Do you feel a sense of obligation in performing your father’s music? Would it be less of a tightrope to walk
if you were just out there doing standards?
We are trying as hard as we can to appeal to those people who loved his music, and in dealing with those people the fact is they have had those songs, those record albums not for years, but for decades. The best thing we can do right now is reproduce those songs exactly as they sound on the records. If we deviate from the way they originally sounded, people in the audience may not know specifically what is different, but they will sense something is not the same.
Was there ever a time when you took it in another direction onstage?
Of course, it’s impossible for one person to not have some of his own personality come through. Before the [newly added] audio-visual show began, when I used to do Sinatra Sings Sinatra, I began each show with a certain number of selections that were not [my dad’s], so I could, in fact, display my own personality. [The audience is] anticipatory. They’re looking for certain things. In my case, they’re looking for more of an exact picture, because I’m the only one making a show like this at this moment who was actually an eyeball witness to all of this.
When you took over as music director for your father in the ‘80s, he was about the age you are now, 71. What can you appreciate about his later performances that you couldn’t appreciate then?
That age is just plain undeniable, and it takes its toll. It’s harder for me to get up for a performance when it is two consecutive nights. It’s very, very difficult to do.
Las Vegas played such a large role in your father’s legend. Did you spend much time with him here?
I most certainly did when I was his music director. The work was a wonderful situation, which I miss very much. As it happens, I have outlived my usefulness in Las Vegas. Las Vegas today, many of the places don’t even run entertainment anymore. They’d rather have their karaoke and all the crap that’s around. When I go [to Vegas] nowadays, it is ostensibly a one-nighter.
What does it mean to be celebrating what would have been your father’s 100th birthday this year?
It’s turned into something quite exciting because a whole lot of people seem to be paying a great deal of attention to it. There are many Sinatra celebration shows that are traveling right now.
Is this Smith Center show going to be markedly different from previous iterations of Sinatra Sings Sinatra?
For the first time we are going audio-visual. That is the biggest change we have come up with. There are many, many still photographs and some moving images we are pulling. In terms of personal [elements], I don’t have very many. They come from various sources, and this is where this is going. This is a biographic concert.
What do you think would be the best tribute Las Vegas could give your father this year?
Las Vegas has already been very, very generous with their kind remarks and their tributes to him throughout the years. Former Lieutenant Governor Lorraine Hunt was able to push through getting a Frank Sinatra Drive in Las Vegas, which was a very wonderful tribute.
The mythos of the Rat Pack has a larger-than-life quality to it, but what gets lost in the legend?
It’s really kind of difficult to put some kind of a label on that. During the years that was happening—1958, ’59 all the way up to ’63 or so—there was no Rat Pack at the time. It was called The Summit. The Rat Pack was a title that had been created by a tabloid writer. It’s really very unfortunate because it was a derogatory title.
The story I always read was that Lauren Bacall coined the term at the tail end of the original Rat Pack, the Humphrey Bogart group, that was later appended to the Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis group.
I asked several of the people who were present when that supposed thing occurred, and not one of them ever remembered hearing such a thing. That was four or five people. That was created by a tabloid writer with the usual kind of viciousness that tabloid writers like to employ. It’s the old story about Walt Disney being in cryogenic freeze after his death in 1966, which is a big crock. Walt Disney died and was cremated, and his remains are buried in the cemetery very close to the Disney studios.
Have you seen the Bob Anderson show at the Venetian?
No, I have not. I think frankly that’s stretching the envelope just a little bit. Bob Anderson is a very talented guy, but I don’t have any plans to see that show.
What’s the most rewarding part of doing a show like this?
Observing the love that the audience has for this man who spent his entire life making this music because he believed in it so much.
HBO recently aired the documentary, Sinatra: All or Nothing at All; Martin Scorsese has had a biopic in the works for years; new books about your father seem to come out quarterly. What stories about him are not being told?
I would say what’s really missing, what nobody wants to seem to get into because aesthetically it’s pretty intangible, is the dignity he had and the integrity he had. He believed what he believed in. He stood for something, and he practiced those beliefs devoutly. In many instances they cost him some hungry nights. But he did believe in standing for something. He was never a 51 percenter.
Probably the most appropriate to Las Vegas is that he came from a childhood of severe racial and ethnic intolerance. He got very annoyed in the early days when he started [in Vegas] in 1950, ‘51, that performers like Lena Horne, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine could play in the showrooms of the famous Las Vegas hotels, but they couldn’t be caught there anywhere at any other time. He was the one who pushed the bureaucracy of Las Vegas, which was pretty difficult to deal with in those days; he was the one who instructed them about integration.
You know very well what kind of element was running Las Vegas 60 years ago. The fact was those people were not missionaries. He went toe to toe with them and said, “I think maybe it’s time you fellas recognized some people have white skin, some people have black skin, but the money they spend is the same delightful green.” He finally got that across to them.
How do you address your dad’s character qualities—some laudable and some controversial—in the show?
In England when they asked me what the show was going to be like, I said to them, imagine looking at a photograph of two beautifully sculpted man’s hands with tapering long, graceful fingers. And as you get up closer to those fingers, you notice there’s a little bit of dirt under the fingernails. There’s a word for this, and it’s life. If we go one way that everything is so positive, we now have press agentry. If we go the other way, it’s yellow journalism and everything is negative. The fact of the matter is life is more of a mixture of both things. This is what our show displays. We are talking about one common denominator here, and that denominator is truth.
Your son, Michael, is a teacher. Do you ever worry that there might not be someone in the family to carry on the musical legacy?
Not at all. I just never have thought about it. Sinatra will forever be Sinatra. I have pretty good faith that his music will live on indefinitely just on his own rendering of it.
Frank Sinatra Jr.
Sinatra Sings Sinatra—The Centennial Celebration, June 20, 7:30 p.m., Reynolds Hall, $29-$115, TheSmithCenter.com.