A conversation with Frank Sinatra Jr. on the 100th anniversary of his father's birth
2015 has been a very good year for Frank Sinatra fans.
The centennial of the singer’s birth (on December 12, 1915) has seen the release of the two-part HBO documentary All or Nothing At All, multiple exhibitions, an expansive radio rarities collection, several new books and biographies, even a special Sinatra-themed whiskey. This plethora of Sinatra-related events and activity seems to have quenched the thirst of even the most ardent Sinatra enthusiasts, but there is one man who is not entirely pleased with the hoopla.
For over 70 years, Frank Sinatra Jr. has stood, with great pride, in his legendary father’s shadow. An accomplished singer himself, Sinatra Jr. served as his father’s musical director and conductor for the final years of his father’s career, and since Sinatra Sr.‘s death in 1998, has served as one of the most prominent defenders of his legacy. Frank Jr.‘s “Sinatra Sings Sinatra” tour plays to packed symphony halls and auditoriums around the world, harkening back to a long-past era of tuxedoed singers, big bands, and the Great American Songbook; in a word, class. But despite his accomplishments as both an entertainer and champion of the Sinatra legacy, the persistent rumors and controversies surrounding his father’s life continues to haunt the 71-year old Sinatra Jr.
It’s difficult to imagine Frank Sinatra Sr., renowned for his limitless artistic talent, emotive power as a performer, and, it must be noted, ferocious temper, as a “rather simple man,” but that’s exactly how his son describes him. The seemingly endless Sinatra scandals, hearsay, and rumours—about shady goings-on in Las Vegas, connections to the mob, a bevy of celebrity bedfellows, alcohol abuse and more—continue to plague the late singer’s reputation, however legion and universally-acknowledged his musical accomplishments. But according to his son, the vast majority of this gossip is simply that: gossip, designed solely to enrich and aggrandize the gossipers while, at the same time, tarnish his father’s image. And Sinatra Jr., who chooses and enunciates his words with great consideration and tact, has had enough of it.
We recently caught up with Frank Sinatra Jr. on the eve of the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth to talk legacy, what makes great art, what he thinks of the activity surrounding the centennial, and what it’s like to share a name, bloodline, and profession with the greatest entertainer of the 20th century.
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I’d imagine that when most people first meet you they’re more likely to mention your father’s accomplishments, as opposed to your own. I’ll also guess that people have been doing that for most of your life. How does that make you feel? Doesn’t it get old?
Well, you have to take it in perspective. In terms of his accomplishments as opposed to my accomplishments, mine are almost non-existent. He is the one who has made these great accomplishments, so you really can’t blame people for gravitating toward what it is they know, and what it is they believe in.
You’ve been the primary guardian of your father’s legacy for some time now. Is that not an accomplishment in and of itself?
As a practicing entertainer, I’ve never had a hit record. I’ve never had a hit television show. I’ve never had a hit movie. Those are what are called, in the “trade,” accomplishments, none of which I have actualized. Therefore, as I say, he is the one who has won Grammys, and Oscars, and all kinds of trophies, and awards, and accolades, and things like that. Not I. So I cannot begrudge people for applauding what it is they admire so much.
What would you say is the biggest public misconception about your father? It’s now been 100 years since he was born, and there’s been a lot of attention, a lot of events going on. What do you think the public still gets wrong, in large part, about your Dad?
I’ll tell you what it is. There have been a plethora of articles in newspapers, magazines, there’s a couple of new books out. And because of the nature of my travels, regrettably I have to read these terrible things. And the real bad thing is that there are stories that are told firsthand, secondhand, thirdhand, fourth-hand, fifth-hand. And it’s like when you play “telephone” when you were a kid. When you whisper something in someone’s ear that goes to the next—and by the time it comes around the circle it’s nowhere near what the first message was.
And all of these people, in order to aggrandize themselves, and, of course, to sell their writings, they add more falsity into these stories which are watered down so many times anyway. And most of that which they add is all fabrication, it is all scandalous, it is all controversial, it is, in many instances, criminal. And what they do to the reputation of a man who has been in his grave for nearly 18 years now is equally criminal.
Do you think that there are largely negative conceptions out there about your Dad, then?
They are constantly being spewed out during his 100th year to anyone who wants to investigate them. Therefore, it cannot really be ignored that there are constant controversial things coming out because these people today are just reporting them. If there is any smattering of truth involved, it is purely coincidental.
Have you read the [recently released, and widely lauded] second volume of James Kaplan’s biography on your Dad, Sinatra: The Chairman?
I am just about trying to finish it now. I’ve been reading it for a month. That was the one book that came to mind when you asked me this question. It is nothing but gossip, secondhand, thirdhand, fourth-hand, fifth-hand gossip. And it gets so far away from an original source, if one can ever be isolated and identified ...
And it is so regrettable that these people write this thing, and this son-of-a-bitch actually got some publishing house to print 900 pages of it. And the only thing worse than that is that I have spent the last month reading it.
And it is nothing but nonsense. It just reports “Somebody said that he said, that she said, that he said, that she said. Somebody wrote this at the time, somebody wrote that at the time.” And how these people can go back over 50 years and second-guess all this, and third-guess, and fourth-guess, and fifth-guess. It is so unfortunate.
What did you think of the HBO documentary Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All?
It was incomplete, and not to my way of thinking. When you have a man that lived to be something like 82, almost 83 years, and they completely eliminated the last 25 percent of his life. [Note: the second part of the film provides only a very hasty summary of the years spanning 1972 to Sinatra’s death in 1998.] You cannot call it a true documentary, not by any stretch of the imagination. Everybody wants to make an interpretation in their own way. How far it is from being accurate is something else, again.
What still fascinates you about Sinatra, either the artist, or your father? What still confuses you about the man?
The misconception that people are being given about his life. It’s absolutely amazing how, with the help of the very publications that I told you about a moment ago, how everybody paints a different picture of what the man was all about. And what he really was all about. And it’s most unfortunate.
So what was he really all about?
That would take volumes. He was actually a rather simple man. He had his concept of where justice lay.
And it was quite important to remember that, as I tell people often, the things that he believed in he practiced devoutly. And this has to do, as far as I’m concerned, with a certain word about the devout practice of what you believe in; I think that word is “integrity.” And he had magnificent integrity. He was never somebody who bent with the wind. He was never a “51-percenter.” And that degree of independence, and even to the point of stubbornness now and then, cost him many hungry nights. But he believed what he believed in. And this is the way that he conducted his life.
All of the scandals and gossip aside, I don’t think anyone on the planet would deny his contribution to music, his artistic achievement.
I hope not.
At the end of his life, do you think he realized what he accomplished?
Only in one instance. Only in one instance, which came in 1997, a year before his death, when the joint session of the United States Congress made him the 38th American citizen in 221 years to be issued a Congressional Gold Medal.
And when the gavel of the Speaker of the House came down, and said “So ordered ...” ... We were watching it on television and [Sinatra Sr.] wept. He actually wept. And he regained his composure, and very quietly he said “And I’d do it again, too.”
How did that make you feel?
Very, very happy. Very proud. If some kid off the streets of Hoboken who barely had two coins to rub together in his pants when he was a little boy—and the Congress of the United States unanimously votes him a gold medal.
This year, 100 years after he was born in Hoboken, are you at all surprised by the fact that so many of us are still interested in Frank Sinatra?
Yes. Yes, I am. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised.
What would you attribute this to? Why do you think he has such staying power in the culture?
I think his music talked to people. That, in fact, is what my show is about.
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