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Celebrating Frank Sinatra's Centennial

Michael Feinstein joins the Pacific Symphony for an evening of Ol' Blue Eyes

Frank Sinatra was born 100 years ago on December 12; the run-up to that date is seeing hundreds if not thousands of performances across the country. Many, inevitably, will be at the level of piano bar singers belting out “My Way,” predictably aping an artist who actually did sing it his way for more than half a century.

In Orange County, we are fortunate: Our principal event will explore Sinatra not through mimicry, but through a high-quality performance built on a bedrock of musical exploration as well as personal acquaintance with the man himself.

This will be Michael Feinstein with the Pacific Symphony for two pops concerts at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. If the singer-musician-Great-American-Songbook advocate is best known for championing the music of George and Ira Gershwin, Feinstein’s exploration of all things Sinatra runs a close second.

In addition to touring big band performances that delve into Sinatra’s canon, Feinstein has produced two of his own CDs called “The Sinatra Project” and “The Sinatra Project 2: The Good Life” that channel and explore Ol’ Blue Eyes’ legacy.

Feinstein recently talked about Sinatra, the man and the performer.

Coast: Why, 17 years after his death, does Frank Sinatra still sound fresh to contemporary ears?
Michael Feinstein: At his best he is absolutely timeless. His ability to make a song sound fresh, vivid and in-the-moment, is singular of his many gifts. Every generation, I think, has discovered him and found they like him – they don’t know about the music or the persona or other aspects of his life, but his material is buoyant and alive.

Coast: From bobby-soxer idol to Chairman of the Board, there are so many stylistic Sinatras. What period of his singing career do you think is especially vibrant?
MF: Most people will tell you they prefer his 1950s work, the material done with producer-arranger Nelson Riddle. They feel that is the pinnacle. I love that era, but I feel just as strongly about the 1940s Sinatra because he was creating something in that time that was revolutionary. He was not afraid to sing with his heart on his sleeve and show emotions in a way that other singers of that time had not expressed. He gave generations of singers permission to sing love songs with more depth than these songs had received before.

Coast: Of the Great American Songbook songwriters, or songwriting teams, is there anyone that you feel Sinatra especially delivers on?
MF: I think Sinatra was most simpatico with composer Jimmy Van Heusen and lyricist Sammy Cahn. Van Heusen had the sort of genius of capturing the vitality in music that he knew would perfectly fit Sinatra. “All The Way,” “Come Fly With Me,” “The Tender Trap,” “My Kind of Town” – there is an immediacy in these songs that plays to Sinatra’s style and fits him like a glove. Cahn wrote so many songs specifically for Frank or with Frank in mind, and Frank didn’t change many of the lyrics that Sammy wrote.

Coast: Do you have a desert-island Sinatra album or song you never tire of?
MF: I think if I were to pick one swing-era album, it would probably be “A Swingin’ Affair” from 1957. Top songwriters – Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart among others – are represented, and Riddle’s arrangements here have swagger.
As for picking a single track, it is impossible – so many contenders. But if I have to, I will go against type and pick a ballad few today are familiar with, though it has been recorded by many artists. It is from the 1940s, called “I Should Care,” and the arrangement by Axel Stordahl is wonderful.

Coast: On the occasions you met Sinatra, how did he come across to you?
MF: I met him in very relaxed occasions, like his wife Barbara’s birthday party or a dinner party at their home. And so I saw him in a situation that was not public, and therefore he could be relaxed and it was a lot of fun. He was very jolly; he loved to talk about music and songs.
I remember one time I was playing a party and Marvin Davis, who had bought 20th Century Fox film studio, was there, but Marvin disappeared somewhere and Frank said “Where the hell is Marvin?” So I started to play the song “Where Are You?” on the piano, and Sinatra suddenly, at the top of his lungs and in that magnificent tenor, sang out “Where Are You,” and all of a sudden it hit me, “Yeah, this is really Frank Sinatra” in front of me.
He loved to tell stories. I would ask him about Mabel Mercer and the Blue Angel nightclub, and he loved to talk about that stuff because I didn’t care about the tabloid gossip, I just wanted to know about the music and arrangers, and that was his favorite stuff to talk about.

