Some very good years for a fan doing Frank Sinatra

January 14, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

THE CALENDAR says it's a January weekend in 2002, but inside Giovanni's in Edgewood, things are swingin', baby, and Ike is still the president.

Up on the tiny dance floor, with cigarette smoke curling to the ceiling and a bottle of Jack Daniel's resting on a nearby stool, Mickey Light grips a microphone and summons the spirit of Frank Sinatra once more.

Oh, he's got it all down: the finger-snapping, the tough-guy swagger, the way he shoots the cuffs on his tux, the Rat Pack patter about booze and broads and breaking legs.

Thirteen years after he started this gig, the essence of Mickey Light is this: If the lights are low and you've had a few drinks, man, it's Ol' Blue Eyes up there.

"We keep the flame alive, baby!" he says, and the audience, maybe 150 or so packed into the cozy Harford County restaurant, smiles and nods in delight.

He opens with "Summer Wind" and soon it's a "Best of Sinatra" CD come to life: "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Fly Me to the Moon," "That's Life" and "My Way" and "Strangers in the Night."

And as he runs through the old favorites, smiling and pouring his heart into every song as a digital machine provides the orchestra sound, what you realize is this: Mickey Light, 66 years young, still can't get enough of Sinatra.

He discovered Sinatra when he was 16, growing up in the projects near the Maryland Penitentiary, running with a bunch of guys who spent their days playing ball and brawling and their nights wrestling with girls on the soft grass under the stars.

"All of us loved Sinatra," he says. "We liked him 'cause he was a tough guy, and we were tough guys, too. We liked how he dressed, his singing, his women, his attitude, the way he didn't take no [bull] from anyone."

But the gig doing a Sinatra act, that started fairly late for Mickey Light.

He was 53, working as a bellman at the Hyatt downtown when he got a phone call from Jake Needleman, who owned Giovanni`s. The restaurant was having a birthday party for Sinatra. Needleman knew Light was a big Sinatra memorabilia collector and wanted to borrow a few Sinatra posters.

"Oh, we're having a guy sing some Sinatra songs," Needleman mentioned off-handedly.

"I could do that," said Light.

"Come on up and let's hear you," Needleman said.

So Light showed up with a scratchy orchestra tape and sweaty palms and a gut full of butterflies doing loop-de-loops. But after Light sang a couple of songs, Needleman said: "You`re my Frank."

From there, the act grew. Pretty soon, the scrappy kid from Greenmount Avenue and Preston Street was dyeing his hair, slipping on a tux and doing Sinatra all over town, at the Sands Hotel in Atlantic City, in Arizona for Lee Iacocca.

On nights he wasn't working, he'd stay up 'til 3 in the morning studying Sinatra tapes, trying to capture the great entertainer`s mannerisms on stage - the way he gripped the microphone, how he leaned back when he sang, his patter with the band and the audience.

"My wife would wake up and say: `Mickey, don't you see him enough?' Light recalls. ... [But] I didn't want to embarrass myself."

He got to shake Sinatra's hand once after a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington back in the '70s. And he saw the Chairman of the Board a few times up in Atlantic City, mainly passing through the casinos.

But when Sinatra died in May of 1998 - "I got so many flowers, you wouldn't believe it," Light says - his dream of sitting down with Sinatra and having his picture taken died, too.

Yet the act, this "Sounds of Sinatra" tribute, is still going strong. These days, Light figures he does 100 to 120 gigs a year. And his fascination with Sinatra's life endures. His Essex home is a veritable Sinatra shrine, and his collection includes some 6,000 concert tapes, records, CDs and now DVDs.

Mickey Light is of that era, he says, when "all men wanted to be Frank Sinatra, and all women wanted Frank Sinatra."

But, look, Mickey Light never got goofy with this Sinatra act.

He never thought he was Sinatra. He was never like one of these pathetic Elvis impersonators who grows his sideburns long and throws on a rhinestone-studded jumpsuit and shades and starts acting like he really is the King.

"It's a real kick" doing Sinatra, Mickey Light tells you. "That hour you're on stage, all your troubles go away."

But even when women come up to him and kiss him and stuff money in his pockets, even when guys push bottles of Jack Daniel's on him, Light doesn't get carried away.

"I never took this too seriously," he says. "That's why I don't call myself a Sinatra impersonator. I always thought there was only one Frank and you couldn't impersonate him.

"Look, I've seen professionals try to impersonate him, and they couldn't do it. Steve Lawrence wanted to be Frank. Tony Bennett wanted to be Frank. Vic Damone wanted to be Frank."

He pauses and shakes his head in wonder. "There are hard-core Sinatra fans who think he's God," he continues. "C'mon, he's not God! He's just a person!"

Well, OK, maybe the coolest person God ever put on this Earth, but let's not quibble.

On the dance floor at Giovanni's now, after 90 minutes of conjuring the spirit of Sinatra, Mickey Light wraps it up with the big finish, a full-throttle rendition of "New York, New York."

When it's over, he gets a standing ovation. For the next few minutes, he works the room, shaking hands and signing pictures of himself in his Frank get-up, with the tux and snap-brim hat and trademark raincoat slung over one shoulder.

It's been a good night, Mickey Light says.

"For a guy from the 10th ward who used to get busted drinking beer near the penitentiary, it ain't a bad life."

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