music was recorded in New York, then the master tapes went out to Los Angeles to Capitol Records and I went into a little booth with the underscore coming through ear phones and at that point all the songs on that album were selected with the most total commitment. Everything was scrupulously prepared in terms of pacing, but then I began to listen to the underscore and I started to speak my personal memories, nothing was written down, nothing was prepared. If you are to listen to that record and you hear the narration in between the songs, that is exactly as you hear it, that is exactly as it sounds. There was nothing prepared for that. Nothing was written down, because as I told everybody when they said “you mean you’re going todo this off the cuff like that?” I said “absolutely, it has to be conversational, not institutional, if we get some fool reading the Gettysburg Address, that’s exactly what it’s going to sound like, it has to be one person speaking intimately to another” and when you listen to the narration on that record there are mistakes in it, things like. that.. and I said “no, no, leave it that way.” You cannot point your finger at somebody’s head and say “prepare to be spontaneous” (Paul laughs) it is absolutely impossible, the idea was to be spontaneous and just let it flow, so that people would know they’re being talked to, not talked at, that was the theme of that album and what made it very powerful. My sister Nancy, on her downlink radio show on XM Sinatra Channel, periodically she gets that album out and plays the entire 71 minutes and change, without interruption and they get a sensational reaction from that.
Our special guest is Frank Sinatra, Jr. The album that followed the record you just mentioned, the one that followed, “As I Remember It,” is “That Face” that came out in 2006. One of the musicians who appeared on that album, the jazz pianist, the late Bill Miller. What are your recollections of your time with him?
Bill Miller, who was the greatest accompanist that any singer has ever had, came on board in Frank Sinatra’s career way back in 1951. Frank Sinatra at that time, as still as a young man, still in his 30s and in the worst period in his career, had been hired to play in Las Vegas and he was there working and late at night he would go into the show lounge and here he would see this little jazz group playing. They still had jazz groups in Las Vegas in those days, and here was this pianist who he had met actually, pianist from Bensonhurst, New York—from Brooklyn who had played with Charlie Barnet’s big band during the big band era and he liked the way this man played in such a minimalistic fashion and they got together and they put their heads together and they found out that they liked each other. Bill Miller came on board with Sinatra at that point. I was in knee pants and I can remember him at the record dates and I was already at that point in my life taking piano lessons and I was absolutely in awe of the man. He was so beautiful, in terms of the beautiful things that he would make on the piano, and, another quality he had, he had as we say, he could read an anthill and make music out of it. He could read anything that was put in front of him and it was absolutely incredible and I grew up with him. I used to watch him, I used to stand by him during the Sinatra record dates year after year, and the next thing that happened, is that suddenly came 1995, a lifetime had passed, Frank Sinatra retired and Bill Miller went into retirement and some years after that, in 1998 Frank Sinatra died. For me, it was a great loss of this great talent the world knew as Frank Sinatra, but for me it was my Father. My Father had died, always a painful experience and we were on our way to play my show just a few months after his death, at Atlantic City, New Jersey and coincidentally, it happened to be in the same hotel/casino that Frank Sinatra had appeared in when he was still working Atlantic City and I was conducting his orchestra. So I got the idea, the real, typical idea, remember, the Wile E Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons would try to find some way to catch the Road Runner and you’d see him walk and he’d stop, hold up one finger and a light bulb would go on over his head?
