Frank made it to 82 years. If he were still alive, he would turn 100 on Saturday.
I saw him twice, both times in 1968.
The first was in Philadelphia at the Spectrum, the huge new arena — now gone — in South Philly where only the biggest acts played when the 76ers weren’t on the court or the Flyers on the ice. Later, as a music writer, I saw many of rock’s greatest acts there — but that’s for another time.
I was a college student and a summer intern for the old Bulletin, Philly’s afternoon newspaper. On a Saturday night in August, the Bulletin sent me to cover a show Sinatra did as part of a benefit tour for Hubert Humphrey, the vice president running his star-crossed presidential campaign in that most tumultuous and tragic of years. It says something that a major newspaper would do a story on a concert by anyone, but this was after all Frank in a town that loved him.
Frank wasn’t alone. The comic Pat Cooper, a Las Vegas staple who opened the show with jokes like this: One time I visited my mother and found St. Anthony's statue upside down. I say, 'Mama, why's St. Anthony upside down?' 'He don't answer my novena, he stays that way!'
Then came a hot young act, Trini Lopez, whose version of “La Bamba” is still the gold standard.
But the crowd was there for one thing: Frank, and he was magnificent alone in the spotlight in his impeccable tuxedo. Not that I was mature enough to get it. I was 20. I had some appreciation for the American Songbook, stemming from when my mother took me to a drive-in theater in the ‘50s to see the wonderful biopic “The Jolson Story.” In college, though, my music was mostly folk, and mostly Dylan. Sinatra just wasn’t on my mind yet. Nor at 20 did I get it when he sang some of his great ballads that night — songs I’d come to appreciate many years later when I discovered his masterpiece album, “Only the Lonely.”
I went back to the newsroom that Saturday night to write my story. Shel Murphy, an assistant city editor — ancient to me, probably in his 40s — asked me how the show was. “OK,” I said, with not much enthusiasm, thinking it wasn’t cool to like Sinatra. Shel looked disappointed — perhaps because he was stuck at a desk that night and an unappreciative kid got to hear the great Sinatra.
A few weeks later, I was in Chicago for the historic 1968 Democratic convention. Through a friendship, I was a page for one night on the convention floor. My night happened to be the one when Dan Rather, then a CBS reporter, got punched in the stomach after he protested rough treatment by security guards. I couldn’t hear it, but I saw in person the commotion that America saw on television.
The night before, my brother drove us into Chicago from Gary, where he worked. We found an old barn of an auditorium to see a free show for conventioneers. The performers: Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. The show was set to start late — maybe 10 p.m. — but it was closer to midnight when the two of them took the stage. We heard a song or two, but by then my brother said we had to go. We had an hour’s drive back to Gary, and he had work in the morning. I don’t recall what they sang, but I can clearly remember seeing the most influential entertainers of the 20th Century side by side.
I never saw either of them again in person. Sinatra retired three years later and Armstrong died the same year. Sinatra of course came out of retirement a couple of years after that for his third great act. His first was in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when he was adored by bobby socksers. The second was his comeback, when he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor in “From Here to Eternity” and went on to record his great albums with Nelson Riddle and much more. His third act saw a mature Sinatra who could belt “New York New York” and carry an audience with his interpretations as his voice declined.
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Sinatra. I have scores of his albums as well as tribute albums — the very best of which is “Shadows of the Night,” by of all people my favorite singer from college days, Bob Dylan. It’s a stunning take on Sinatra’s ballads — the very songs I didn’t get in 1968. I do now.
Frank, on your centennial: May your music live to be 1,000 years old — and may yours be the last voice I hear.