Coast: Did he ever express opinions to you about his contemporaries?
MF: It was interesting when he would talk about other singers; he would be frank. Like he would say that when Ella Fitzgerald would sing, she would breathe in the wrong places and wouldn’t pay enough attention to the lyrics.

Coast: Sinatra was Bing Crosby’s successor as America’s most popular male singer and also his contemporary. Did he ever assess Crosby to you?
MF: Not really, but it came across that he revered Crosby. They were different as singers: Bing always had an ease and a naturalness that Sinatra did not always have. In the 1940s when Frank’s career started ascending, Crosby famously said “A thing like Frank Sinatra only comes along once in a lifetime … Why did it have to come along in mine?”

Coast: These days we mostly know Fred Astaire as a dancer, but you have said that Astaire is your favorite singer of all time. Did Sinatra every address Astaire as a singer?
MF: In a tribute in 1975 to Ira Gershwin at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Sinatra sang “A Foggy Day,” and when he finished he said, “Well, it wasn’t as good as Fred Astaire, but it was louder.”

Coast: When you perform Sinatra’s songs live with a symphony orchestra, are there particular titles you like to showcase, tapping into the strings?
MF: One of the pieces I am planning to perform with the Pacific Symphony is Nelson Riddle’s arrangement of “From Here To Eternity.” The recording, of course, is taken from the theme song of the movie of the same title, for which Sinatra won an Academy Award. But I do not believe Sinatra ever sang live the version with this arrangement, and it is a magnificent chart. So I particularly love to perform this with orchestras because it is fresh for audiences and representative of an important moment in his career and a beautiful arrangement of a nice song.

Coast: Anything else we should know going into these local dates?
MF: I am excited at working with Richard Kaufman, such a great conductor, and the Pacific Symphony. We’ll have some fantastic swing arrangements and some gorgeous ballad charts. There is so much material to choose from that at the end of the program I will do this gargantuan medley that is not a catch-all but a careful compendium of many of his greatest songs that I have woven together with a thematic connection.

Michael Feinstein with the Pacific Symphony, November 6-7 at Segerstrom Concert Hall,
600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
:: pacificsymphony.org

Six OC Sinatra spottings

July 17, 1955: Along with what felt like the rest of the world, Frank Sinatra was at Disneyland when it opened, taking his son Frank Sinatra Jr. for a spin on Autopia that drew mentions in the reports from the historic day.

September 25, 1982: His first live performance in Orange County was a rain-shortened 45-minute benefit at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. A nice touch that night: Sinatra was dry under a stage overhang, while the unprotected crowd was getting soaked, and he quietly took a glass of wine, came out into the wet, and offered a silent toast to the audience.

July 17, 1984: His first of four appearances at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa was perhaps an homage of sorts to that wet 1982 gig, as he covered both Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” as well as Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

June 22, 1986: At 19 songs, this second show at the Pacific Amphitheatre was Sinatra’s longest set here. A highlight was the only version of his ultimate saloon ballad “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” he ever sang in OC.

August 19, 1987: Sinatra did a four-night outdoor stint in Southern California with a show at the Pacific Amphitheatre leading into three performances in Los Angeles. Each evening he brought out Sammy Davis Jr. to finish the set, the duo teaming up on a run of Frank Loesser numbers from “Guys and Dolls,” including the title song and “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York)” sandwiched around a Sinatra solo of “Luck Be A Lady.” Orange County, however, got the treat that Los Angeles didn’t, the two also pairing up on the musical’s counterpoint vocalized gem, “Fugue for Tinhorns.”

September 8, 1990: His final Costa Mesa concert included a trilogy of Rodgers and Hart chestnuts: “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Where or When” and ”My Heart Stood Still,” before he finished with “My Way,” “Summer Wind” and “New York, New York.” Sinatra absorbed about 10 minutes of verbal body blows from Don Rickles, happily playing the straight man.


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