MIAMI - It was 40 years ago, but the memory still shimmers: Exhausted and incognito, Nancy Sinatra was sitting at a back table at the Fontainebleau relaxing the best way she could imagine - listening to her dad sing. Suddenly the show took an unexpected turn. “My daughter’s here, just back from Vietnam,” Frank Sinatra told the audience. “Chicken, why don’t you come up here and sing one?”
“He always called me Chicken,” Nancy remembers, amusement and affection rippling through her voice. “That was the last thing I wanted to do, sing at a fancy venue like the Fontainebleau. I was wasn’t dressed properly. My hair wasn’t done. And I was tired. Vietnam had been difficult.
“But he wanted to show his support. I think he was very proud I had done that trip, singing for the troops. So I reluctantly got up and went to the stage.” She huddled briefly with Bill Miller, her father’s pianist, and moments later Miller hit the first wistful notes of a song that echoed from the swank La Ronde tables to the muddy Quang Tri foxholes, “My Buddy”:
“Nights are long since you went away”
“I think about you all through the day”
“My buddy, my buddy, no buddy quite so true ...”
“The reaction ... it was something,” she murmurs, lost in the recollection.
It was perhaps the first time the tough teenybopper chick singer had reached out across generations to her father’s aging hepcat audience, but far from the last. And as the 10th anniversary of Frank’s death approaches this week, Nancy’s role as her dad’s biographer and chief celebrant has never been more urgent.
The May 14 anniversary will kick off a major commemoration of Frank, starting with a new stamp bearing his jaunty Rat-Pack-era image, a CD with 22 remastered recordings from the final 30 years of his career, three DVD collections of his movies, and a month-long film festival on Turner Classic Movies.
Sinatra’s children are right at the heart of the campaign: Tina, 59, runs the business affairs; Frank Jr., 64, tours, performing his father’s songbook with the original big-band arrangements; and Nancy, 67, maintains FrankSinatra.com and does most of the public appearances.
Drumming up interest in a singer who hasn’t had a chart record (or, for that matter, an actor who hasn’t had a starring role) since 1980 isn’t as hard as you might think. Wannabes like Michael Buble and Harry Connick Jr. have introduced not only Frank’s music but his style to a new generation. Of the literally hundreds of homemade Sinatra videos on YouTube, a surprising number feature teenagers in sharkskin suits and tilted-just-so fedoras, swinging to “Fly Me To The Moon” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
“That’s what we’re trying to do, to project to young people what it was all about,” says Nancy. “The old-timers, the generation of my father, they certainly remember. I think my generation already knows, and I think my kids’ generation is generally pretty hip to it. Now we’re trying to reach the next one ...
“It’s a handful, but it’s important, I think, because that legacy is so brilliant and the standard of excellence is so high. I’d like to teach a class to get some of this across.”
She does, in a way. Nancy hosts Siriusly Sinatra each Sunday on Sirius Satellite Radio, a show on which she plays an eclectic stream-of-consciousness mix of music that links her generation to her father’s, while dispensing what she calls “my little stories” about him. Some of those same anecdotes will be mixed into the Turner Classic Movies screenings of films from the Oscar-winning “From Here to Eternity” to the Rat Pack romp “Ocean’s Eleven.”
Perhaps the most surprising of the little stories is that Frank didn’t think he deserved the best-actor Oscar he won for playing the runty, pugnacious and doomed soldier Maggio in 1953’s “From Here to Eternity.”
“But he thought he DID deserve it for `The Man with the Golden Arm,’” the 1955 film for which he was nominated but lost out to Ernest Borgnine in “Marty,” Nancy recalls. “He felt he was extraordinary in that film. I do, too. It’s a great portrayal of a drug addict.”
Nancy’s personal favorites, though, tend to run to the light musical comedies her father made earlier in his career.
“‘Anchors Aweigh,’ where he and Gene Kelly are dressed up as sailors,” she says. “That was the first movie I ever saw. Or `The Kissing Bandit,’ the Western. Everybody makes fun of that one, they’re ruthless. Even my dad - he made fun of it, too. But I thought he was so gorgeous in those costumes. I was a little girl in love with her dad.
