Frank Sinatra would have been 97 last Monday. His mystery still lingers with me, as does the memory of a concert — one of Sinatra’s last — when he recaptured all of that complexity.
Sinatra was both a pawn to his past and the king of it, a guy who shadowboxed on stage, and told off-color jokes, but was still able to achieve a remarkable grace inside a verse. The Big Bang of Pop, as Bono once called him, Sinatra had what every artist wants: Deep, dark depths. He drew upon rough-hewn beginnings, blue evenings of true heartbreak and no small amount of failure — then mortared it all together with attitude derived from actually having the goods.
It didn’t always work. Still, across a six decade-long career, he left us a comprehensive, often-touching monument to popular song. As the terrific writer Will Friedwald once said, the best of these records, principally from the mid-1950s through the late-1960s, “could make a statue want to fall in love.”
Sinatra kept going. And he kept selling. But while even those final, too-cute duet recordings from the early 1990s — some cuts felt like nothing more than a stunt — went multi-platinum, his always sold-out live performances would become uneven affairs. Sometimes, even with Teleprompters surrounding the stage, Sinatra bobbled the lyrics. Some of the tension was created when Frank did things right, some by the dread that he might be about to do something wrong. On my one shimmering night with him in the late winter of his years, Sinatra never did. That I was there on Sept. 30, 1994 at the Music Hall in Dallas became more important later: Frank only toured to five more venues after I saw him, according to daughter Nancy’s tribute book “Frank Sinatra: An American Legend.”
It was a couple of days after the songwriter Jules Styne had died. The people who had worked with and palled around with Sinatra in his bigger-than-the-Beatles war-time heyday were gone by the 1980s. A decade later still, even the next generation of buddies had fallen. Nelson Riddle, Count Basie, Gordon Jenkins, Sammy. Gone. Fellow Rat Pack buddy Dean Martin and Antonio Carlos Jobim were faltering, too. Sinatra, you knew that night, felt awfully alone, even with all of us sitting in front of him. Yet he kept fighting to do the thing that he loved the best, the thing that defined him.
An emotional Sinatra, before singing Styne’s “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry,” mentioned his old friend. What he did next was as captivating as any moment I’ve ever spent in a concert hall, so complete was Sinatra’s grasp of the lyric, so total his devastation.
Even at that late date, he had the ability to take a moment in a song — a word, even — and place into context every element of heartbreak: I remembered the shattered man who sang “bust” in 1955′s “Can’t We Be Friends”; the sadly contemptuous take on “farce” in 1973′s “Send in the Clowns”; and certainly the way he comes down on the final word in 1958′s “Only the Lonely.” But, follow him all the way through some phrases, and there were still richer rewards: For instance, in just four utterances, Sinatra’s “wanna cry, wanna croon” from the 1956 rendition of “Old Devil Moon” moves from the barstool to a kind of exultant loveliness — a moment of rapture. That happened with this concert performance of “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears” — originally recorded in ’58 with Riddle.
Sinatra’s fragile, quivering emotion on this night in ’94 found new bravado in the song’s final stanza (“then one day she passed me right by”) and he gathered himself for a profoundly moving finish. And, for the countless time, a standing ovation.
There isn’t, even today, a more believable moment than when Sinatra grasped a lyric like that. Even after he’d already credited Styne with writing the words. On this September evening, Sinatra — the very personification of lover and fighter — once again owned this song. No matter who composed it.
I suppose he always will.
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Setlist, Dallas, Texas, Sept. 29, 1994
Come Fly With Me
You Make Me Feel So Young
For Once In My Life
Come Rain Or Come Shine
The Lady Is A Tramp
I Get A Kick Out Of You
Strangers In The Night
Fly Me To The Moon
My Funny Valentine
What Now My Love?
I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry
My Kind Of Town
The Summer Wind
New York, New York