Friday and Saturday this week, the 27th and 28th of August, the San Diego Symphony Summer Pops series is hosting singer Michael Feinstein in concert under the banner of “The Sinatra Project.” I’m not sure why this struck me, 12 years after the death of Old Blue Eyes, aka the Chairman of the Board. Possibly it was my long association with San Diego’s own Jose Sinatra. I certainly never bought any of Frank’s records. I didn’t have to; my uncle George had everything the guy (whom band leader Harry James almost billed as Frankie Satin) recorded, at least up until 1966. The only thing George loved more than Frank Sinatra was Seagram’s V.O. whiskey.
I always kind of associated Sinatra with my uncle and highballs or whiskey and ice. The first time I ordered a drink in a bar when I was 16, I asked for “a scotch and bourbon on the rocks” and thought I was suave and urbane. Years later, as a bartender, I was to curse Sinatra’s name for that song that goes, “It’s quarter to three. There’s no one in the place except you and me.” Every lonely loser on Manhattan’s West Side would quote it to me after 2 a.m. as a prelude to their life story and/or romantic woes. But something about the phrase “The Sinatra Project” triggered a mental note I had made when I read somewhere that New York writer Pete Hamill (who never, as far as I know, penned a dull sentence) wrote a book called Why Sinatra Matters. I wanted to know, all right. Please, Pete, tell me why.
What Hamill had to say, in part, “In the end, it is of minor interest that Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, that Andre Malraux flew in combat during the Spanish Civil War, or that Ernest Hemingway shot lions in Africa. In the end, only the work matters. Sinatra’s finest work was making music.
“Sinatra, however, did matter in other ways. He wasn’t simply an entertainer from a specific time and place in American life.... Through a combination of artistic originality, great passion, and immense will, he transcended several eras and indirectly helped change the way all of us lived. He was formed by an America that is long gone: the country of the European immigrants and the virulent America-for-Americans nativism that was directed at them; the country in which a mindless Puritanism allied with that scapegoating nativism, imposed Prohibition upon the land and helped create the mob…a country that passed through the Depression and war into the uncertain realities of peace. They were extraordinary times, and in his own way, driven by his own confusions, neuroses, angers, and ambitions, Frank Sinatra helped push the country forward.”
Since you put it that way, Pete…
I have never heard nor heard of Michael Feinstein (which means nothing), yet he has numerous CDs listed online, including Big City Rhythms, Forever, Isn’t It Romantic?, and The Sinatra Project. On this last mentioned disc, Feinstein performs “Exactly Like You,” “The Song Is You,” “Begin the Beguine,” and “At Long Last Love,” all of them staples of the skinny singer from Hoboken, New Jersey.
It is unlikely that I will be attending Feinstein’s concert, but that and having read Hamill’s book may well be an inspiration to listen again to albums like In the Wee Small Hours with an ear cocked toward history.
“Frank Sinatra was part of a generation that could not remember a time when there was neither a radio nor a phonograph in the house; by the time of his first communion, he was listening to the music of America.” (Pete Hamill)
And so was I, by the mid 1950s, listening to “Honeycomb” and Perry Como singing, “Hot diggity dog ziggity boom what you do to me, on a Saturday night.” And then Elvis Presley, who inspired my five-year-old dance routine on top of the kitchen table for an audience of first-generation Italian-American grownup relatives. Ten years later I was burning incense and listening to Jimi Hendrix on vinyl when my father opens my bedroom door, sniffs jasmine or something, and says, “I don’t feel anything,” before closing the door again.
I can’t end a column on Sinatra without returning to our own Jose of the same name — singer and Troubadour columnist (in the tradition of Frank, who at least once punched out a columnist, Jose may have to one day punch himself out). Along with alerting you to the Feinstein show and recommending a good read by Hamill, I must also urge Jose Sinatra to revive his version of “I get no kick from cocaine…With just one whiff it can make me a dick.”