Frankie With the Snarling Face
You're flying high in April--shot down in May! Ah well, at least Frank squeezed an extra nine months past the Sinatra Death Watch. For 10 months, the National Enquirer, The Globe and The Star held their ravenous vigil waiting for "The Voice" to give out. "Sinatra: The Last Sandwich! The Exclusive Photos!" "Frank's Final Christmas!" How many relatives were caught empty-handed the night before Christmas when not a creature was stirring except Frank Sinatra? Makes you wonder how many last-minute decorative colostomy bags were purchased that hallowed eve.
But Ol' Blue Eyes refused to shut 'em tight. Even while his family was allegedly feuding over his last will and testament, he hung onto his deviled life with both horns. Rockers half Sinatra's age don't know from this kind of lingering. When Freddie Mercury announced he was HIV positive--boom! He died of AIDS the next day. With a posthumous album already in the can! What a lesson in time management that was!
One dedicated Sinatra Web page said it best: "With Sinatra's death, it's the end of the 20th century." Indeed, the 20th century as we've known it to be has long ceased to be, at least where pop music's concerned. Once, every generation had its Voice to champion and a promise that every generation to follow would have its own big thing, too. Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Frank, Elvis, the Beatles, then nobody, and everybody claiming Next Big Thing ownership for moving zillions of units yet not enacting one social change. Sinatra was the Last Big Thing before rock 'n' roll changed the rules forever, which makes him the long-lost Daddy that rockers alternately rebelled against and later tried to win approval from.
Months of seeing a feeble Frank schlepping around in seclusion, preceded by years of Frank singing with TelePrompTers and forgetfully introducing his band leader Frank Jr. over and over again in a single performance--it's almost enough to make you think Gen Xers witnessing Frank's Mild Years might be completely oblivious to what a volatile, kickass punk a fully charged Frank Sinatra used to be.
Back in the '50s, any number of red rags could send Frank's bullish temper flaring. A pushy broad, a dullsville party, a double-crossing pal who'd play the Frontier Room instead of the Sands, an overcooked plate of spaghetti, all acceptable justifications for losing it, bad. But nothing caused Sinatra to detonate like that "deplorable, rancid aphrodisiac" known as rock 'n' roll.
One of the rare times the press-hating Chairman of the Board felt compelled to raise his own poison pen in print was his blitzkrieg assault on rock music which appeared in Western World magazine in 1955.
"[Rock 'n' roll] fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false," he snarled. "It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty lyrics, it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth."
Whew! That, my friends, is one hot and bothered saloon singer. But Sinatra was 40ish by then, not exactly the demographic rock was predisposed to delight. By 1960, it appeared Frank's rock-hating heart was softening somewhat into an "if you can't beat 'em, exploit 'em" stance. Never a TV ratings blockbuster, Sinatra hosted a splashy Timex TV special welcoming Elvis Presley back to civilian life after his stint in the army, and the ratings went through the roof. In Elvis' awkward 10-minute segment/duet, Sinatra tried to swing out on "Love Me Tender" like it was still "Aura Lee" while Elvis tried snapping his fingers and suavin' his way through "Witchcraft." Both crapped out.
Still, Frank even let daughter Nancy kiss the King, a guy Frank and his pals continued to call a "schmendrick" and a "clyde" in private. Unlike Frank and Bing, no friendship ever developed between these two generational icons, especially after the bloated Vegas-era Elvis tried turning "My Way" into HIS signature anthem.
As the '60s unfurled, Frank's newfound rally-round-the-rock credo was put to the test when his custom record label Reprise expanded its Rat Pack roster of Dino and Sammy to include such "sideburned delinquents" as the Kinks, the Fugs, the Electric Prunes, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix, by way of tribute, snuck a few bars of "Strangers in the Night" into his Monterey Pop version of "Wild Thing" before smashing and burning his guitar, something nobody in Tommy Dorsey's band ever did. Surely Frank hadda be proud of that, especially since the lewd Troggs hit, along with Tommy James' imbecilic "Hanky Panky," ensured "Strangers in the Night" would only remain No. 1 for a solitary week in 1966.
While one could hardly imagine the Chairman of the Board acting as A&R man for the Voodoo Chile ("Okay, cookie, we sign the spade pronto, but tell him to lose the guitar humpin', coz we run a class joint here at Reprise!"), there is one rock act that Sinatra personally hand-picked for his label, and it only took three songs to convince him this band was for the ages--all ages!
Of course, I'm talking about Dino, Desi & Billy. Dino was Dean Martin's son, and Desi was Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's spawn, and Billy's folks were obscure enough to place him a distant third in the billing. Reprise would delete all four of the group's long players before the start of the Me Decade, but four years was all it took for the boys to prove what might've been ol' Frankie's point, that three pipsqueak kids whose combined age totaled 36 could make music as primitive and cretinous as hooligans twice their age were making at the top of the charts!
