There isn't much 'Summer Wind' left in Sinatra's autumn

November 24, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

It's late, everyone else is in bed and I'm channel surfing, basically because I don't have much else going on in my life. And when I get to MTV, who's staring me in the face but Tony Bennett?

Tony Bennett on MTV? Tony Bennett does videos? What's next: Alistair Cooke hosting "Beavis and Butt-head"?

The Tonester is singing some song I can't now recall. But what I do remember is that, while crooning, he's doing that wild, wacky, arms-flying, jazz, swing, finger-snapping kind of thing.

This got me thinking. You don't see much finger snapping on MTV. In fact, I'm thinking the Temptations were maybe the last of the great pop finger-snappers. In today's more complex and dangerous world, you can't afford to waste your hands on a sound that could be created by a synthesizer.

Nowadays, your pop/rock star needs at least one hand for crotch grabbing and another for guitar bashing. Actually, for proper guitar destruction, you need both hands and the Jimi Hendrix instruction book.

Anyway, there's Tony, big as life, snapping away for all he's worth. And I'm confused. This is my parents' music, and the kids are diggin' it? (For you youngsters in the audience, "diggin' it" is the kind of pre-rock, hep-cat talk that Tony Bennett still favors in his dotage.)

For a moment, I thought the Bennett video was either a practical joke or an engineer's mistake. Then it hit me: What we have here is a trend.

Tony Bennett's on MTV at the same time Frank Sinatra's got a smash album. Call it the revenge of the grown-ups.

The Sinatra album -- called "Duets" -- is basically a novelty act, kind of like the Chipmunks, except with better arrangements. The concept is you take Sinatra and team him up with a lot of other stars to sing the standards Frank's way.

This is great on a couple of levels, and disturbing only on one.

It's great that people who think "Love Me Two Times" is a standard get to hear "Summer Wind," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Witchcraft" and the rest.

What's even better is that the younger stars (particularly Luther Vandross and Anita Baker) completely upstage the old man, who just can't sing anymore.

If you're my age, you understand my joy. In the '60s, Frank hated everything young, including rock and roll. What The Chairman of the Board, as he was called, liked was Sammy and Dean and some of your major mob bosses. He was holding the line on civilization, at least as he understood it, for the non-filtered, Scotch-sipping chicks and cats of his era.

The maddening thing about Sinatra as a hate object was the wonder of his work. He owned every song he ever made. Even today, Frank has the phrasing down exactly, ineffably. It's the voice, at age 77, that's completely shot. Frank's still on the road, where he sings using a TelePrompTer, but the voice has definitely hung 'em up.

Just listen. He certainly can't compete with Barbra or Liza or Aretha or, for that matter, the still tuneful Tony Bennett. Even Gloria Estefan soars over Frank, although Bono, who teams up in "I've Got You Under My Skin," makes it clear that he either didn't understand the assignment or wasn't up to it.

This is the first bad thing that ever happened to Frank, if you don't count his children's singing careers.

So, where's the problem?

The problem is technology. And fraud. The album is as honest as Ed Rollins.

You see, there are no real duets. Nobody sang with anybody. Somebody sang in L.A., somebody else sang in New York, and somebody else entirely mixed the sounds together to make it seem like everyone was in the same studio.

Frank, who wouldn't know Bono if he tripped over him, never met him.

When Barbra's cooing, "You make me blush, Francis," in "I've Got a Crush on You," she could be calling it in on her car phone.

How do we know what to believe now? This is much more dangerous than cloning. Did the Beatles really sing together? Did they even know each other? And what about the Maharishi?

And if you can bring people together like that, what's to stop somebody from pairing up Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan? Talk about scary.

This all began when Natalie Cole, who's wonderful on the Sinatra album, teamed up with her late dad. That was kind of nice, if maybe a wee bit exploitive.

But now who knows where it'll end? The next thing you know, it could be Priscilla Presley and . . . Naah.

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