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574: Sinatra’s 100th Birthday

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Prologue

Frank Sinatra

All right, Mr. Ken Lane, whenever you're ready, we're going to sing a few of these songs. We hope you enjoy them.

Ira Glass

Yeah, we hope you enjoy them. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Frank Sinatra

What are you staring at?

[LAUGHTER]

Brassieres. I dig a broad with no brassieres.

Ira Glass

This is a recording from 1962 of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. performing in a club outside Chicago. And like everything else about Frank Sinatra, what's fascinating about this recording is how many different people he's able to be all at once-- cutting up on the one hand and then turning around and singing the most vulnerable possible love songs on the other.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] When you're alone, who cares for starlit skies? Where does it hurt baby? When you're alone.

Ira Glass

Not three minutes later, he's lashing into a gossip columnist he hates, Dorothy Kilgallen.

Frank Sinatra

I never met a-- I mean, I've met many, many male finks, but I never met a female fink until I met Dorothy Kilgallen. How's that for an opener?

[APPLAUSE]

I wouldn't mind if she was a good looking fink.

Ira Glass

"That such beautiful music should emerge from such vulgarity is one of life's great mysteries," The Washington Star once wrote.

Frank Sinatra

The town where she came from, they had a beauty contest when she was 17 years old and nobody won.

[LAUGHTER]

There was poor little Chinese kid. The boy was standing there. There was nobody else. They gave him the cup because he was better looking than the broads in the line.

Ira Glass

And this is the way he is on stage with Sammy Davis Jr. In 1962, it was still groundbreaking for a mainstream white performer to be integrating his nightclub act at all. But a good portion of the act is just Sinatra and Martin telling Davis to get off the stage and Davis pleading with them to stay.

Sammy Davis Jr.

Did he ask me out here-- can I sing with you guys? A couple of--

Dean Martin

Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey-- I'll dance with you. I'll sing with you. I'll swim with you. I'll cut the lawn with you. I'll go to Bar Mitzvahs with you. But don't touch me.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

A half century after this was recorded, I think what's most striking about it is how many of the jokes are simply about the fact that a black man is on stage with these white guys. I'm going to play you a big chunk of this because it's amazing-- the jokes they make, what the jokes are about, how bare the whole thing is.

Dean Martin

Well, now that you're out here, you might as well do something.

Frank Sinatra

You might as well leave.

[LAUGHTER]

Dean Martin

Hey, how come he got a white stool?

[LAUGHTER]

Sammy Davis Jr.

I tell you what-- ladies and gentlemen, may I offer some impersonations for you nice folks?

Dean Martin

Sam, that's a good idea. Why don't you do Paul Revere, get on your horse, and get the hell out of here?

[LAUGHTER]

I tell you what-- do James Meredith of Mississippi.

[LAUGHTER]

Sammy Davis Jr.

Help!

[LAUGHTER]

Ladies and gentlemen, my first impression is that of Mr. Frank Sinatra.

[SINGING]

When somebody loves you, it's no good unless she loves you all the way.

Frank Sinatra

Man, if you like him, you're going to be cuckoo about me.

[LAUGHTER]

He's just, if you'll excuse the expression, a carbon copy.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Sammy Davis Jr. takes a breath and launches into his next impression.

Sammy Davis Jr.

Mr. Nat King Cole.

[SINGING]

Through the good lean years, yes, and all those in between years.

Frank Sinatra

You notice he does his people better than he does ours?

[LAUGHTER]

Sammy Davis Jr.

Because we're born with a natural sense of rhythm, you nitwit.

Ira Glass

That's Sammy Davis Jr. saying that.

Sammy Davis Jr.

Hope I'm not out of line, Frank.

Ira Glass

Hope I'm not out of line, Frank. Then he says--

Sammy Davis Jr.

We just sit around all day eating chicken and watermelon. Gak, yuck gak.

Ira Glass

I hope it's clear, this is Sammy Davis Jr. pushing back at Frank, calling out what's happening with his friend. When Sammy Davis Jr. finally sings a duet with Sinatra, it's a duet between a black man and a white man that is imaginable to hear. You cannot imagine this being performed today by a black man and a white man together except in some deeply ironic context. This is a duet that they performed for years together, "Me and My Shadow."

Frank Sinatra And Sammy Davis Jr.

[SINGING TOGETHER, OVERLAPPING] Me and my shadow. Closer than pages that stick in a book. We're closer than ripples that play in a brook. Strolling down the avenue. Whereever you'll find him, you'll find me, just look. Closer than a miser or the bloodhounds to Liza, me. Closer than smog is through all of LA. Me and my shadow. Closer than Bobby is to JFK.

Ira Glass

In Frank Sinatra, we see the history of the 20th century. "In Frank Sinatra," the Chicago writer Rennie Sparks put it, "we don't just see a man, we see every man." Here's Rennie.