I had an epiphanal idea, like that, one morning, when we go to the Sands Hotel, Atlantic City. We’re going to take the whole orchestra, the strings, the horns, everything and then I got on the telephone and I called out to Burbank, California and I got Bill Miller on the phone, who had been in retirement for three years and I said “Bill, I have an idea and I wonder what you think of it, would you be interested in participating” and he said “not only would I be interested, but I’ll tell you now I’ll do it.” So in October of 1998 we went to the Sands Hotel, Atlantic City and I came out as I always did in a tuxedo, I did 3 or 4 songs and then walked off the stage leaving the audience with the orchestra and they couldn’t figure out what was happening. Suddenly, the orchestra began to play a very lonely – here’s that word “mood” again you mentioned earlier Mr. Leslie – a very modal, down, unhappy, grey sky, darkness piece of music of the strings and one symphonic clarinet playing over it and through the hall came a voice-over recording, a narrative voice saying “these great showrooms late at night, when the audience is gone, the dancers are through dancing, the comics and comedians are through making people laugh, the singers are through singing, the musicians are through playing, don’t think in these old showrooms some of the spirits of people who pass through them don’t come back to visit.”. At that moment on the darkened stage the blue light lit up on Bill Miller at the piano with his trademark silver-white hair playing that famous introduction “One For My Baby And One More For The Road” that he had been doing with Sinatra as far back as 1953. Now, it was 46 years later and he was playing and the audience gasped, because they recognized him. I came out in silhouette in dark blue… no direct light and I sang “One For My Baby” and at that time there was something of a resemblance in the dark and the audience never made a sound, you didn’t even hear a chair squeak and when the number was over and faded to black, nobody applauded. The death of Frank Sinatra had only been five months prior to that evening, and it was still very fresh in the minds of his admirers who were there that night and the lights came up slowly and I looked at them and they looked at me, a lot of them had tears in their eyes and I just nodded at them and I said “hello everybody, welcome to our show” and from that point on Bill Miller, who did not want to be in moth balls came out on the road with me and played with me for the next 8 years until 2006. When we were at Montreal, came back doing our shows, we always did Whiteville and Bill had a heart attack and we put him into hospital and while we were in Montreal, he died and before he got sick and went into the hospital, he was still playing that Sinatra music. His daughter came to me to be with her Father when he was dying and she said “he died in harness,” I said “yes, he did,” she said to me and she hugged me, she said “you gave my Father 8 extra years of life” and I said to her, “yes, dear, I did and in return, your father gave to me and all of our people 8 extra years of his talent.” It was a beautiful symbiosis. This is Bill Miller. This is that man who you can listen to in that wonderful Sinatra piano style. You have an album in your collection Mr. Leslie, no doubt, called “Strangers In The Night” from that period in 1966, in which they put “Strangers In The Night” the big hit record at the front of the album and then the rest of the album was Nelson Riddle and on that album, they recorded the Burton Lane song ‘On A Clear Day’ and Nelson Riddle wrote a roaring arrangement. As a matter of fact, next month in Atlantic City I’m going to be using that arrangement again and, in the beginning, which is just a rhythm section, listen to Bill Miller and the way he economized, the way he, can we say, “musicalized” his little ad libs that were necessary in the first 8 measures, I’m sorry, the first 4 measures of that song, I think you’ll find what I’m saying is just so beautiful.
You mentioned “mood” a moment ago. Do sad songs, or happy songs resonate with you more?No. Here again, you can’t take favorites (Paul laughs) you have to go with, as I’ve always said, happy songs and sad songs come in two categories, there are good ones that touch you, that move you, that strike a memory, and there are the ones that do not hold your attention. I was a guest recently Mr. Leslie on a film show about movies and they said “what kind of movies do you like to watch?” and I said, “well, there are all kinds of movies. You have adventures, you have mysteries, you have comedies, you have love stories, you have musicals, you have war pictures, you have horror pictures, you have science fiction pictures, and my viewpoint is the same about every darn one of them, there are good ones and there are bad ones” and I always had this attitude, when I was a kid, I loved science fiction movies and they made some beautiful pictures, when I was a little boy in the early fifties they made a movie ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, they made ‘The War Of The Worlds’, the George Powel picture, which holds up today and these movies, people who didn’t like science fiction loved them, because they were such great theatre, they were such great movies, at the same time, in the Sci-Fi era, you have “A Thing with a Face” and then a sequel, “A Face with a Thing” and then they’d do “A Thing with a Face in It’s Thing,” and then they’d do “A Face with a Thing In It’s Face” and things like that. They’d made the cheapos, the real dumb ones. So you have to be selective and for me, picking music is just like that, you have to go with the good ones, the happy songs are magnificent. You know what I mean?