“I like some of the action pictures like `The Manchurian Candidate’ or `Von Ryan’s Express.’ But the ones I watch over and over are the comedies. He was wonderful in those. `The Tender Trap,’ `High Society,’ `Hole in The Head.’ I tend to put a movie on in the background when I’m working, and all I have to hear is a snatch of dialogue to make me smile.”
Frank considered himself a singer who could act. Nancy, on the other hand, thinks of herself as a singer who couldn’t act, or at least wishes she hadn’t.
“I don’t think you’ll see a Nancy Sinatra film festival on Turner Classic Movies any time soon,” she laughs. “Though they do run them once in a while. They just showed `Get Yourself a College Girl,’ one of the worst movies ever made in history. They show `Speedway’ now and again - of course, that’s got Elvis. And `The Last Of The Secret Agents?’ is fun to watch, but only because of Steve Rossi and Marty Allen. I can’t say I’m sorry they don’t run more often. I don’t miss them.”
Her acting bug cured long ago - she hasn’t portrayed anybody besides herself in front of a camera since “Speedway” in 1968 - Nancy’s music career is busier than at any time since she ruled the charts with take-no-guff records like “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “How Does That Grab You, Darlin’?” 40 years ago.
A solo album and another with her longtime producer and duet partner Lee Hazlewood recorded in the past couple of years have been well received, and her `60s material is constantly being reissued on CDs and digital downloads. Next up among the latter: an album appropriately titled “From the Vaults.”
“It’s a huge collection of big orchestral charts: “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” “MacArthur Park,” “Play Me,” songs like that, recorded in the `60s and `70s but mostly never released,” Nancy says. “We managed to save the tapes, thank God. Most of them you play once, get them converted to digital, and you can never play them again ...
“If you come in here, you’d see them lying all over the machine - the coating just shreds off when you play them. On some recordings, like “The Best is Yet to Come,” we couldn’t find the master, just a cassette tape, so we don’t have all the multitracks. We had to do what we could. It’s beginning to sound cohesive, though, because modern technology is so wonderful.”
Nancy’s also working on a new album of jazz tunes titled “No Harm Done,” the first time she’s veered in the direction of her father’s music. It’s been no coincidence that she’s stuck mostly to a pop-rock sound, with an occasional foray into country and western. “That’s what my dad advised me to do,” she says. “He told me, `Stay away from what I do. Don’t follow my lead, do your own thing.’ And I did, and he was right, as usual.”
There was one giant exception to that rule: “Somethin’ Stupid,” the lilting unrequited-love ballad that Nancy recorded as a duet with her father in 1967 over the objections of some executives at their label, Reprise, who thought a father-daughter romance record was too yucky to contemplate. Instead, it spent a month at No. 1 and was, startlingly, Frank’s first single to be certified gold.
“Somethin’ Stupid” was originally a country-flavored duet by its composer C. Carson Parks (a University of Miami grad) and soprano Gaile Foote. It sold only a handful of copies - but one went to Irving Weiss, a Sinatra employee. “He fell in love with it and brought it to my dad,” she remembers. `What do you think of it for you and Nancy?’ he asked. I had some chart records then, so it was a business thing. Dad said, `Get it to Nancy, and if she likes it, we’ll do it.’ Well, of course I liked it - it’s a classic, a forever song.”
They cut it in a few minutes left at the end of a session Frank was doing with Antonio Carlos Jobim, swapping out Frank’s production crew for Nancy’s. “The whole thing took about 20 minutes,” she says. `We recorded it in two takes, and the only reason it took two was that Dad kept singing it `shumshing shtupid’ to make me laugh on the first one, and we couldn’t finish it. My dad said, `That’s a No. 1 record.’ Mo Austin (one of the Reprise bosses) said, `No, it’s a bomb.’
“I still have in my office a framed copy of a picture of my dad and me taken at that session that Mo sent me. Coming out of a balloon in my dad’s mouth are the words, `Silly bastard bet me $2 it would be a bomb.’ And attached is a $2 bill.”