Here lies a lost portrait of one wee-small Chicago saloon evening from early November 1984, assigned to be a glib piece for Vanity Fair, which ultimately elected not to publish it. Editor Tina Brown found it a little sadder (thus less fabulous) than expected. This was my first encounter with Frank Jr., whom I’d only get to know better across the decades thereafter, by way of working closely with the Sinatra family.
Technically never a Junior (his mind was all about technicalities, this sweet musical egghead), he was christened Franklin, not Francis — for FDR and not for the bony boy-singer who spawned him (in between a pair of pink and bright daughters). To the family, though, he would always be Frankie — Frankie, the Most Serious Sinatra of Them All.
To be his father’s son required special mettle and nerve. In public Junior regularly referred to Senior as “Sinatra,” as though protective glass was necessary. Reflexively, because the father was all emotion, the son would willfully become a fortress of rationale. For good or bad, it was safer that way. Certainly wiser. Thus he’d grow to become careful centurion who stood meticulous sentry over the single most priceless family jewel: His Father’s Music — which he doggedly curated and performed wherever venues would welcome him. Case in point: In the piece below, we find him at age 41, headlining at a tiny joint in a Chicago Holiday Inn. Four years afterward, he took over the baton of his father’s orchestra; by then, Senior liked having his son near, because no one else would ever know the notes any better.
When Frank Jr. died earlier this week, on the road in Florida, at age 72, his big sister Nancy wrote me this text: “A terrible shock for all of us. He was loved, though sadly, he may not have known it and to my mind that is the tragedy. He is trending on Facebook and Twitter and every news service. The world is sharing our grief, but he doesn’t know it. Very sad.”
Frank Jr. has another gig. The venue on this night is a Holiday Inn on the lakefront of the Old Man’s kinda town (Chicago is). The room is called Rick’s Cafe Americain, and it’s positioned just off the worn-carpeted lobby of the hotel. The maitre d’ here sports a white Bogie dinner jacket and a curry-thick accent. Frank Jr. jauntily refers to him as “Boss” and tells me conspiratorially, “If ever there’s a revolution in Islamabad, he’s the guy who started it.”
Room capacity, I learn, is 200. Sixteen have bothered to show up, strangers in the night all, out to hear a Sinatra sing for a $7.50 cover, plus two-drink-minimum. Frank Jr. is undaunted. When he steps onto the 2-foot-high stage, he misinforms them: “My name is Francis, ladies and gentlemen, and, if you play your cards right, I’ll show you my tattoos.” Perched on a wooden stool throughout the set, he is backed by six musicians; during their solos, Frank Jr. works the spotlight console switches himself. After completing a tune entitled “Red Beans and Rice,” he announces to no one in particular, “I’m glad to know that people still dig music, that you don’t need a freak show with it, like one of them rock videos.”
Frank Jr. is closing in on the September of his years. At 41, he is jowly and melancholy and almost chillier than the winter wind blowing in from across the sea. He has grown to look like a partner in an accounting firm — albeit one with a Sinatra swagger. He does not smile. When he cracks wise or when he ring-a-ding-dings, he never so much as winks one of his brown eyes; instead, he stares unblinkingly with no expression or emotion creasing his genetically-replicated puss. His most frequent mannerism is to adjust the left arm of his wire-rimmed eyeglasses at regular intervals and then launch into the next song, rarely waiting for applause to begin or end.
That’s life for Frank Jr. Having sprung from legendary loins, he has attempted since his teenage years to build a career on chromosomes and good grooming. He is an anachronism with a fine vibrato and a bootcamp buzzcut. Like Frank Sr., he is comfortable only when performing in a tuxedo (even though he has nowadays come to endure the informality of three-piece suits). But the Old Man’s shoes have never quite fit and Frank Jr. has long since given up looking for tissue to stuff in the toes. Destined never to be the eternal-crooning swoon, he is good-naturedly resigned to stoically languish in lounge-lizardom. Glibly, he jokes onstage, “I once told Redd Foxx that if I picked the right songs, I’d see my name in lights. He said, ‘Baby, the only way you going to see yo’ name in lights is if you change it to EXIT.” He then vaults into a medley of classics owned, he says, “by my famous parent,” which begins: “So I’m down and so I’m out, but so are many otherrrsss…”
After the show, he wordlessly leads me to a small candle-lit table in the back of the club. He jabs a Salem Light between his distinctively ample lips and says that he feels flattered that anyone would want to write about him. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you too much that’s particularly interesting,” he sighs. The career pace, he explains, has slackened considerably. Whereas, before 1978, he spent 11 months a year on the road, he says that he is lucky to be employed for more than six months now. Moreover, he hasn’t had a job in Vegas since 1981 (although, he says, one off-Strip hotel has promised to give him a weeklong shot this year). He no longer has a recording contract, and even when he did, he never produced a hit — something his sister Nancy managed with an ode to go-go boots. “There’s not all that much work around these days,” he shrugs.