Rennie Sparks

He's a frail boy crooner in a floppy bow tie. He's an thug smashing his fist through a wall when his shirts come back with too much starch. And he's a bewildered old man falling off a stool during "My Way." Shirley MacLaine says he let her stick her gum behind his ear during takes Some Came Running. But he also liked to grab an ice cube from his drink, thrusting it in the palm of a gaga fan, snarling, "Here, go skate around on it."

"I wish someone would hurt you," he told Shirley, "so I could kill them for you."

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] She gets far too hungry, babe. Wait there for dinner at eight. She adores the theater, however, doesn't get there late. She'd never bother with someone she'd hate. That is why the lady is a tramp.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, of course, the chairman of the board, Frank Sinatra. This weekend marks his 100th birthday. He was born December 12, 1915. And today's program is one that we first broadcast a year before Sinatra died. He died back in 1998. As you'll hear, this show sounds different in certain ways from the shows we do today, but in lots of ways, not so different. The show is an appreciation of Frank Sinatra. But it is also, even more than that, I think, a bunch of people trying to make sense of Sinatra. We have Gay Talese, Michael Ventura. We have Sarah Vowell making a plea to television executives everywhere. We have a quick history lesson for all of you who right now are saying, really, Sinatra? That's what we're doing? Really? Stay with us, pally.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] That is why the lady, that's why the lady is a tramp.

[APPLAUSE]

Act One: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold

Ira Glass

Act one, Frank Sinatra has a Cold. So Frank Sinatra's at his peak in the 1950s up through the middle of the 1960s. Those are the years of his greatest recordings. Those are the years of the Rat Pack, the iconic defining years for him. And to see inside the life that he led during those years, during his heyday, one of the best accounts is by journalist Gay Talese. It was first published in Esquire magazine in 1966. It's called "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."

It is also one of the most famous magazine stories ever written-- or anyway, famous among journalists-- because Talese managed to do this complicated portrait of Sinatra without ever interviewing Sinatra. Sinatra refused to talk to him. So Talese talked to all the people around Sinatra and watched Sinatra. So this is this long, great story with many, many scenes. We only have time for an excerpt here, which Gay Talese agreed to read for us.

Gay Talese

Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of a bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing. He had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills, he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and the semi-darkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk rock music blaring from the stereo.

The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra's four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his 50th birthday. Sinatra had been working in a film that he now disliked and could not wait to finish. He was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the 20-year-old Mia Farrow, who was not in sight tonight.

He was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendships with mafia leaders. He was worried about his starring role in an hour long NBC show entitled, Sinatra, A Man and His Music, which would require that he sing 18 songs with a voice that, at this particular moment, just a few nights before the taping was to begin, was weak and sore and uncertain.

Sinatra was ill. He was a victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra, it can plunge him into a state of anguish and deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold. Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel, only worse. For the common cold robbed Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence.

And it affects not only his own psyche, but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a president of the United States suddenly sick can shake the national economy. For Frank Sinatra was now involved with many things involving many people-- his own film company, his record company, his private airline, his missile parts firm, his real estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of 75, which are only a portion of the power he is and has come to represent.

He now seemed to be also the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America-- the man who can do anything he wants, anything-- can do it because he has the money, the energy, and no apparent guilt. All the way. All or nothing at all. This is Sicilian in Sinatra. He permits his friends, if they wish to remain that, none of the easy Anglo-Saxon outs. But if they remain loyal, then there is nothing Sinatra will not do for them-- fabulous gifts, personal kindnesses, encouragement when they're down, adulation when they're up.

They are wise to remember, however, one thing-- he is Sinatra, the boss, Il Padrone. Or better still, he is what in traditional Sicily have long been called oumini rispetatti-- men of respect. Men who are both majestic and humble. Men who are loved by all in are very generous by nature. Men whose hands are kissed as they walk from village to village. Men who would personally go out of their way to address a wrong. Frank Sinatra does things personally.

At Christmas time, he will personally pick dozens of presents for his close friends and family, remembering the type of jewelry they like, their favorite colors, the size of their shirts and dresses. This same Sinatra can, within the same hour, explode in a towering rage of intolerance to a small thing being incorrectly done for him by one of his paisanos. For example, when one of his men brought him a frankfurter with ketchup on it, which Sinatra apparently abhors, he angrily threw the bottle at the man, splattering ketchup all over him.

In Las Vegas after the last show at The Sands, the Sinatra crowd, which numbered about 20, all got into a line of cars and headed for another club. It was 3 o'clock. The night was young. They stopped at The Sahara, taking a long table near the back, and listened to a bald headed little comedian named Don Rickles, who is probably more caustic than any other comic in the country. His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one because it's too offensive to be offensive.

Spotting Eddie Fisher among the audience, Rickles proceeded to ridicule him as a lover, saying it was no wonder that he could not handle Elizabeth Taylor. And when two business men in the audience acknowledged that they were Egyptians, Rickles cut into them and their country's policy toward Israel. And he strongly suggested that the woman seated at one table with her husband was actually a hooker. When the Sinatra crowd walked in, Don Rickles could not be more delighted.