And at the same time the sad songs on your “That Face” album, the last one that I recorded Mr. Leslie, there is a song, written by a magnificent talent in New York, a man named Rupert Holmes, there’s a song called “The People That You Never Get To Love” and I heard this song when it was new, and it lifted me right off the chair I was sitting on, and I said “where did you get this little puppy?” Somebody brought me an LP out and I heard this song and I had Nelson Riddle write the arrangement which you now hear on my album made in 2006 “That Face” and the reason why I had that arrangement written was for Frank Sinatra. That was the kind of song that HE could sing and I brought it to him with Nelson Riddle’s magnificent arrangement. One afternoon we were rehearsing for the opening of his show that night, he came in and I said to him “Dad, you’ve got to hear this, listen to this song” and I conducted it and sang it for him and he said… and his eyes got big and he said “where did you find this little mumser?” (Paul laughs) and I… his reaction was exactly what mine had been and I said “there’s a guy in New York who is a magnificent talent and he is brilliant and he has a song he wrote that no one’s going to hear and Sinatra, Mr. Leslie, wanted to record it and unfortunately he didn’t live to record it, but this is what I mean about being selective, about picking the good songs.
On the note of picking the good songs, one of the songs you recorded on that album “I Was A Fool” composed by Barry Manilow, with lyrics by Marty Panzer. How did you come to be exposed to that song?
It was on one of Mr. Manilow’s albums, I think it was called “Even Now,” excellent album, Barry Manilow is one of the biggest musical talents to hit the recording industry in decades and unfortunately we’re talking about the ’70s. I wonder, if Barry Manilow were 35, 40 years younger, right now, and just getting started, if anybody in the quote ‘music community’ unquote, would even pay attention to him. His songs have melodies, they have harmonic changes, they are intelligent, they are musical, and this is the kind of thing that no longer seems to matter anymore. The greatest oxymoron that has ever come across the English Language is “rap music” (Paul laughs) as it… well, we call it “crap music,” but getting at what we’re saying here, Manilow is a genius, always has been. Do you know how Barry Manilow became famous?
Well, I know that he originally wrote jingles.
He wrote “You Deserve A Break Today,” at McDonald’s, he wrote the “I’m Pepsi Generation” “You Be You, I’ll Be Me.” He wrote commercials and somebody said, “you can’t do this, you’ve got to write songs’ and he did, oh boy, did he, so on that album, I think it was called ‘Even Now’, there was a song called ‘Even Now,’ very nice song that he wrote, this song ‘I Was A Fool’, and I thought at the time, when I was Frank Sinatra’s music director, he came to me and he said “I want to make an album, all ballads and swing and they have to be songs I have never sung before.” I said, “Oh is that all?” So I put down “The People That You Never Get To Love”, he had never sung before and then I said “What about I Was a Fool?” I had an orchestration written, he liked it very much, and he listened to it with great attention and he loved that lyric, ‘after I’ve had my last cigarette and the night is as dark as the night’s gonna get,” that’s the kind of Sinatra blues song that has existed for decades, that was another song that was selected to be on one of his albums. Unfortunately he didn’t live to record it, just like the other song I mentioned to you, so I recorded it on “That Face,” we already had the orchestration and I love that song and I’m a huge admirer of the lyricist of that tune, who I have never met, and also Barry Manilow, who I know slightly and this is the kind of music I mean, by being selective.
One of the greats, in terms of songwriters would be Jimmy Van Heusen, you performed a lot of his songs throughout the years and recorded some of them. Did you meet the man himself?
I used to sit on his knee at the dinner table when I was three years old.
What was the man himself like?