Maturity, I offer, has seemed to have improved his voice, but what I mean is that he has authentically begun to sound more like the Old Man. “I have good nights and bad nights,” he says. “After 23 years, I sound better than I did when I started.” But he complains that he’s been singing under pitch lately and blames the weather. Subjects change. He tells me that he’s heartened to see pop artists like Linda Ronstadt “beginning to take music a little more seriously now, instead of coasting like the punkers and the Mick Jaggers and all the assholes of the world, who jump up and down onstage. You know,” he coolly decrees, “a vast display of energy is no substitute for talent,” which brings to mind his father’s famous description of rock ’n’ roll as something “sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons.”
He asks a waitress to change a fifty for him, extracting the bill from a loose wad. He takes a slug of Perrier and tells me that most music videos are “destructive.” He says: “I don’t like to be an old stuffed-shirt, and old fuddy-duddy, but really nowadays I am.” He plans to make a video, he boasts, with the U.S. Air Force Symphony Orchestra. “You know, that kid Michael Jackson, for Godsakes, he’s got some videos,” he says. “These things were not made for $2.50!” I mention that the director responsible for some of the Jackson videos, Bob Giraldi, has expressed a desire to make a feature film about the life of Frank Sinatra Jr.
“My life?” He sputters, amazedly. “I can’t imagine why. That’s very strange. I don’t know who’d want to watch it, I’ll tell you that. It wouldn’t be very exciting.” Overhead, I notice Muzak spraying out a brassy version of “New York, New York,” which Frank Jr. chooses not to acknowledge. “This business of fame … I just don’t understand. For instance, people see me go to the carwash near where I live in West Los Angeles and I hear them say, ‘Is that Frank Sinatra’s son? It couldn’t be. What’s he doing in a Pontiac station wagon?’ They cannot conceive that Frank Sinatra’s kid would be driving a Pontiac. This is absolutely foreign to them. I mean, to me a car is a car. It’s just never been important. But everybody tells me I’m wrong, that I’m queer in that sense. I guess I’m a plain Jane.”
He is a lifelong bachelor, whose girlfriends, it is said, appreciate him far more — and more often — than nightclub critics do. Earl Wilson once wrote, “His father would be proud of the reports of some of his son’s performances in the boudoir.” Gossip plagues Frank Jr. When he was kidnapped in 1963, wags called it an adroit career move. “The supermarket press takes shots at me,” he says, “because I don’t talk to their reporters. But if they start calling me a criminal, a drug addict, a homosexual or a political subversive, I’ll go after them. On the other hand, if they accuse me of fooling around with some chick, that’s doing what comes naturally and it doesn’t bother me at all. That’s showbiz.”
As the wee hours of the morning approach, I wonder about how he’s getting along with the Old Man. Frank Jr. is not expansive. Their relationship, he says, has mainly been telephonic. His parents divorced when he was four. “I haven’t seen him for a long time. He is leading his life. But whenever I’ve really needed him, he’s always been there. I can’t over-embellish it for you.” One Christmas he says his father sent him a shoebox full of plastic doll eyes with a note which read, “I wonder what I see in you.” Frank Jr. reciprocated with a gift-wrapped vial of penicillin, “for the man who has everything.”
John Rockwell, in his recent picture book appreciation Sinatra: An American Classic, recounts an ugly episode in which a green Frank Jr. is accosted by Ol’ Blue Eyes after giving a particularly lackluster performance. “Don’t ever let me catch you singing like that again, without enthusiasm,” his father scolded. “You’re nothing if you aren’t excited by what you’re doing.” I ask Frank Jr. if he will be excited enough to keep his career alive much longer. He pauses for a moment, then quietly says, “There’s nothing else I can do, really. This is all I know how to do — just sing and work in joints.” We make small talk for awhile, until he says, “I’m gonna go upstairs and pour a little painkiller in my throat. I tell ya, this change in seasons can get to you.” I walk with him out to the lobby and watch him get onto an elevator, a man alone.
Bill Zehme is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’ as well as Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman and Intimate Strangers, a collection of his magazine features.