Pointing to Sinatra's pal Jilly Rizzo, Rickles yelled, "How's it feel to be Frank's tractor? Yeah, yeah. Jilly keeps walking in front of Frank, clearing the way." Then nodding to Leo Durocher, a former baseball player, Rickles said, "Stand up, Leo. Show Frank how you slide." Then he focused on Sinatra, not failing to mention Mia Farrow, nor that he was wearing a toupee, nor to say that Sinatra was washed up as a singer. And when Sinatra laughed, everybody laughed.

And Rickles pointed towards Joey Bishop and said, "Bishop keeps checking with Frank to see what's funny."

Then after Rickles told some Jewish jokes, Dean Martin stood up and yelled, "Hey, you're always talking about the Jews, never about the Italians." And Rickles cut him off, "What do we need the Italians for? All they do is keep the flies off our fish." Sinatra laughed. They all laughed. And Rickles went on this way for nearly an hour until Sinatra, standing up, said, "All right, all right. Come on, get this thing over with. I got to go. "Shut up and sit down," Rickles yelled. "I had to listen to you sing."

"Who do you think you're talking to?" Sinatra yelled. "Dick Haymes," Rickles replied, and Sinatra laughed again. And then Dean Martin, pouring a bottle of whiskey over his head, entirely drenching his tuxedo, pounded the table.

By 4:00 AM, Frank Sinatra led the group out of The Sahara, some of them carrying their glasses of whiskey with them, sipping it along the sidewalk and into the cars. And then returning to The Sands, they walked into the gaming casino. It was still packed with people. The roulette wheels were spinning. The crap shooters were screaming in the far corner. Frank Sinatra, holding a shot glass of bourbon in his left hand, walked through the crowd.

He, unlike some of his friends, was perfectly pressed-- his tuxedo tie precisely pointed, his shoes unsmudged. He never seems to lose his dignity, never lets his guard completely down, no matter how much he has drunk nor how long he's been up. He never sways when he walks like Dean Martin, nor does he dance in the aisles or jump up on the tables like Sammy Davis. A part of Sinatra, no matter where he is, is never there. There's always a part of him, though sometimes a small part, that remains Il Padrone.

The crowd that had gathered around him now opened to let him through. But a woman stopped in front of him, handing him a piece of paper. He signed it and then he said thank you. In the rear of The Sands large dining room was a long table reserved for Sinatra. The dining room was fairly empty at this hour with perhaps two dozen other people in the room, including a table of four unescorted young ladies sitting near Sinatra. On the other side of the room at a long table sat seven men shoulder to shoulder against the wall, two of them wearing dark glasses, all of them eating quietly, speaking hardly a word. Just sitting and eating and missing nothing.

The Sinatra party, after getting settled and having a few more drinks, ordered something to eat. The table was about the same size as the one reserved for Sinatra whenever he's at Jilly's in New York. And the people seated around this table in Las Vegas were mainly the same people who are often seen with Sinatra at Jilly's restaurant in New York, or at a restaurant in California, or in Italy, or New Jersey. Wherever Sinatra happens to be.

When Sinatra sits to dine, his trusted friends are close. And no matter where he is, no matter how elegant the place may be, there's something of the neighborhood showing because Sinatra, no matter how far he has come, is still something of the boy from the neighborhood. Only now, he can take his neighborhood with him. In some ways the quasi-family affair at the reserved table in a public place is the closest thing Sinatra now has to home life.

Ira Glass

Gay Talese, reading an excerpt from "Frank Sinatra has a Cold." A quick Google search and you can read the full thing online.

Act Two: One Sinatra Fan ... Versus All Of Network TV.

Ira Glass

Act two, One Sinatra Fan Versus All of Network Television. So as I said earlier, for Frank Sinatra's hundredth birthday, we're bringing you an old show that we made back when Sinatra was still alive, first broadcast a year before his death. He died in 1998. And in our original broadcast, one of our contributors, Sarah Vowell, made a plea to television newscasters. Her plea was simple. She said when Frank Sinatra dies, please, please do not use the song "My Way" to commemorate his death.

Don't let that be the soundtrack to the video montage you broadcast in tribute. She was sure that's what they were going to do.

Sarah Vowell

When the guy, who generously gave us greats like "I Get a Kick Out of You" kicks it, we won't put on our Basie Boots or get a load of those cuckoo things he's been saying. We'll be bored terrifically, screaming at the TV set every time he and that sappy string section face the final curtain.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] And now--

Ira Glass

A few weeks ago, here on the radio program, I went on a little rant about one of the lyrics to the song "My Way." But Sarah's problem with "My Way" was much more fundamental than mine. Basically she said, it doesn't have any of the qualities of the great Sinatra songs. It doesn't swing. It doesn't break your heart. It's sappy. It's boring. It's even a little whiny. Anyway, here's more of Sarah.

