Frank Sinatra The Voice That Thrilled Millions Part Three of Three

Written by Dennis Munday
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/Frank Sinatra - John Kennedy - JFK

During the swinging sixties, Sinatra’s Mafia connections returned to haunt him, with regard to his friendship with Salvatore ‘Mooney Sam’ Giancana, head of the Chicago Mafia syndicate. During the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy was running against the sitting Republican vice president, Richard Nixon.

The Democrat’s campaign team had isolated areas in the USA, where they were uncertain, as to which party would swing the voters. Kennedy’s father Joseph, who was running the campaign, suggested that Sinatra asks his ‘pal’ (Giancana) in Chicago to help. The deal was done on the 17th fairway of Tamarisk Country Club (California), where Sinatra resided. Though Giancana only agreed to the pact if Kennedy got Hoover and FBI off his back when he becomes President. The mobster was as good as his word and delivered his hometown and West Virginia. During Kennedy’s campaign, a sound truck preceded the motorcade, blasting out Sinatra’s amended recording of ‘High Hopes’, with individual campaign lyrics. Sinatra also sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where JFK received his party’s nomination for president.

Frank Sinatra - John Kennedy - JFK.3However, once Kennedy had won the tight race for president, his brother Robert, now the Attorney General cracked down on organised crime. It was left to Sinatra to calm the angry mob boss, who stated; “That’s not right. You know he (Kennedy) owes me.” Sinatra told Giancana that, he had asked for the favour personally, and he owed the debt. Sinatra repaid by bringing ‘The Rat Pack’ to Giancana’s Chicago nightclub, The Villa Venice, where they played two shows for eight straight nights. Giancana was captured on an FBI wiretap, discussing ways at getting his own back, and heard to say; “If we ever hit that guy you’ll break his jaw. Then he can’t sing.” One of his chief henchmen Johnny Formosa, stated; “Let's show these asshole Hollywood fruitcakes that they can't get away with it, let’s hit Sinatra. Or I could whack out a couple of those other guys, Lawford and that Martin?”

The Kennedy’s were not the only politicians to cosy up to the Mafia. Charles Gregory ‘Bebe’ Rebozo, was a confidant and friend of Richard Nixon. Rebozo was tied to Santo Trafficante, the powerful Florida mob boss, and Alfred ‘Big Al’ Polizzi, who worked with Mafia chieftain Meyer Lansky. Vincent ‘Fat Vinnie’ Teresa, a high-ranking Mafia capo, later admitted that he had used Rebozo’s bank to launder stolen money. Rebozo also helped Nixon to obtain large, covert, campaign contributions from Howard Hughes

Sinatra received another slap in the face from the Kennedy’s, as they refused to allow his friend Sammy Davis Jr., to sing with him at the inaugural ball. Davis was about to marry Mai Zetterling, and because the Kennedy’s feared a white backlash, Sinatra asked Sammy to hold the marriage back until after the event. In anticipation of the Kennedy’s visiting his Palm Spring’s home for the Easter holidays in 1962, Sinatra had constructed a ‘Presidential Suite’ for the occasion. It was said that Kennedy snubbed the offer owing to Sinatra’s links with serious crime figures and stayed with Bing Crosby, who was a noted Republican supporter. However, this move was down to the secret service, who felt that Crosby’s home was easier to secure against any assassination attempts. Keith O’Donnell (a JFK aide) stated, “I don’t care if he’s a Red Chinaman, the Secret Service likes his (Crosby’s) place better than Sinatra’s.”

Because of these snubs, Sinatra, who was a life-long Democrat supporter, would eventually change sides and support the Republican Party. He went on to campaign and actively supported, both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Friday November 22, 1963, Sinatra was filming Robin And The 7 Hoods. He was so stunned by the news that he disappeared to his Palm Springs home and mourned the President for three days before returning to complete the film.

As the seventies beckoned, Sinatra was now approaching his mid-fifties; his hair was thinning, and no longer the skinny kid from Hoboken. On June 13, 1971, Sinatra appeared at the Los Angeles Music Centre and announced his retirement, and this would be his farewell appearance. Sinatra told Tommy Thompson of Life magazine, “I’m tired, it’s been a helluva 35 years. I always sang a tough book. It’s wrung me out.”

/Frank Sinatra 1971

Sinatra recorded two albums prior to this announcement, Watertown (1970) and Sinatra & Company (1971). The first was an explicit attempt to make rock orientated pop album and received mixed critical reviews, and sales were down on his previous albums. Sinatra & Company was his second outing with Antonio Carlos Jobim and fared better. In 1970, he starred in the comedy western entitled Dirty Dingus Magee, which received unfavourable reviews, and that was the end of a distinguished career or was it?