It was Dean Martin's wife Jeannie who suggested that Frank audition Dino Jr.'s band for a record deal, right there in the Martins' living room, presumably with a well-stocked bar nearby! Three songs later, they were Reprise recording artists. And who could have guessed that the well-documented feud between former partners Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would soon filter down to their sons? To this day, there's a lingering dispute over who rocked first--Dino, Desi & Billy or Gary Lewis & the Playboys. DD&B's first single, "Since You Broke My Heart," was released November 3, 1964, beating Gary Lewis' "This Diamond Ring," which came out December 2. When Jerry's kid scored a No. 1 hit first time up, the pressure was on for Dino, Desi & Billy to hit one outta the park for Papa Dean and Uncle Frank. A trade ad for their second single rewrote history by pretending it was the first one, and it trumpeted a May 12 Shindig appearance as the young group's "electrifying debut." The ruse worked, and the group's "first single" became a No. 17 hit in the summer of 1965. "I'm a Fool" is pretty much your standard "Louie Louie" sound-alike fueled by low self-esteem. On this track and its folk-rock follow-up "Not the Lovin' Kind," one can sense the boys' timidity in the recording studio, barely staying on top of the mikes long enough to deliver the last syllable of each line, like shy students who talk into their chests when called on.
In early 1966, DD&B's winning team of producer/songwriter Lee Hazelwood and arranger Billy Strange were reassigned to another Reprise artist--Frank's kid Nancy! Perhaps the realization that "I'm a Fool" outsold every Frank Sinatra release from that same year and that Nancy had already racked up 16 flop singles galvanized Francis Albert Sinatra into "r&r volatility," which was Reprise Records' motto that groovy year.
Since Frank Sinatra Jr. was in no danger of ever forming a rock band ("I cannot, will not, call it music," he was heard to utter about the rock more than once), it was up to Nancy to wave the freak flag for the Sinatra clan. Nance soon snagged her first No. 1 with a Lee Hazelwood concoction, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," a song which took her dad's belligerent public persona and made it palatable to the teen set. "Boots" and its male-bashing follow-up "How Does That Grab You, Darlin'?" were nothing less than mob-style rub-outs set to music.
Around this time, Sinatra, like Dean Martin, began recording sides with louder drums. This bigger beat resulted in hits like "Strangers in the Night" and "That's Life," his first appearances in the Top Five since "Witchcraft" in 1958. "That's Life," a Ray Charles-style gospel ballad, is perhaps his toughest side ever. When Frank insists he's been "a puppet, a pirate, a poet, a pauper, a pawn and a king," you can just see the spit caking on the microphone. Then you picture Frank snapping his finger and making some poor flunkie mop it up.
Spit or no spit, Frank would not, could not permit himself to be a flat-out rocker, not even with a 20-year-old chickaroo like Mia Farrow to impress. His flirtations with youth culture in the '60s, '70s and '80s amounted to a handful of Petula Clark covers, a song cycle called Watertown written for him by (uugghh!) Rod McKuen, Sonny Bono's "Bang Bang" and of course his nods to the "Present" on 1980's Trilogy, which included "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and "Something." To his credit, he called the Beatles' hit "the greatest love song of the past 50 years," a credit that immediately got snatched away when he inserted the word "jack" into it and continued to perform it as an ill-informed tribute to John Lennon. As for his 1993 Duets debacle, Frank's phoned-in fling with U2's Bono, as with the Elvis duet of 1960, gave Frank the home-court advantage, all swing and nary an echoey guitar or militant drum beat in tow.
Yet not even the ring-a-ding ding of Reprise cash registers could ever drown out his disdain for the pagan rhythms of rock. As late as 1983, Sinatra reportedly lunged at Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlantic Records, at a dinner party with his jeers of "you ruined music with your rock 'n' roll. It's your fault what's happened to the music business. You've destroyed music in this country."
Now that Frank's gone, there's no one from his generation with enough authority left to comment on how REALLY bad rock 'n' roll is in 1998. Yet, nearly five decades earlier, as Sinatra was getting ready to be dumped by Columbia Records, he cut several rocking sides perhaps out of a fit of desperation. While "The Hucklebuck," a silly dance-craze record later associated with Chubby Checker, was released as a single, its failure to jumpstart Frank's career ensured obscurity for "Bim Bam Baby," found on the 1988 Sinatra Rarities CD.
After more than a dozen sleepy ballads, Sinatra's no-holds-barred scream of "Heey now!" could send a casual listener into cardiac arrest!
This is Sinatra as you've never heard him, pummeling through this song as if it were a paparazzo in harm's way!
"Take a mip map mop
and a brim bram broom
and clim clam clean up
the rim ram room
'Cause your bim bam baby's coming home tonight!"
At the top, you're not sure if he's annoyed to be reduced to recording a novelty hit, even one that jumps like Louis Jordan and delivers these nonsensical domestic orders: "Get my slim slam slippers and my easy chair! Run your flim flam fingers through my greasy hair! 'Cause your bim bam baby's getting back tonight."
When this verse comes around the second time, Frank mixes up the words and says to "run your greasy fingers through my greasy hair," the trombone makes some farting noise, and you catch the laugh in Frank's voice.
He's having the time of his life barking, "I'll follow the swallow right BACK to my nest!" and "Open that door, baby, 'cause here I come!" For a mere two minutes and 20 seconds, Frank's "every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth" and he's loving it.
If Rock 'n' Roll Heaven wants a chim cham Chairman, Frim Fram Frankie's coming home tonight!
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.