Frank Jr. really did it HIS way
Well, we lost another one. Frank Sinatra Jr. died suddenly of a massive heart attack on March 16, just before he was to go on stage for a performance in Florida. He was 72, 11 years younger than his father, Frank Sr., was when he passed away in 1998.
I was fortunate to have worked with Frank Jr. on many occasions over the years, most recently this past November when he appeared at The Arcada to celebrate “A Century of Sinatra” in honor of what would have been his father’s 100th birthday. It was an incredible night as Sinatra showed rarely seen photos and talked about his father’s life and career. He told stories, gave “behind-the-scenes” accounts and sang some of the big hits from his father’s amazing book of more than 1,400 recordings.
When I first worked with Frank Jr. in 1997, I found him to be quite standoffish, very quiet and very much to himself. He played to a sellout audience at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. It was an interesting night, because he performed many relatively obscure songs, leaving a bit to be desired by the audience.
After the show, there was no meet-and-greet, no press. He just put on his black “Members Only” jacket and left through the rear stage door. I remember watching him walk down Michigan Avenue on his way to the Hilton, all alone, and nobody going up to him as he walked. It was actually a bit sad for me to see that unceremonious finish to what should have been a memorable night.
Fifteen years later, I booked him again, somewhat reluctantly. By this time, I had become close with his sister, Nancy, and Dean Martin’s daughter, Deana, was like my big sister. I had worked with the great Don Rickles and his manager, “Tony O” Oppedisano, who was also Frank Sr.’s road guy. So I was a bit more “seasoned” on the Sinatra front, and ready to face him once again.
Since then, I have had nothing but great experiences with this professional among all professionals, who made it his life’s work to foster his father’s legacy of legendary music.
That first time, Frank Jr. had finished a gig in Milwaukee the night before ours, so I met him at a hotel near O’Hare Airport to pick him up. He stepped off the bus from the other theater, holding not a suitcase of personal belongings but a locked suitcase containing his music charts. “Nobody touches these,” he said. “Nobody.” So he kind of set the tone right then. It became a very “militarylike” operation getting him and his musicians to our part of town. He was always that way; always about business and rarely about the “chitchat.”
His orchestra was a combination of seasoned pros with whom he had toured for years (especially during the 10 years when he was his father’s musical director), and some Chicago guys that I had known who also backed Frank Sr. on the road. A pedigree of players, complete with a classic harp, timpani drums and a string section … the real deal!
Sound check was an experience in and of itself. Most sound checks are relatively streamlined: headliner at the forefront, doing his songs, musicians tweaking their instruments a bit, then dinner. Not this guy! It was a three-hour ordeal! First of all, he had the stage set up like the orchestra leader that he was with a 6-foot table set up right in front of the orchestra where the singer would be. On it was the stack of his ever-so-precious music charts, legal pad and pencils, and a full coffee service! He planned on being up there a while!
Then they started playing. It wasn’t music … it was some kind of silky smooth, light as a feather, yet heart-pounding matter that filled 8,000 square feet of theater space. It was another one of those moments for me when I just shook my head in disbelief that I was in some way a part of this. A realization of how truly blessed I am.
What was interesting to watch was his attention to the sound levels. These musicians had the tunes down, with perfection hitting note after note. But Frank would yell to our sound man: “Raise the first trumpet 300 hertz, and keep the bass at 500. No, no, drop it another 50.” In my 25-plus years experiencing sound checks, the most I ever heard was: “I need more guitar in my monitors!”
He would then walk around the entire room making sure the sound quality was there. It was really something to watch.
His shows were great, especially this last one, where he celebrated his father’s 100th birthday. He really embraced the occasion, even cowriting a book with the family’s side of things. We went to dinner and he really opened up.
I am interviewing and conversing with celebs all the time, but with Frank Sinatra Jr., I must admit I was more nervous than anything. His persona is one that makes you feel you are in the principal’s office, and that he can hit your hand with a ruler at any given moment. But I was up for the challenge!
I asked him what it was like being on the road with his dad. “It was the best time of my life,” he said. “He was such a pro, and we really got close during that time. My parents got divorced when I was just 6 years old, so being close was tough. Plus he was already larger than life. I was more of a fan than a son for long time. I am not even really ‘Jr.’ I was born Francis Wayne Sinatra, after his buddy John Wayne, but did not have the distinction of Jr. until I began performing,” he said.
Frank Sr. was quoted as saying about the being on the road with his son: “It actually gets lonely on the road without an actual ‘chum.’ Being with my son has been a great experience, and I am so proud of him.” I thought this was all very interesting because I always just heard that their relationship was tumultuous at best. It was good to hear that it was warm instead.
“Even after the kidnapping, we didn’t become as close as we were (when) touring,” he said.
The kidnapping! I couldn’t believe he brought it up! He was referring to when he was 19 years old in 1963. Kidnappers held Frank Jr. for ransom. I never thought he would bring it up. “My father did all the negotiating with those rats,” he said. “They would only talk to him over pay telephones. During the negotiations, the time ran out on the phone and he did not have any more change in his pocket. He got so mad that he kept a roll of dimes in his pocket for pretty much the rest of his life so that wouldn’t happen again.”
“What was it like to be around guys like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. all the time?” I asked.
“Dean was my father’s absolute best friend. He had the best sense of humor any of us knew of, and my dad loved it. They would talk four or five times a week. In fact, during many of my father’s shows, he would tell the audience, ‘I spoke with Ol’ Red Eyes earlier today!’ When Dean died, my father was never the same. He would always shake his head and say, ‘What a damn shame.’ And Sammy? Well, another incredible individual, and an incredible talent. It was a strange time to have interracial friends, but Dad didn’t care. My father’s position on racism is legendary, telling hotel and casino owners that the only color they should worry about is green!” Sinatra said.
As we stood backstage just before he was to go on, the orchestra was in place and it was just Frank Jr. and I on stage left. He was focused and looking forward, obviously putting his game face on. It was relatively dark back there with the lights off. For a few fleeting moments, the reflection of a single stage light bounced off one of the drummer’s cymbals and landed right on his face. I looked at him and at that very moment I saw Frank Sr.’s face! It was the creepiest thing, but Frank Sinatra appeared!
One of the biggest reasons Sinatra’s untimely death is such an unfortunate thing is it seems, after years of living in his father’s shadow, he was finally embracing his father’s legacy in a sincere way he had not done before. The ironies between Jr. and Sr. are so prominent that the study of their relationship and the comparisons of their respective careers makes for interesting conversations. Frank Sr. was an outgoing, lover of the people who could not read music, but became a legendary figure in pop culture and music. Frank Jr. was an introvert who was never truly embraced by the public, and was a musical genius.
Frank Sinatra Jr.’s dedication to his craft never waned when it came to working hard on his career and he and his father’s music. I was lucky to see him in a friendly way many people had not been able to. He even did an uncharacteristically funny impersonation of “Drunk Dean” for me. As I was recently honored by the Italian-American community as its Man of the Year, Frank actually sent over a video congratulating me on the award! Truly, a kind man.
I think he finally achieved the inner peace he longed for his entire life, albeit late in his life. I think now what his next 10 years could have been like for him. Probably almost as good as those 10 years with his dad doing concerts.
But in the end, the power of “The Chairman of the Board” prevails, and is further proof of Frank Sinatra’s superhuman strength. Whether it is in Heaven or on Earth, when Frank Sinatra calls, you go, no questions asked. And when Sr.’s longing for his “chum” became deep, Frank Jr. had to join him on Ol’ Blue Eyes’ eternal tour.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.