Celebrating 97 years of Old Blue Eyes: Happy Birthday, Frank Sinatra! (Video)

Were he alive today, Mr. Sinatra would be turning 97, instead of turning over in his grave at what passes for music these days. Photo: Frank Sinatra in his prime AP

WASHINGTON, December 12, 2012 —Today is the birthday of Frank Sinatra. It is numerically significant because it is 12/12/12. And at 12 noon, I’ll be singing a Sinatra seasonal song at an annual Christmas party for the 30th straight year. And I hope to keep singing it until I get it right.

Were he alive today, Mr. Sinatra would be turning 97, instead of turning over in his grave at what passes for music these days.

I saw this legendary singer in person half a dozen times. The last time my wife Geri and I saw him turned out to be his final performance in the nation’s capital. At a formal affair, in 1992, “Old Blue Eyes” and Shirley MacLean christened the renovation of the Warner Theatre in downtown D.C.

At age 77, Mr. S. was in good form as he sang his familiar repertoire from the great American songbook. His son Frank Jr. conducted the dynamic big band, which accompanied the “Chairman of the Board,” as DJ William B. Williams of New York’s WNEW dubbed the vocalist an eon ago.   

The best Sinatra show I ever saw, however, was at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, in June of 1974. Backed by the Count Basie Band, Mr. S. shared the bill with his favorite female songstress, Miss Ella Fitzgerald.

While waiting for ShowTime at Caesar’s, I meandered about the casino and noted two things in particular. Number one was Count Basie strolling through the hotel lobby wearing his trademark sea captain’s cap and an open nautical shirt to give his bare belly breathing room. I ventured to say, “Hello, Splank,” which was Sinatra’s nickname for him. Basie returned a slight smile.

Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, long time collaborators

The second thing I noticed was that over the casino sound system there was an abundance of  pages for some guy with the unlikely name of Frank Iris. Then it hit me. Iris! Frank Iris! Frank “Old Blue Eyes,” the rather recent sobriquet for Mr. Sinatra. I was sure I had just cracked the telephone paging code for this paramount celebrity. I felt certain that if I picked up a hotel phone and asked the operator to page Frank Iris, I would soon be talking to Frank Sinatra himself. Or his bodyguard, Jilly Rizzo. Or the fish at the bottom of the Las Vegas estuary. I decided to abandon the whole decoding idea.

After a nice dinner in the Circus Maximus showroom, the stage curtains opened and the Basie Band began wailing some of its great battery of classic such as “April in Paris.”     

After about six songs came the announcement, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, welcome the first lady of song, Miss Ella Fitzgerald.”

To thunderous applause out she came. Warm and unaffected, sweet, sincere, and she sang a bit too. Just enough to blow the rafters off the Palace dome. Lady Ella sang all the classic numbers one could hope to hear in 50 minutes.

And then…the man who needed no introduction took center stage, without introduction, in front of the Basie Orchestra. The man once called “the Voice” was in great form. He wanted to perform. His delivery was top-notch, as he sang his signature fair: “I’ve Got the World On a String,” “I’ve God You Under My Skin,” “Here’s That Rainy Day.” And so it went, on and on, song after song, each one better than the previous.

Sinatra with the fabulous Ella Fitzgerald AP

When he signed off with his signature closing song, “Angel Eyes,” he took his bows and headed to stage left, bowed again and disappeared. The spotlight stayed trained on the left wing, as the crowd kept applauding. The band kept vamping. But no Frank. I said to a person at the table, “Don’t tell me that after putting on such a great show, he’s going to spoil it all by not even coming back for an encore or at least a bow.” More vamping.

Then out walks a beaming Frank Sinatra flashing that million-dollar smile. And in his left hand…is the right hand of a beaming Ella Fitzgerald. The crowd is practically doing back flips by now. Over the pandemonium, Sinatra says, “And guess who’s gonna sing a duet.”

Then with the fabulous Count Basie band behind them, this legendary pair, these never-to-be-topped singing icons, launch into the “Pal Joey” classic, “The Lady is a Tramp.”

However, each time Frank’s line comes, he sings “the lady is a champ.” Frank Sinatra was not one to nod to “political correctness”; he just wanted there to be no mistake about his love and admiration for the “First Lady of Song,” Miss Ella Fitzgerald.

I left that show with mixed emotions. This is only natural when one knows that he has  just seen the greatest show he’ll ever see in his life. And I was, at that time, so young. And to think, these shows were done without plumes of smoke, crisscrossing spotlights and kaleidoscopic back screens. Nothing but talent.

Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, renowned columnist William Safire, and the dean of American sportswriters Shirley Povich

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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