Jimmy Van Heusen was the brunt of a whole bunch of jokes, because he had come from… my God if he were alive right now, he would be 101. Jimmy Van Heusen came from Syracuse, New York and his name was Chester Babcock, and when my Father would get him on the telephone, if he would call my Father for example, my Father would pick up the phone, he’d say “Chester” and he would always tease him and Jimmy Van Heusen and the great lyricist Johnny Burke wrote all of the songs for “The Road Pictures,” with Crosby, Hope and Lamour, if you like those movies. All of the great tunes that they did “Moonflowers,” “But Beautiful,” “Moonlight Becomes You,” all were written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke for ‘The Road Pictures’, and to show you how they loved to ‘zing’ Van Heusen, the last road picture, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, which was made in 1962 was called “The Road To Hong Kong,” and the character in that movie that Bob Hope played, the character name was “Chester Babcock,” they did that just to sing Van Heusen, which they did with great frequency and at the time he got a big kick out of that, but as you can imagine, that was a little bit “inside,” nobody on the outside knew about that, they were ‘zinging’ Van Heusen, but you’ve asked me a question, I’ll try to answer you, he was a very intelligent and very, very capable man. Jimmy Van Heusen, growing up, as I said in Syracuse, New York, as a young boy, he became fascinated with airplanes. He took a pilot’s license at a very, very young age and logged hundreds and thousands of flying hours. He was a great expert, so much so, that when World War II broke out, Jimmy Van Heusen was hired by Lockheed Aircraft as a top security Lockheed test pilot. If you know anything about the air weapons that we had at our disposal during the war, there was a magnificent tactical fighter plane called the P38, the Lockheed Lightening. It had 2 booms for 2 rudders, a common elevator and 2 engines, it was very maneuverable, it was deadly and Jimmy Van Heusen at Lockheed Aircraft was the Chief Test Pilot on that prototype, so here’s a man who won 3 Academy Awards for movies, and one of the first TV Emmys, as one of the first big hit songs that ever came from television and this is what the man was about and when I first started… you asked me when I did songs that I had written, on that first album I made with Nelson Riddle in 1971, I wrote 3 songs on that record. The title song which was called ‘Spice,’ it was re-recorded on your ‘That Face’ album again in 2006, and when the original was made, so many years ago, almost 40 years ago now, I happened to be working in Palm Springs, California which is where Van Heusen made his home and he came to hear our shows. He always did, and I used to tell the band leader I was working with then, I used to say to him “wind up all the Van Heusen tunes” and we would do a show that was almost totally Jimmy Van Heusen and he would sit there, have his drinks and have a marvelous time and on this one night when the show was over, I said “Jim, I just made my first album with Nelson Riddle, and I want you to hear a couple of the songs that I have written on that album,” Well, he couldn’t wait, he listened to the songs twice, over and over again and he listened and said “what was that line?” and he kept listening and listening and finally, when it was done, because I had written the lyrics as well as the melody, he smiled at me, a little bit paternally and he said “well, seems that Sammy and I have taught you fairly well,” I said “Yeah, I would say you did”.
Of the composers and lyricists in the American Songbook that you met, was there any commonality you found with those people who wrote this music?
Yeah, was there anything that a lot of the composers and lyricists had in common? I mean aside from their genius.
Yes. One thing: a lifetime of dedication, they didn’t do anything half way and they did not just get into it as a whim and suddenly decide there was a lot of money to be made with it and so they would start doing this, until of course the reason for it was gone. You know, you were talking about the era of the garage bands that we live in today. As it happens, some of these amateur people come up with something that becomes a local sensation, then it begins to proliferate into other geographic locations. Some record company people hear this and they decide there’s money to be made, so they start promoting it and the next thing you know that particular selection, like that suddenly becomes a phenomenal recording record success and the people involved walk away with a couple of millions of dollars and that is just absolutely magnificent, but after that, the magic is gone. You never hear from them again, and this is the difference between the real composers and the real lyricists and the amateurs. They come up with something that somehow becomes a fluke and ‘hits’ for an instant. Years later, somebody will play that record “oh I remember them, wonder whatever happened to them.” There was, when I was in my 20s, Mr. Leslie, there was a big hit record in the mid 60s called ‘Winchester Cathedral’ and this is one of the dumbest things you ever heard in your life, but they had a novelty. They hired somebody to be on this record, who played of all things, the bassoon, which rock ‘n roll children had never even heard of and with this thought in mind, it became a fluke. It was like a novelty and it sold millions and millions of records and as it happened, this group, you never heard from them again. After that they vanished and where they are today, who knows? You know admittedly, many, many years ago… but all I’m getting at is, when those records became hits, all the big singers of the day, including Sinatra, had to record that song, and he did it in order to sell the records. He had his own record company and they needed to keep his records on the charts, he hated doing it, but he bit the bullet, and he had to record so many of these tunes at the time, and this is the difference, in answer to your question of what it is that the real songwriters, the real lyricists had. They dedicate their entire lives to these things, they have countless failures, but after they have had a success, they now come back, hopefully with another success, and this has made the careers of all the great music writers for our musical plays. Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, these are people who are absolutely devoted to what it is that it takes to be a professional songwriter or lyricist.