No, as in 1973, he made a comeback and recorded the album and TV event Ol’ Blues Eyes Is Back. The album received poor reviews with one stating, ‘much of the material is unmemorable and clichéd’. The second album he recorded during this decade ‘Some Nice Things I’ve Missed’ fared no better with one critic stating ‘the arrangements are forced and awkward’. Sinatra went on the road in 1974, with Woody Herman and the Young Thundering Herd, with Bill Miller conducting. This produced another TV special and an album entitled The Main Event. This was a stroll down memory lane, and contained many Sinatra classics, which he had recorded for Capitol and Reprise.

He toured Europe in 1975, which included ten shows at The London Palladium with Sarah Vaughan and The Count Basie Orchestra. I had been on the road with the band on their short tour of the UK, which included three nights at Ronnie Scotts, and lucky enough to be invited to one of Sinatra’s performances. I slipped backstage to see the boys before the played their set, and though the atmosphere was not as intimate as Ronnie’s, they put on a great show. As did Sarah Vaughan when she came on stage.

There was no seat for me, not that I cared, as I was excited about seeing ‘The Chairman of the Board’. Evidently, Sinatra insisted that Harold Davison, the entrepreneur, account for the sale of all the tickets for the shows. There were no free tickets, not even for the press when Sinatra was in town. As the noisy audience waited for their man, the air was electric with excitement and when the curtains went up, the atmosphere crackled with anticipation. Sinatra’s personal musicians had replaced the rhythm section, with Bill Miller, Sinatra’s MD replacing Basie at the piano. As the band went into the opening bars of the first number, and to everybody’s surprise, when the conductor turned around to face the audience, it was Sinatra. He’d snuck out with the band and had been on stage all the time. There was no fanfare or big entrance, and it was one of the most understated entrances I have witnessed. I enjoyed the concert and, as I was leaving, Sinatra and Basie’s tour manager, Tony Edwards, invited me backstage to meet ‘The Man’ and was surprised when I declined. However, it was more than enough for me to have seen ‘The Voice’ sing.

Frank Sinatra -33.

In 1970, his mafia connections were in the news once again, when he appeared in front of New Jersey State Committee, who were looking into organised crime. A secret meeting was set up and, to minimize his exposure to the media, and Sinatra agreed to testify at a midnight. He testified to having met Meyer Lansky and Willie Moretti, but not to knowing them. He confirmed that he knew Sam Giancana and Paul ‘Skinny’ D’Amato. However, he then denied knowing that they and Joe Fischetti, Joe Adonis and ‘Lucky’ Luciano were members of a criminal organization known as either ‘La Cosa Nostra’ or ‘The Mafia’. After a seventy-five minute hearing, the committee chairman announced that Frank Sinatra had cooperated fully.

On July 18, 1972, a U.S. marshal tried to serve Sinatra with a subpoena to appear before the House Select Committee on Crime, at a gala for his friend vice president Spiro Agnew. The committee was investigating the influence of organised crime in professional sports. Senator John Tunney, a good friend of Sinatra intervened, preventing the Marshall from serving the summons. Sinatra informed the congressional committee that he’d gladly come if they invited him. The committee wanted to question him about his $50,000 investment in the Berkshire Downs racetrack in Massachusetts, owned in part by New England Mafia capo Raymond Loreda Salvatore Patriarca and New York capo Tommy Lucchese.

Sinatra got into even more trouble with a photo taken backstage at the Westchester Premier Theatre in Tarrytown, New York, on April 11, 1976. The photo shows Sinatra smiling with known Mafiosi members, Thomas Marsonek ‘Tommy 'Fatso' Marson’ Dolowowski, Don Carlo ‘The Godfather’ Gambino, and Aladena ‘Jimmy the Weasel’ Fratianno. Sinatra was alleged to have taken a $50,000 under the table payment, which a Manhattan Jury ‘supposedly’ investigated, but nothing came of the incident. This meeting was fictionalised in the book and the film of The Godfather. Sinatra was always unhappy with being associated with Johnny Fontane, the singer in the movie, and once confronted the author Mario Puzo though no blows were exchanged.

Frank Sinatra - The Mafia - The MobFor one of his performances at Carnegie Hall, Sinatra sent tickets to John Joseph ‘The Teflon Don’ Gotti, who was supposed to come back stage, and have supper after the show. Sinatra foolishly cancelled at the last minute but showed-up later at the Savoy Grill, with his pal Ermenigildo ‘Jilly’ Rizzo. This so incensed Gotti that he sent one of his soldiers, Joseph ‘Joe the German’ Watts, to Sinatra’s table to have a quiet word. Watts informed Sinatra that he would; ‘tear him a new asshole and Rizzo too. The next time John sends for you, and you make up an excuse, I will be the last face you will see on this earth’.