Sarah Vowell

The only way "My Way" has ever worked is if the person singing it is dumber than the song, which is why the only successful rendition of it was perpetrated by Sid Vicious. Frank, and Elvis for that matter, was always too complicated, too full of rhythmic freedom, to settle into the song's simplistic selfishness. "My Way" pretends to speak up for self-possession and personal vision when really it only calls forth the temper tantrums of two-year-olds, or perhaps the last word spoken to Eva Braun.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] The record shows I took the blows and did it my way.

Sarah Vowell

Remember the stories from Belgrade? How each night, when the government-controlled evening news aired, the townspeople blew whistles or banged on pots and pans so they wouldn't hear the state's lies? Keep that beautiful action in mind when Sinatra is dead and all the TVs in your more boring democratic world are playing "My Way." Drown it out. Play something else to the montage in your own heart. Or just turn off the TV sound. Have your stereo cued up and ready to go.

He could keel over any second. I mean, he might not even make it through this hour long radio show. Be prepared. Why not play "Angel Eyes" for its subtle reference to the singer's Mediterranean windows to the soul, for its knowing, jaunty adieu?

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] Excuse me while I disappear.

Sarah Vowell

Hear how great that would work under all those post-war black and white snapshots, how that nice Christian harp outro hints at Frank's unlikely salvation. Let's all listen again.

Frank Sinatra

Excuse me while I disappear.

Sarah Vowell

I admit, this may not be quite stupid and obvious enough for network television. So if the staff of the Today Show is hearing my voice right now, here's another suggestion.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] That's life. That's what all the people say. You're riding high in April, shot down in May.

Sarah Vowell

If "Angel Eyes" is all periods and pauses, this song is all exclamation points. Picture please, Good Morning America staffers, quick cut shots of Sinatra with Ava Gardner, Sinatra with daughter Nancy at age five, Sinatra with Kennedy, Sinatra with some mob boss no one will recognize anyway, over these lyrics--

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and king. I've been up and down and over and out, and I know one thing. Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race. That life. I tell you--

Sarah Vowell

It's really a terrible choice-- just as corny as "My Way", but at least it's got a little bit of the old ring-a-ding-ding. It swings. This is my ABMY vote-- Anything But "My Way." As for me, when I hear the big news, I'm tempted to think I'll be cranking up my favorite Sinatra side, "Come Dance With Me", but it's too disrespectfully cheerful to work as a dirge and kind of creepy if taken literally. Who, except Tom Petty, wants to fox trot with a corpse?

I've decided instead to blare the Capitol recording of Cole Porter's "What is This Thing Called Love?" It's the driving question behind the entire Sinatra research project and it's a lovely pop song, suitably melancholy for mourning, reflective, and wise. The orchestra starts off low. Enter a clarinet that's somehow lewd and ponderous at the same time. Frank scrawls the topic sentence, then repeats it, adding one word-- this funny thing called love.

It begins as a rhetorical question and by the end turns into a cosmic inquiry of God.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] What is this thing called love? This funny thing called love. Just who can solve its mystery? And why should it make a fool of me?

Sarah Vowell

Now ET producers, are you paying attention? At the end of the song, Frank asks one more time to the Lord in heaven above, just what is this thing called love? And then he cuts out, as if he's off to face the creator in person.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] That's why I ask the Lord up in heaven above just what is this thing called love?

Sarah Vowell

And then, once he's gone, the orchestra resolves to a sweet, final chord, as if they have the answer, but Frank Sinatra is no longer around to hear it. Can't you just see the freeze frame? Frank, in the recording studio, the Capitol years, the hat askew, the tie loosened. TV producers of America, I beg you for all of us, for Frank, ixnay on the "My Way." Excuse me now while I disappear.

[MUSIC - "MY WAY" BY SID VICIOUS]

Ira Glass

While Sarah Vowell's plea to network television was broadcast twice, twice on our program before Sinatra's death, his death on May 14, 1998, it had no effect whatsoever on television newscasters. Every network newscast used the song "My Way" in its network obituary. So much for the power of public radio to shape our nation's destiny. The one exception was ABC's Nightline. The night that Sinatra died, Nightline ended a special hour long tribute they'd created to Sinatra by playing Sarah's radio story.

In other words, the person who got the last word in American network news that day, the day of Sinatra's passing, was Sarah. Her essay has been collected in one of her many fine books, Take the Cannoli.

Coming up, Frank Sinatra shifts through all of his different ages in one concert. That's in a minute on Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three: History Lesson

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to take a whack at that theme with fiction, nonfiction, radio monologues, whatever we can think of. And the subject of today's show-- what, what was his name again?

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] My name is Frances Albert.

Chorus

[SINGING] Francis Albert Sinatra.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] And I sing love songs mostly after dark, mostly in saloons.

Ira Glass

Yes, you cannot have a career as long and distinguished as Frank Sinatra's without some experiments that fail. Witness Frank Sinatra's cover of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" or the Rod McKuen poetry he recorded.