There aren’t many recording artists that are recording these songs anymore, despite their incredible quality, I mean nobody can disagree that these songs are just incredible. There’s the ones that Rod Stewart recorded, Harry Connick Jr, recently Gloria Estefan did an album of American Songbook. Who do you think is doing the best job at carrying on the torch of singing these tunes?
The first on the list would have to be a lady named Diana Krall.
Diana Krall, for me, is the finest talent around today. She is absolutely magnificent, she sings beautifully, she is a magnificent jazz pianist and she has done all of this for me. Another person who got into it for a time and then regrettably stopped, was Carly Simon.
Many years ago Carly Simon made a record album called “Torch,” of all the sad songs, and it is absolutely magnificent, even now it’s magnificent and Rod Stewart who I have met, I don’t know him well, Rod Stewart, really was not deeply into,”’If You Think I’m Sexy and you Want my Body,” which he did to get himself famous and once he became accepted as a great recording artist, he then moved into the music that he believed in, he’s made many, many wonderful albums of, as you say, the Great American Songbook. He’s become very, very good at it, you’ve got this young kid, this Canadian kid Michael Buble now, they are doing this music, and it’s good to know that someone still has this kind of thing. I have a young friend, I must tell you, Mr. Leslie, it’s a man I met who comes from Baltimore in Maryland, he’s in his early 30s and his name is Dale Corn. Dale Corn is a big band singer, he works with a big band at Baltimore, he’s made albums, pretty decent singer and he loves the jazz, he loves to come and hang out with me when I’m working nearby and he’s wonderful, and here’s a guy that I hope you will look into and begin to use his music, cause it’s pretty good, and his vocation, how he makes his living, you wouldn’t believe if I were to tell you.
He is a yard engineer on the CSX, on the Chessy, he’s been working on the railroad, he is a railroad engineer.
You know those yellow switch engines when you go by a railroad yard, it says ‘CSX’?
Well, he is an engineer on the Chessy, on consolidated and he is also a big band singer, he’s very good and he’s had some wonderful records with wonderful orchestrations and if you look him up on the internet, you will find him and you should have his records, they are pretty good, this is another guy who makes that music, I think he’s in his early 30s. The difference between he and Michael Buble and the others is that he’s not famous, but there are those very, very few who do this thing, and then of course there are people in radio, the die hards, like you who are.. and they’re going to call you all kinds of names in the younger community, they’re going to call you a dinosaur, when I’m on the stage working, I tell the audience that the younger people come to my show and they call me ‘Jurassic Park,’ which is a good description for me, that’s what I am, and this is the fact and you will be criticized as well, because you’re into this kind of music. Do you remember I told you I had a radio show years ago?
Okay. The radio station that ran my show, and this is over ten years ago now, they were the good music station in Los Angeles where I lived and at that time they had a wonderful following in their audience, their radio audience, but of course, the bean counters upstairs, did not like the fact… “well, yes, if you’re making us 2 dollars, why aren’t you making us 5 dollars?” And when they came up with 5 dollars, then the bean counters said “well, why aren’t you making us 12 dollars?” So they first changed the format of the station, they made it a Latin music station. They were not happy with that, now it’s a talk station about sports.
And I’m sure in your career in radio, you told me that your show is broadcast in several different markets, you’re going to have the same thing. There’s a man, Mr. Leslie, at Philadelphia, who started on Friday afternoons, a show called ‘Friday With Frank,’,he just plays Sinatra records. Then he graduated to Saturday, with ‘Saturday With Sinatra’ and ‘Sunday With Sinatra.’ This man’s name is Sid Mark and he has been doing the Sinatra radio programs for 58 years. Every time I go to Atlantic City, which is coming up in just a couple of weeks now, right after Labor Day, I have to go through the airport at Philadelphia and I always stop at Philadelphia and go to do Sid’s radio program, so that I’m with him and he is getting along in years now, but imagine, he has done the Sinatra show for 58 years and as it happens, he has interviewed everybody who has anything to do with Sinatra, including Sinatra himself. At the same time I have been a guest on his program for over 40 years now and he has had to go from one radio station to another. All of a sudden, the star chamber upstairs, the administration changes. In comes some new regime and they say “what do we need with this old man playing this elevator music for?” So he has probably been, since I’ve known him, on 7 or 8 different radio stations. Yet, they still keep him on the air, and if you’re going to be dedicated as you seem to be, Mr. Leslie, to this music, you’d better be prepared for that, because it’s going to hit you too. The bean counters are going to say “We like the music you play personally, but we think there’s a bigger market for rock and for talk radio and things like that.”