During an interview, Tom Dreesen, Sinatra’s long-time opening comic, stated that towards the end, Sinatra came to regret many of those early mob associations. Dreeson went on to say; “Whenever people say to me, ‘Did Frank Sinatra know Mafia people?’ I say, of course he did. He worked for them in the clubs like we all did at some point in our careers.” He went on to say; “Heads of corporations wanted to know Frank Sinatra. Heads of State wanted to know Frank Sinatra. Heads of Mafia wanted to know Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra was a man of power and a very interesting man of power. But I’ll tell you something else that Frank Sinatra told me. The last 20 years of his life, none of those people were in his life. He said he rued the day that he ever made friends with those guys because they won’t get out of your life. If somebody does a favour for you when you’re a young guy, then years later that guy’s son will come to you and say, ‘My dad helped you out.’ Then, years later the grandson will come and say, ‘My grandfather helped you out.’ They won’t get out of your life.”

These mobsters liked the fact that Sinatra was an Italian-American kid from Hoboken, a hard, working-class town. They identified with him and liked his style and singing, with some taking credit for his success, either financially or by hiring him in their clubs. It’s quite clear from the evidence that Sinatra did mix with these infamous mobsters. However, was he a ‘Made Man’, or just a Mafia ‘groupie’, who enjoyed rubbing shoulders with these gangsters? Perhaps he thought this association would enhance his own hard-man status. His background clearly suggests that he would have known about the Mafia from an early age and his initial denials do not ring true. However, whenever Sinatra’s career was at an ebb, the ‘Mob’ run Las Vegas never turned their back on ‘their boy’; they always welcomed him with open arms.

In 1974, Sinatra paid a visit to Australia, which caused mayhem, when he described Australian journalists as fags, pimps, and whores. The unions representing the scribes went on strike and demanded that Sinatra apologize for his remarks. To which Sinatra rebuked them stating; “the journalists should apologize to him for fifteen years of abuse I have taken from the world’s press.” Bob Hawke, the leader of Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), and a future Prime Minister of Australia, also insisted that Sinatra apologize. Eventually, a settlement was reached that satisfied all parties and the tour went ahead.

Sinatra starred in his first TV film, Contract on Cherry Street, for the NBC network in 1977. He played a New York City cop, Deputy Inspector Frank Hovannes. It was his first acting role for seven years. One critic described the film as; ‘not an especially exciting thriller’ and, ‘it’s a forgettable artefact of Sinatra’s career and recommendable only to Sinatra fanatics and people who want to do the time-warp to the late 1970s’. Another critic questioned why Sinatra was starring in such a ‘mealy-mouthed morality tale,’ although there were a few positive reviews.

In 1976, Sinatra was responsible for reuniting Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, when he performed on Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. Lewis and Martin allegedly hadn’t spoken for twenty years. In 1979, he performed for Anwar Sadat, with the Egyptian pyramid as a backdrop. To round off the decade, Sinatra returned to his second home, Las Vegas to celebrate forty years in show business and his 64th birthday.

Frank Sinatra - Jerry Lewis - Dean Martin

During the eighties and nineties, Sinatra recorded six albums, and in 1980, released Trilogy: Past Present Future, which was his last concept album. However, it was met with lukewarm reviews, with only the Past being rated. For the other two discs words like mediocre were mentioned, and that Future was an unqualified mess and Sinatra sounded lost singing clichéd, trite lyrics, about peace and space travel. In 1982, Sinatra released She Shot Me Down, an album of contemporary tunes, which fared better with the critics. His only other outing was conducting the orchestra for the Sylvia Syms album, Syms By Sinatra. 

He recorded his sixty-fifth and final solo album in 1984, LA Is My Lady, which reunited Sinatra with Quincy Jones after a 20-year hiatus. Although the album wasn’t particularly well reviewed, mainly because of the contemporaneous arrangements. It sounds to me like Sinatra, Jones, and the band were having a great time in the studio. Sinatra sings ‘Mack The Knife’, for the first time and gives Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong, Bobby Darin, and Ella Fitzgerald, a nod. Stating that; ‘Old Blue Eyes ain’t going to add nothing new’. During the song, he name-checks the band, Quincy Jones, Randy & Michael Brecker, George Benson, Joe Newman, Frank Foster, and Lionel Hampton bringing up the rear. Sammy Cahn also rewrote the lyrics for ‘Teach Me Tonight’, with references to Sinatra’s many love affairs. He also altered the lyrics of ‘Until the Real Thing Comes Along’, with Sinatra singing; ‘I’d even punch out Mr. T for you’.

