Today, May 14, 2013 is, believe it or nutz, the 15th anniversary of the death of the Chairman of the Board, Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Hoboken Hurricane, the Ring-a-Ding-Ding Singer, the Saloon Tune Tycoon, the Sage of the Stage, the King Kong of Song, the Italian Rapscallion — for gawd’s sake, somebody stop me...
I remember receiving the news of Frank Sinatra’s passing. I was at work, and it felt like I’d lost a member of the family. In a way, every Italian-American who identified with Sinatra in some way, overlooking his sometimes obvious behavioral deficiencies, felt a tangible loss that day. My understanding wife had the perfect antidote to this debilitating news — she drove me to an excellent Italian restaurant, where I ordered Frank’s favorite cocktail and toasted the greatest male vocalist of the 20th Century.
Libraries of tomes have been written about Sinatra’s musical prowess, and about his perfectionism. He understood the nuances of an arrangement like no other singer and was a savvy student of the recording process. Musicians sometimes complained (although never to his face, of course!), that he was too meticulous. It was no accident that Frank became a song interpreter nonpareil. He learned a new song by studying the lyrics without the music, treating the words as a poem, wanting to understand the emotions behind them, trying to comprehend the writer’s point of view. Then he would speak, not sing the words, working to get the right inflections.
When he was ready to sing the song with an orchestra, he first would sing it without a microphone, constantly adjusting his approach. Even rehearsals for his nightclub gigs, which he appeared to perform with an almost nonchalant ease, were sources of stress for Sinatra and the musicians. He once admitted that he occasionally would get physically ill before an engagement, worried that he might forget a lyric. And if you ever saw him in concert, you know that Frank always credited not only his accompanists, but the songwriters, as well. As for his swingin’, “la dolce vita” image, friends confided that while Frank frequently held a cigarette between his fingers, he rarely inhaled the smoke because he was afraid of what it might do to his pipes.
He did, however, enjoy a cocktail. He drank expensive red wines and liked to mix martinis for his friends, even on the sets of films like Ocean’s Eleven. According to his good friend, Ed McMahon, Sinatra never forgot a pal’s favorite drink. Frank’s own favorite cocktail was a simple albeit exacting mix of ice, Jack Daniels, and quality still water. He described it as “a gentleman's drink.” As I sat at that restaurant 15 years ago, savoring a toast to A Man and His Music, I was cheered by recollections of my favorite Sinatra-and-bartender anecdotes, which I’ll share with you here: One night, Sinatra visits one of his hangouts only to find that the regular bartender isn’t there. He asks the young substitute to pour him his “usual,” confident that the regular bartender had instructed his young charge on the specifics of making Frank’s drink “his way.” Alas, the barkeep puts too many ice cubes in the glass. One by one, Frank removes the cubes from his Jack Daniels, sets them on the bar, and says to the bartender, “I want to drink, not skate.”
Another time in another bar, Frank gets his glass of Jack from a bartender, who then pours him a water back. “Whoa!” Frank says, holding his hand over the glass, “I'm thirsty, not dirty.” In a preemptive move, Frank’s bodyguards sometimes would warn bartenders, “Don't try to be his friend by mixing it ‘heavy.’ He don't like it like that.” Sinatra described a drink that was “too heavy” (i.e. contained too much whisky) as “Sammy Davis in a glass.”
And last, one night Frank and some of his entourage had been having a good time at Jilly’s in NYC. As night became morning, they got up to leave and Frank says to the bartender, “What's the biggest tip you ever got?” The bartender says, “$200, Mr. Sinatra.” Frank has one of his sidekicks peel off three $100 bills and give them to the bartender. Frank turns to walk away, but he's curious. “So, who was this big-spender who gave you the $200?” he asks the bartender. “It was you. Mr. Sinatra....”