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In centennial show, Frank Sinatra Jr. recalls father’s ups, downs

Singer Frank Sinatra is shown with his son, Frank, Jr., in 1963 during their get-together last night at the American Hotel in Nevada where Frank, Jr., is headlining the show at the Royal Box. | AP FILE PHOTO

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on July 11, 2015, ahead of Frank Sinatra Jr.’s concert at Ravinia in Highland Park. Frank Sinatra Jr. passed away today at the age of 72.

“He had the magnetic appeal of a Valentino, the attraction of a James Dean, the sex appeal of a Marilyn Monroe and the undying adulation given to an Elvis Presley.”

In an interview last month with the Daily Mail, Frank Sinatra Jr. recalled using those words to describe his father in his eulogy at the 1998 funeral mass for the iconic singer.

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The words take on new meaning as the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frank Sinatra (Dec. 12), in a year filled with tributes, concerts, documentaries, television miniseries and CD compilations/reissues.

Frank Sinatra, 1977 | PHOTO BY DON BIERMAN
Frank Sinatra, 1977 | PHOTO BY DON BIERMAN

Sinatra Jr. is bringing one such tribute, “Sinatra Sings Sinatra, As I Remember It— The Centennial Celebration,” to the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Mich., this weekend, and to the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park on Sept. 4. Through anecdotes, photos, videos and songs, the son reminisces about his life on and off stage with his father.

“Since we know the music, since we know the legend, now it’s time to know him,” Sinatra Jr. says during a recent conversation about the concert. “I’ve been writing this particular show for two years in preparation for the 2015 [centennial] date. We’re talking about his life. … And the word here is ‘truth.’ ”

Sinatra Jr. says he wrote the show to encapsulate that ‘truth’ — the good and the bad that comprised the life and career of his father, who died on May 14, 1998, at the age of 82.

“Life is not positive or negative; it’s a mixture,” Sinatra Jr. continues. “There are moments in the show audio-visually, which are touching: the usual biographical stuff — someone at home with his kids, a young man in concert. Then there are moments that are surprising. Moments that are very funny. Moments that are sad. And moments that are terrifying. We’re talking about the whole of a man’s life. The good, the bad and the ugly — because the word is ‘truth.’ … This man was a great artist, but he was not to be canonized.”

Frank Sinatra Jr. | SUPPLIED PHOTO
Frank Sinatra Jr. | SUPPLIED PHOTO

When asked if one of those “terrifying” moments is his celebrated kidnapping in 1963, Sinatra Jr. doesn’t hesitate.

“The kidnapping incident will be included,” he says matter-of-factly, of the two days he was held against his will after being kidnapped from his Lake Tahoe, Nevada, hotel room by three men. Sinatra Sr. paid a ransom and the trio were quickly arrested, tried and convicted (they served minimal time for the crime).

The show, Sinatra Jr. says, will also touch on his father’s battle with depression, an illness that plagued him throughout his life. “We have a special piece of music, the only original piece in the show, which was written by Paul Williams expressly for this program, based on a song that I sketched out about this part of my father’s life. It’s called ‘Black Dog.’ I got the title from something Lady [Mary] Soames, Winston Churchill’s daughter, said about the deep depression her father endured during the war years. It was her father’s nickname for the depression. I took that term, and used it as a way of describing my father’s depression, [fueled in part by] him being labeled a communist, a gangster, me being kidnapped. Many things.”

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Sinatra Jr., a classically trained musician (he studied piano at USC), launched his own singing career back in the 1960s. Always under his father’s shadow, the young entertainer took to the road for much of the ’60s and ’70s, traveling the globe with his band, putting a great deal of distance between him and The Voice. The rumor mill exploded with tales of animosity between father and son.

“I never knew him until around 1988 because he was away working and I was at school,” Sinatra Jr. recalls of his upbringing and early career. “We both had our commitments.

“I loved him very much. People would expect someone to love their parents.”

By the 1990s, the son had joined the father on his concert schedule, working as musical director and conductor for the legendary singer. The son knew his father’s age-related shortcomings (forgotten lyrics were becoming frequent) and perhaps the father found some comfort in having his son along for the ride. The two men were, on some levels, more similar than perhaps they even knew.

“He was a perfectionist,” says Sinatra Jr., who is known for his own relentless rehearsals and demands of perfection from his musicians. “He understood his music like no one else. … When he contacted me to be his musical director, he needed me to help him because he was slowing down. His eyes, his hearing, his memory were not what they had been. He needed a lot of help out there. .. But it could never be obvious. .. I used to tell everybody, the more invisible I become [on stage behind his dad] the more I’m doing my job.

“Look, as a child growing up it occurred to me that I had everything I could have wanted: a roof over my head, education, food. All of it because my father provided. … My way of giving back was being that invisible guy. Giving something back from a lifetime of taking.”

As for that ever-present shadow cast by his father, it’s clear Sinatra Jr. came to terms with it a long time ago.

“50 years in this business, I’m too old to care about it. I’m an individual. Now and again when people have listened to me, they’ve said, ‘That little bastard is not too bad.’ ”