Frank Sinatra

I can just about get through the day, but the night makes me nervous. Not for any reason, except maybe that it catches you unaware and follows you the way a woman follows when she wants something.

Ira Glass

What-- what is that? The night makes Frank Sinatra nervous? Frank Sinatra? But that is not what I'm really here to talk about here in Act Three. What I'm really here to talk about is not the failures of Frank Sinatra, but what makes Sinatra so special in the first place. And the answer is, from the time of his first big breakthrough as a solo singer in 1942, Frank Sinatra was more emotionally expressive, more vulnerable, more openly sensual, than other male pop stars back then.

He was a torch singer, a guy torch singer, who picked up moves from Billie Holiday. Sinatra said Holiday influences singing more than anybody. And then in the 1950s, he didn't let go of all that, but he reinvented himself. After a career slump, after his second marriage with Ava Gardner broke up, he went into the studio to create records with a much tougher, more swinging sound than he'd done before. His public image became the character Frank Sinatra, who we know now-- half tough guy, half sentimental saloon singer.

And Nelson Riddle invented this sound for those albums with apparently heavy input from Sinatra. It's the sound of most of the songs that we think of today as Sinatra standards.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] Those fingers in my hair, that sly come-hither stare that strips my conscience bare, it's witchcraft.

Ira Glass

Music writer Will Friedwald says that the sound that Riddle invented for Sinatra is built around bass trombone, flute, muted trumpet, and strings. And there's this lightness to the orchestration, with a much more complicated mix of melodies and counter-melodies on different instruments than other composers were using then on pop records. Witness, for example, how Riddle used trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison.

Will Friedwald

Essentially he was not hired as a trumpeter to sit in the section, but he was hired strictly as a soloist or and obligatist. And he would not sit in the section. But he had his own-- he would sit to the side and had his own special microphone. And so Sweets would just improvise these little trumpet fills here and there on the muted trumpet.

Ira Glass

And when he plays, he's only playing almost in between the breaths.

Will Friedwald

Well, as Gary Giddins points out, Sweets essentially plays three kinds of solos-- beep, beep beep, and beep beep beep.

Ira Glass

Let me play a little bit of this. He comes in here, if I understand right, right after Sinatra sings "with people she'd hate."

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] She loves the theater, but never comes late. She'd never bother with people she'd hate. That's why the lady is a tramp.

Ira Glass

He's going to come back again in a couple seconds.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] She'll have no crap games with sharpies and frauds. And she won't go to Harlem in Lincolns or Fords. And she won't dish the dirt.

Act Four: The Death of Frank Sinatra

Ira Glass

Which brings us to Act Four, the Death of Frank Sinatra. Michael Ventura grew up in the 1950s in New York.

Michael Ventura

I'm Sicilian on both sides of my family. And if you grew up as a Sicilian kid in the '50s in New York, it was like Sinatra was part of your family. He was the most famous Italian except for some baseball stars. Literally, just a figure people gossiped about and they listened to his songs and he was held up to me by my father as an example. You see him? He can spit in anybody's and get away with it.

Ira Glass

When Michael Ventura published a novel in 1996 called The Death of Frank Sinatra, Sinatra's people were not pleased. The book, however, is not literally about Frank Sinatra. It's about men like Michael Ventura, whose sense of style and sense of self came in part from Frank's style. What's it mean to you, the death of Frank Sinatra?

Michael Ventura

The death of a style. The death of the last and greatest embodiment of a kind of street elegance, a style that is particularly and indelibly 20th century and that we will not see again.

Ira Glass

Of course, he wrote his book long before hip hop artists like Jay Z adopted Sinatra as their own. Frank Sinatra himself only appears in this book once. In the scene that he's in, he's doing a concert. And one of the things that's interesting is that in a work of fiction, Michael Ventura could choose to write about a Sinatra concert from any era Sinatra was alive. And Ventura decided on the mid-1990s, the last years of Sinatra's life.

The reason why, he says, is because in the old man, you get Sinatra at all of his ages. You can still hear the young man and the middle aged man and the old man, all of them, when he sang. Here's Ventura reading from that part of his book.

Michael Ventura

As the old man walked out onto the stage, a curtain came up behind him to reveal a large orchestra. Every musician wore a tuxedo. The conductor was a small, round man sitting at a grand piano and wearing earphones. With a slash of the conductor's hand, the rhythm and brass burst into a loud uptempo number and Sinatra flashed a smile that made him look uncannily young. A young smile, on the old pasty face. And his eyes were the same as they had always been-- brighter in person than they ever registered on screen.

And like the smile, the eyes were young to the point of seeming unnatural. For though no makeup could conceal the sad ravages of the face, the eyes and the smile seemed untouched. As though to put his listeners at ease with these contradictions, Sinatra grabbed the microphone from the top of the black grand piano and sang about how they made him feel so young. These strangers in this room had that power. They made him feel so young and he would feel that way even when he was old and gray. The song itself was keeping him alive.

