Sinatra's still under their skin

With a toast to the dearly departed crooner, fans gather to celebrate the hypnotic legacy, the bliss that was Ol' Blue Eyes.

Pop Culture

May 20, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

If one image from the night stands out, it's of this tall man with a full head of gray hair in a gray sports jacket and black shirt who just said that he was turning 80 next spring standing up at the table where three other men sat in this Italian place in Locust Point. Frankly it was a little odd and a little uneasy to be sitting there listening to him stand and sing "You Make Me Feel So Young," not just because he did the entire song, not just because he sang it a cappella, but because his full heart was in it, and he seemed blissfully adrift in a distant place of his own life. And his own life had gotten wrapped up with Frank Sinatra.

Like the fellow in a poem by Gerald Early, whose children stare at their crazy father always wanting to hear Frank Sinatra, even when there was no Frank Sinatra to be heard. No one questions the sanity of this gray-haired fellow who introduces himself as "Doc" Myers, although he also goes by Dewey and Bernard. You could hear that the karaoke had already started downstairs at Pazza Luna, and in a couple hours they'd be lifting glasses of Jack Daniels around the bar at the moment that would precisely mark (in Pacific Time) the third anniversary of the death of Frank Sinatra, at 82, on May 14, 1998.

Maybe 80 people passed through the little place last Monday night, having dinner and drinks, fooling around with their paper Sinatra masks, listening to Sinatra impersonator Mickey Light perform his renditions and then a few others of lesser renown do theirs. It's how Sinatra started, too, a skinny kid singing in his mother's saloon with the player piano. During Prohibition, that was karaoke.

To sound like an idol

In his early days Sinatra wanted nothing more than to sound like Bing Crosby. Years later he said: "The thing about Bing was, he made you think you could do it too. ... He was so relaxed, so casual."

Soon enough Sinatra outgrew wanting to sing like Crosby. Who knows how many generations will pass before legions of men outgrow wanting to take the microphone and perform a certain alchemic miracle of Frankness. For much the same reason Sinatra said about Crosby -- he made it sound so easy -- you might just think that you, maybe, maybe ... For a moment, anyhow, one can dream.

Mickey Light, who is 65 years old, has been making a living at it for 12 years now, billing himself as "Baltimore's Own Ol' Blue Eyes." His eyes really are blue, and his booking agent, Chuck Bishop, says "with a few drinks, dim lights, you'd think it's Frank up there."

Light made it a kind of Frank-meets-Jerry telethon up there Monday night, doing 2 1/2 hours, setting his gear at full schmaltz with the gestures and ritual Camel-smoking and Jack-drinking and the little hat jauntily cocked. Light wore a black tuxedo and, Bishop noted, just the kind of tasseled black shoes Frank wore in formal attire. These people know their Frank.

"I've got everything he's ever recorded," says Light. "I started to listen to him when I was a kid. We always wanted to be like Sinatra."

Pete Hamill, who published a short and rather personal book on Sinatra in 1998 called "Why Sinatra Matters," wrote that Sinatra matters partly because he defined a certain American male archetype that had not quite existed before. His urban, solitary "Tender Tough Guy" set a tone for generations of American men long before anyone had heard of a "Tao of Steve."

He worked 'Witchcraft'

All right, not so much cultural critique was going on at Pazza Luna, not with the dream machine going at the far end of the bar.

Larry Panicho, a Baltimore hair stylist, took several turns at finding his Inner Frank. He did "That's Life." He did "Summer Wind" and "I've Got You Under My Skin." Panicho, 57, says he didn't start to appreciate Sinatra until he was in his 30s. That, he says, is part of the essential Frank experience.

"The essence is, as you grow up and mature and you listen to music, you realize how great the man was. Young kids don't know that. His phrasing, his timing was impeccable."

These kids, yeah. "Doc" Myers was making a speech about that, going on about the noise and the drums and the lyrics you cannot understand, and for a minute you'd have sworn that the new president was another Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and did you get a load of that band on the Sullivan show -- the Beagles? Beatles? What the heck was that?

Time warp was all in the spirit, as Frank transcends time. His first public appearance was with Major Bowes on a radio amateur show with the Hoboken Four in 1935. His last was at the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament in 1995. In those 60 years he reinvented not only himself more than once, but also his audience and much of what we now think about singing and about music.

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