Sinatra appeared in three films during the eighties, The First Deadly Sin, which the New York Times critic Janet Matin wrote; ‘Mr. Sinatra, returning to the screen after a long hiatus, is tough and credible in his role. However, The First Deadly Sin becomes a meandering tale, slowed down by tangential subplots and never as sharply honed as it might be. Roger Ebart wrote; ‘who would have thought, in all honesty, that Frank Sinatra had this performance still left in him? Ten years after his last film, the dismal ‘Dirty Dingus Magee,’ and longer than that since the schlock of Tony Rome and Lady in Cement. Here he is again with a quiet, poignant, and very effective performance as the centrepiece of The First Deadly Sin’. Sinatra’s’ second film was the Cannonball Run II, where he plays himself, and his voice appeared in Who Framed Roger Rabbit as ‘The Singing Sword’.

In the nineties Sinatra recorded his last two albums, Duets and Duets II, both albums featured Sinatra singing with artists from different genres and arranged by Billy May. They included Bono, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Charles Aznavour, Gloria Estefan, Tony Bennett, and Kenny G. Duets sold three million copies and was Sinatra’s only triple platinum album. Duets II followed the same pattern and featured the likes of, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt, Chrissie Hynde, Willie Nelson, Lena Horne, Neil Diamond, and his son, Frank Sinatra Jr. It was not as successful as the first but sold over a million copies. Sinatra insisted that the duet partners were not in the studio when he sang his part, and it has to be said, what a way to go out.

Frank Sinatra - Golf.Sinatra continued to perform live despite having health problems, and during the early nineties, performed more than two hundred shows. There were times when his memory failed and, when he fell at a concert in Richmond, Virginia, it signalled more problems. His final concert took place in Japan’s Fukuoka Dome, Chūō-ku, Fukuoka, Japan, in December 1994. The following year he sang for the last time at the closing night of the Frank Sinatra Desert Classic golf tournament. A critic for Esquire magazine wrote; (Sinatra was) ‘clear, tough, on the money, and in absolute control’. His ultimate song was, ‘The Best is Yet To Come’.

Throughout the last years of his life, Sinatra suffered from ill health, he was hospitalised many times for heart difficulties, respiratory problems, high blood pressure, as well as bladder cancer and dementia. He died at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre with his wife Barbara by his side. She tried to rally Sinatra while the doctors tried to resuscitate him and his last words were, “I’m losing.” The following night, the lights on the Empire State Building were turned blue.

The funeral took place at the Roman Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, California, on May 20, 1998. There were over 400 mourners, which included many notable people from the film and entertainment world, and Gregory Peck, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra Jr. read the eulogies. Mementoes were placed in his coffin, which included a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a pack of Camel cigarettes, and a Zippo lighter. Sinatra was interred next to his parents in the Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California, close to his friends Jilly Rizzo (restaurateur) and Jimmy Van Heusen (lyricist). The epitaph on the gravestone reads ‘The Best Is Yet to Come’.

Sinatra suffered mood swings and bouts of depression throughout his life and struggled with conflicting needs, to get away from it all, but not too far from the spotlight. He once stated, “Being an 18-carat manic depressive, and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation.” His daughter Tina wrote in her memoirs a telling story. “As flippant as Dad could be about his mental state, I believe that a Zoloft (an antidepressant) a day, might have kept his demons away, but that kind of medicine was decades off.” Although this fact does not entirely excuse his boorish behaviour, and lightening quick temper, which led to many volcanic displays throughout his life.

Sinatra’s style of singing revolutionised the way vocalists sang a popular song, and he is without doubt, the number one singer of the standard song. He influenced every singer from Mel Tormé to Michael Bublé, although, they were merely pretenders to the throne. The only singer, who was on par with Sinatra, is Ella Fitzgerald, who herself was the Queen of the standard songbook. It’s quite unbelievable that, although they appeared live frequently throughout their careers, they never recorded an album together. This was no doubt down to the fact that Norman Granz, who presided over Ella, had no time for Sinatra. I remember having dinner with Oscar Peterson in the mid-seventies, and during the conversation, he told me not to bring the subject up with Norman. He also stated, “I don’t understand why Bill (Count Basie) plays with him when he uses the ‘N’ word. I wouldn’t share the same stage with him.” Although it’s fair to say, that Sinatra was no racist and often insisted on having black musicians on his recording sessions. At the time, political correctness was still swinging it its dad’s trousers.

Sinatra’s career spanned seven decades, and he was at the top for all but a few years. Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and ABBA are the only other artists that have matched Sinatra’s popularity. He sold 250 million records, as well as receiving 11 Grammy Awards, and Frank Sinatra truly was the voice that thrilled millions.

Part One Here
Part Two Here

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