The first bars were the voice of the old man-- raspy, worn, unable to hold notes for longer than a beat. And only his mastery of rhythm kept the song alive and made each word surprising. Surprising, though everyone in the room knew the lyrics by heart. Then on a high note, the voice cracked. And for an instant, the music soured and the audience flinched as one person. But instead of retreating from that bad sound, Sinatra leaned into it. Sinatra bent the note further into a jazz-like harmony.

And then instead of softening after the mistake, Sinatra held the new note longer and louder, as though diving into it, then took a quick breath and sang the next note, louder still, and fuller, until seamlessly for several bars, it was the voice of 30 or 40 years ago-- full and unfettered, resonant and suggestive. Until, again, it began to crack. And again, he used the cracking to modulate back into the voice and style of the old man-- on pitch, but raw, one note per beat, sometimes right on the beat, sometimes just off it-- keeping the performance tense until, on the last note, the young man's voice returned, as though saluting the old man who sang it.

And Sinatra let that note ride and the audience cheered. It was a breathless performance, like watching a trapeze artist work without a net. I lit my cigarettes like he did. I wore the kind of clothes he wore. I still do. I tried to stand as he stood. I tried to walk as he walked. I still do. Not because I was imitating him, but because I was imitating all the people who gave and taught me life and they took so many of their cues from him.

And where had he taken his cues from? From peasants who came to America from an older, less sentimental world. Peasants, who came with the intention of becoming aristocrats and who, almost as soon as they arrived, began to stand and walk like those aristocrats they had watched so closely, yet from afar, for generations. European princes had taught them grace. American streets taught them flare. They didn't need to learn violence from anyone. That they were born with.

And Sinatra blended all this better than any and sang as he did so. Sang of love and of pride, despairing of one and revelling in the other. And this is why Sicilians especially gave him respect in the peculiar way Sicilians use that word, meaning homage, deference, consideration, and that invitation to betrayal, loyalty. Now Sinatra sang about how they, whoever they were, couldn't take that, whatever that was, away from him. That somehow in the way she held her hat and the way she sipped her tea was beyond the world's possibility to destroy or erode.

There was a scrapbook of Sinatra's pictures. The pictures were all of Sinatra, but he was never alone. Sinatra with Lyndon Johnson, with Adlai Stevenson, with Eleanor Roosevelt. He was holding her hand and looking into her eyes. With Jack Kennedy, Bobby, Jackie, Nixon, Reagan, Nancy. And Sinatra with very different people. Sinatra with Johnny Roselli, Paul Castellano, Carlo Gambino, Carlo's son Joey, Jimmy Fratianno, Sally Spatola.

And still another kind. Sinatra with Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington. That man on the stage, that old man, was where it all connected. Who else had held the hand of Eleanor Roosevelt and shaken the hand of Carlo Gambino both and on equal terms? That man on the stage, that old man. And why? Because he could sing love songs like no one else-- history, of a kind.

History transfixed by love songs. That's life. That's what all the people say the man is singing now. Some people get their kicks from stomping on a dream, but he don't let that get him down. And now he's singing that we're much too marvelous for words. The man was speaking now. I'm just waiting for a downbeat, not a bus. Where you working tomorrow? The musicians laughed. The conductor, that little round man, laughed. That's my son, the guy with the earphones. I had to promise his mother I'd give the bum a job.

More laughter. But something was wrong on the stage. The music was playing, but Sinatra wasn't singing. He was looking around as though he's forgotten where he was. He started a lyric, then stopped. It didn't fit the music. He looked frightened, a scared boy in the body of an old man. He turned toward his son, whose presence seemed to remind him of who he was. He was Frank Sinatra. He was there to sing love songs to history. And he wheeled around and began to beg, but in the proudest terms, that luck be a lady tonight and that she keep the party polite.

But it had been an awful moment. He took a few steps, tried to recover. Slowly, he started to speak. I'm what they call a saloon singer. The song began. He's telling us to drink up, all we happy people. Nobody here looks very happy, but he's admitting that we're happier than him. He says he's paying for the drinks and the laughs. He's paying for everything because a woman with angel eyes is gone. And she's really gone. He's not bitter. He's not angry at her.

Those angel eyes had every right to look elsewhere. He asks us to excuse him because he must disappear. And his voice is disappearing with him, a scratchy whisper like an old wax record played on an old machine. With unbearable politeness, with a tenderness close to death, the death of his voice, he is saying excuse me. I must disappear. There are no angel eyes left in the room. No reason to stay.

[APPLAUSE]

Frank Sinatra

We put one in every performance, if you've seen us perform before. And it's called a saloon song. I do one in each performance because somebody, somewhere, sometime dubbed me the saloon singer. So I don't want to disappoint him. And it would happen to have a lot of truth, in fact, to that too. Because when I really young and I started working in joints in New Jersey and bars and grills and all kinds of places. Until one day somebody came in and offered me a better job. Look what happened to me? Nothing.