Forgive me, forgive me if I sounded like I was lecturing you, but this is the benefit of my experience.
Oh no, I mean I have encountered plenty of people who said “yeah, that’s great, but why don’t you do this? Or why don’t you do something that’s on the charts?” But I’ve never been able to do something that I didn’t like (Paul laughs).
Well, this is the way of things today.
What do you think about Robert Davi?
Robert Davi is a very old friend, and I’m glad that he has decided if he’s going to go into music, I’m very, very glad that he too has dedicated himself to this kind of music. He’s an excellent actor. He was one of the bad guys in the James Bond pictures and he is a wonderful talent and he tells people when they ask him, he got his break in movies from Frank Sinatra who hired him for a picture back in the 70s. He’s a fine talent and he goes into this kind of music now and I’m delighted, as I say, that if he’s going to do this, this is the music he’s picked, but then again, just like the rest of us, he will be facing some difficult times because the audience for this music, that you have embraced, that I have dedicated my life to, and that Robert Davi is now doing, that audience is the minuscule minority of what’s out there.
What is the best thing about being Frank Sinatra, Jr.?
The experience of having in present, meeting so many of these people, great people like that, that created all of this wonderful, wonderful music, lyric, movies, radio, television, records. You name it and hopefully just picking up now and again and a few droppings from these brains, these great, great brains and this has been my prize possession as I look back.
In addition to being on the radio, we’re going to put this interview online so people can access it from anywhere in the world. What do you want to say to anyone who’s listening in?
They have a lot of patience. (Paul laughs) If they can listen to my ramblings, which tend to become quite lengthy and I apologize for that, they must have a great deal of patience.
Could you pick a song that you have sung or recorded that best describes you?
No, I couldn’t do that, I really wouldn’t know what to say, there’s so many songs, which are so important through the years, you know, and I’ve recorded as a singer for the number of years I’ve been in this business, I have recorded actually a very small number of released records, because nobody ever wanted my records and as it happens, this is just a fact, you know. As I was saying, it occurs to me that I could never pick just one specific number like that then have it, you know, as my song.
I have two final questions, this first one is kind of just a light-hearted one. What is your all-time favorite meal?
Breakfast. Oh Bacon and eggs, some nice toast, things like that. I’m just a home-spun boy at heart I guess.
My last question. Who is Frank Sinatra, Jr.?
Who is Frank Sinatra Jr? Frank Sinatra Jr today is an old man who tells people, you want to put this in a third person, tells people that “he” was never famous, he just had a famous name, and as it happens, the only thing I believe to really justify his life, if there are those philosophic people who say that every man’s life has to be justified, the only thing that could be said that he justified his life with, is that he practiced what he believed in, devoutly , and it cost him a lot of hungry nights, but then again this was a lesson that he had learned from his Father before him, and his Grandfather before his Father, and I believe that that still stands for something and might be on a tombstone, it might be an epitaph, but the fact is he did practice what he believed devoutly.
Beautifully stated, Mr. Sinatra, thank you very, very much for your time and thank you very much for this interview. I appreciate it so much.
I hope it’s of some use to you, I can’t imagine what, but you know, you might want to line the bird cage with it if you type it out, (Paul laughs) but as it happens you asked me some… ummm… some philosophic-style questions, I’ve tried to answer you in kind.
Well I thank you again, it’s been enjoyable, I looked forward to it and it was worth the wait.
Okay, thank you very much for your interest in what it is I do and I hope that you continue to devote yourself to this music, because I would very much like to believe that it’s going to sustain.
TRANSCRIBED BY ROSALIND WINTON