[LAUGHTER]

[SINGING] Drink up-- drink up all you people. Order anything that you see. And have fun all you lovely people. The drink and the laughs on me.

I tried to think that love's not around. Still, it's uncomfortably near. My poor old heart, it's not gaining any ground, because my angel eyes, she ain't near.

Act Five: Chairman of the Block

Ira Glass

Act Five, Chairman of the Block. Now that Sinatra's dead and gone, I think there's a kind of kitsch version of Sinatra that has replaced the real guy in lots of people's minds. The kitsch version is way less complicated, kind of a Vegas cartoon rat pack Sinatra. It leaves out the Billie Holiday side of Sinatra. It leaves out the raw vulnerability of Sinatra. It overlooks the originality of what he invented. So there's that kitsch Sinatra that's out there. And at the same time, there are a lot of people who really love Sinatra and remember Sinatra.

We'll close today's program with another story that we first broadcast years ago. This is about a man who loves Sinatra and how he used that love, for a while, to do something for his entire neighborhood. To spread the joy. One of his neighbors, Blake Eskin, tells the story.

Blake Eskin

I went out one Friday evening with a friend in the East Village where we both live. On the street, we heard Frank Sinatra music blasting loud enough to wake the neighbors.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] Fairy tales can come true. It can happen to you.

Blake Eskin

As we reached Fourth Street, I saw a hundred people huddled around the stoop of a six floor tenement. Most of them were post-college, pre-child bearing types. Plus there were some older people who probably lived on the block. Everyone seemed to have forgotten where they were headed, whether to a party or to another bar or back to bed.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] You will go to extremes with impossible schemes--

Blake Eskin

A short, dark-haired guy in a suit stood at the top of the stoop holding a microphone. At first, I thought maybe the guy was lip syncing. But after a few seconds, I realized he was doing the crooning himself. The guy looked a little like Sinatra and he moved like him, too. But this was no run of the mill Sinatra impersonator. It was as if he was possessed by the spirit of Sinatra, channeling the Chairman of the Board.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] She gets too hungry for dinner at eight. She adores this theater but she never arrives late. Come over here, Susan.

Blake Eskin

At the bottom of the stoop was someone you would not ordinarily see with Frank Sinatra. An older woman with spiky salt and pepper hair and a leopard print vest was doing a spirited, if slightly awkward, tap dance on a piece of wood she had dragged out onto the sidewalk.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] She doesn't like crap games with barons and earls. Won't go dressed to a party all up in some other girl's pearls. She won't dish the dirt with the rest of those girls. That's why this chick is a champ.

Blake Eskin

After my initial confusion and my subsequent bliss, my next reaction was to wonder how this was possible. Where were the cops? The 9th precinct is a block away and New Yorkers are quick to complain about noise. But on Fourth Street, everything was copacetic. And it still is. Somehow, by some quirk of fate, the show outside 124 East Fourth Street has happened five Fridays in a row. The singer, Nick Drakides, lives on the first floor of the building and the tap dancer, Laraine Goodman lives on four.

Gary and Wanda, who run the garden level thrift shop, put their merchandise, the chairs, and overstuffed couches on the sidewalk for the audience's comfort.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] She'd never bother with some bum that she'd hate. I said that's why Laraine is a champ. Nick Drakides and Laraine Goodman are neighbors. And like most people who live in the same building, they didn't know much about each other. Laraine did know, however, that Nick had a big jazz record collection. Five weeks ago, Laraine decided she wanted to tap dance in front of the building. As a sort of therapy, she says.

And she reached out to Nick, asking him to play some tunes while she tap danced that weekend.

Nick Drakides

Because what happened was, I was coming home. I'll tell you exactly what happened. When I was coming home that Friday evening around nine o'clock and I forgot her name. And I'm walking down Fourth Street from Second Avenue and I'm like, oh, there she is tapping. And I don't want to do this. I'm tired. I'm like, ugh. And then I had to reach for her name in my little-- in my pocket. What's this thing? Pocket day timer.

And I'm like, it's Laraine. Then I walked down the street and I said, hi, Lorraine. How are you? And she goes, oh come on out, Nick, and join me. Blah, blah, blah. And I think she assumed I'd bring out some music. That was it. I don't think she was expecting a suit and microphone stand and the PA, the CDs, the cassettes, the whole number.

Nick Drakides

Thanks to Laraine Goodman. This is the brains behind this wonderful event here. Say good evening, Laraine.

Laraine Goodman

Good evening, Laraine.

Blake Eskin

Nick's initial gesture of kindness to Laraine, a near stranger, made her into a local celebrity and made himself into an even bigger one. There were only a handful of people watching Laraine tap dance when Nick went outside with his instant Sinatra kit, which includes a few CDs from a series called "Pocket Songs." The discs have the full Sinatra arrangements without a vocalist. The slogan is "You sing the hits."

Nick began with "I've Got the World on a String." The crowd built steadily. And right away, Nick had the crowd on a string, standing on the stoop, had the string around his finger. What a world.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] What a world, what a life. I'm in love. I've got a song that I sing--

Blake Eskin

Nick showed me a picture taken when he was 15. He's wearing a tuxedo, his hair parted to the side, standing at a microphone and pointing back at the camera. It is a picture of a 15-year-old boy from Poughkeepsie, New York in Frank Sinatra drag.

Nick Drakides

I'm basically-- what I'm doing right now, I have been into since I was a kid, since I was 10 years old.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] We've got the world on our string and we're swinging on a rainbow. We've got the string around our finger. What a world, what a life. We all are in love.

Blake Eskin

Each of us in the audience had been lured by the improbability of the situation. But Nick's stage presence kept us there. Nick really knows how to work a room, even when it's not a room. He weaves his neighbor's names into the lyrics.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] Any time he moves his-- there's Brendan, our lovely neighbor here. Lucky me. How you doing, Ritchie? Can't you see? I'm in love. Life is a beautiful thing.

Blake Eskin

He plugs Gary and Wanda's thrift shop and thanks them for their help. He salutes a couple watching from a nearby fire escape. Now it's a safe bet that if Nick and Laraine had been break-dancing or playing conga drums, the police would have shut them down in 20 minutes tops. But the officers of the 9th precinct fell under the same spell as the rest of us and they couldn't bring themselves to get out of the patrol car to enforce the mayor's quality of life rules.

Nick Drakides

The first week, they would circle around the block, speak through their megaphone. They would say, people please don't block the streets, you know? Please keep the streets clear. And that it. That was the first week. The second week they requested "Summer Wind."

Blake Eskin

They requested "Summer Wind?"

Nick Drakides

Yes.

Blake Eskin

Through the megaphone?

Nick Drakides

Through the megaphone as they were passing. The third week, the third week the police came and they stopped their car, held up traffic, and they said, OK, "Summer Wind." They wanted to hear "Summer Wind." So I finished "Night and Day", I put "Summer Wind" on. And I went up on the steps. They manipulated their lights on the top into white spotlight on me and I started singing "Summer Wind."

The crowd went crazy. Evidently, it's that whole New York, macho, Italian, police, Irish, street-- and evidently what I'm doing, they connect with that.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] The summer wind, it came blowing in from across the sea.

Blake Eskin

Of course they do. So do the black men with dreadlocks, the young white guys in Wu Tang Clan t-shirts, the teenagers immersed in the swing lounge scene, the potbellied Italian men of a certain age, smoking cigars. And, sitting front row center, wearing a party-colored mumu, Nick's next door neighbor, Jean, who has lived at 124 East Fourth Street for the last 48 years. For all of them and for me, there is something about Frank Sinatra and something about how Nick Drakides interprets Frank Sinatra that bewitches us, that touches us.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] I sit like painted kites, those days and nights, they went flying by.

Nick Drakides

There's a guy who's lives next door and he embraced me. He hugged me, this old Chinese guy, man, with a hearing aid. I'm like, I touched this guy. I don't know how I did it, but I did it. You know?

Nick Drakides

[SINGING] Hey now, the autumn wind and the winter winds, they have come and they have gone.

Blake Eskin

For any New Yorker to do something as big as this for his neighbors, again and again, is more than an anomaly. It is as rare and unstable as the elements at the bottom of the periodic table. The key ingredients of this event-- neighborliness, generosity, free time, good weather, cooperative police officers-- are hard to come by in this city. And they are nearly impossible to find together in the same place, week after week.

There's a gossip columnist in the New York Post named Cindy Adams. And it is tempting to resort to her mantra, "only in New York, folks, only in New York" to explain this phenomenon. But in Nick's case, the wisdom of Cindy Adams does not suffice. This is not the stuff of New York, not of the real New York or even of the New York of a bygone era, but of a mythical movie New York, a Lower East Side block built on a studio back lot.

It is the first reel of an unknown MGM Musical from just after the war and it stars Nick Drakides. What happens in the rest of the film is anyone's guess.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] Strangers in the night, exchanging glances, wondering in the night, what were the chances we'd be sharing love.

Ira Glass

Blake Eskin, in New York.

Frank Sinatra

[SINGING] It's quarter to three. There's no one in the place except you and me. So set up, Joe. I got a little story you ought to know. We're drinking my friend to the end of a brief episode. Make it one for my baby and one more for the road.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, the original program we did about Frank Sinatra back in 1997 that most of today's show came from was produced by Peter Clowney and Sarah Vowell, with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Contributors editors on that show including Paul Tough, Jack Hit, and Margie Rockland. Lily Sullivan and Matt Tierney helped remake it into today's program.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who of course we always refer to around here as the Boss, Il Padrone. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "ONE FOR MY BABY" BY FRANK SINATRA]