Frank, Jr. really did it HIS way

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Well, we lost another one. Frank Sinatra Jr. died of a massive heart attack on March 16, just before he was to go on stage for a performance in Florida. He was 72: 11 years younger than his father was when he passed away in 1998.

I was fortunate to have worked with Jr. on many occasions over the years, most recently in November when he appeared at the Arcada Theatre to celebrate “A Century of Sinatra” in honor of what would have been his father’s 100th birthday. It was an incredible night, with Jr. showing rarely seen photos and talking about his father’s life and career. He told stories, gave “behind-the-scenes” accounts and sang some of the big hits from his father’s amazing book of over 1,400 recordings.

When I first worked with him in 1997, I found him to be quite standoffish, very quiet and very much to himself. He played to a sellout audience at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. It was an interesting night, because he performed many relatively obscure songs, leaving a bit to be desired by the audience.

After the show, there was no meet and greet, no press. He just put on his black “Members Only” jacket and left through the rear stage door. I remember watching him walk down Michigan Avenue on his way to the Hilton, all alone, with nobody going up to him as he walked. It was actually a bit sad for me to see that unceremonious finish to what should have been a memorable night.

Fifteen years later, I booked him again, somewhat reluctantly. By this time, I had become close with his sister, Nancy, and Dean Martin’s daughter, Deana, was like my big sister. I had worked with the great Don Rickles and his manager, “Tony O” Oppedisano, who was also Frank Sr.’s road guy. So I was a bit more “seasoned” on the Sinatra front, and ready to face him once again. Since then, I have had nothing but great experiences with this professional among all professionals, who made it his life’s work to foster his father’s legacy of legendary music.

That first time, he had finished a gig in Milwaukee the night before ours, so I met him at a hotel near O’Hare Airport to pick him up. He stepped off the bus from the other theatre, holding not a suitcase of personal belongings, but a locked suitcase containing his music charts. “Nobody touches these,” he said. “Nobody.” So he kind of set the tone right then. It became a very “military-like” operation getting him and his musicians to our part of town. He was always that way, always about business and rarely about the chit-chat.

His orchestra was a combination of seasoned pros with whom he had toured for years., especially during the 10 years when he was his father’s musical director, and some Chicago guys that I had known who also backed Sr. on the road. A roster of pedigree players who came equipped with a classic harp, timpani and a string section … the real deal!

Sound check was an experience in and of itself. Most sound checks are relatively streamlined, headliner at the forefront, doing his songs, musicians tweaking their instruments a bit, then dinner. Not this guy! It was a three-hour ordeal! First of all, he had the stage set up like the orchestra leader that he was with a six-foot table in front of the orchestra where the singer would be. On it was the stack of his ever-so-precious music charts, legal pad and pencils, and a full coffee service! He planned on being up there a while!

Then they started playing. It wasn’t music … it was some kind of silky smooth, light-as-a-feather-yet-heart-pounding matter that filled 8,000 square feet of theatre space. It was another one of those moments when I just shook my head in disbelief that I was in some way a part of this: a realization of how truly blessed I am.

What was interesting to watch was his attention to the sound levels. These musicians had the tunes down hitting note after note with perfection. But Frank would yell to our sound man, “raise the first trumpet 300 hertz, and keep the bass at five hundred. No, no, drop it another 50.” In my 25-plus years experiencing sound checks, the most I ever heard was, “I need more guitar in my monitors!”

He would then walk around the entire room making sure the sound quality was there. It was really something to watch!

His shows were great, especially this last one, where he celebrated his father’s 100th birthday. He truly embraced the occasion, even co-writing a book with the family’s side of things. We went to dinner, and he really opened up.

I interview and talk with celebs all the time, but with Frank Sinatra, Jr., I must admit I was more nervous than anything. His persona was one that made you feel that you were in the principal’s office, and that he might hit your hand with a ruler at any given moment. But I was up for the challenge!

I asked him what it was like being on the road with his dad. “It was the best time of my life,” he said. “He was such a pro, and we really got close during that time. My parents got divorced when I was just 6 years old, so being close was tough, plus he was already larger than life, I was more of a fan than a son for long time. I am not even really ‘Jr.’ I was born Francis Wayne Sinatra, after his buddy John Wayne, but did not have the distinction of Jr. until I began performing.”

About being on the road with his son, Frank Sr. was quoted as saying, “It actually gets lonely on the road without an actual chum. Being with my son has been a great experience, and I am so proud of him.” I thought this was very interesting because I had always heard that their relationship was tumultuous at best. It was good to hear that it was warm instead.

“Even after the kidnapping, we didn’t become as close as we were touring,” he said. The kidnapping! I couldn’t believe he brought it up! He was referring to when he was 19 years old in 1963 and kidnappers held Jr. for ransom. I never thought he would bring it up! “My father did all the negotiating with those rats,” he said. “They would only talk to him over pay telephones. During the negotiations, the time ran out on the phone and he did not have any more change in his pocket. He got so mad that he kept a roll of dimes in his pocket for pretty much the rest of his life so that wouldn’t happen again.”

“What was it like to be around guys like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. all the time?” I asked. “Dean was my father’s absolute best friend. He had the best sense of humor any of us knew of, and my dad loved it. They would talk four or five times a week. In fact, during many of my father’s shows, he would tell the audience, ‘I spoke with Ol’ Red Eyes earlier today!’ When Dean died, my father was never the same. He would always shake his head and say, ‘what a damn shame.’ And Sammy? “Well, another incredible individual, and an incredible talent. It was a strange time to have interracial friends, but dad didn’t care. My father’s position on racism is legendary, telling hotel and casino owners that the only color they should worry about is green!” Jr. said.

As we stood backstage just before he was to go on, the orchestra was in place and it was just he and I stage left. He was focused and looking forward, obviously putting his game face on. It was relatively dark back there with the lights off. For a few fleeting moments, the reflection of a single stage light bounced off one of the drummer’s cymbals and landed right on Frank, Jr.’s face. I looked at him and at that very moment I saw Frank Sr.’s face!

One of the biggest reasons that Frank Sinatra Jr.’s untimely death is such an unfortunate thing is that it seems that after years of living in his father’s shadow, he was finally embracing his father’s legacy in a sincere way that he had not done before. The contrasts between the two were dramatic. Sr. was an outgoing lover of the people who could not read music, but became a legendary figure in pop culture and music. Jr. was an introvert who was never truly embraced by the public, and was a musical genius.

Frank Sinatra Jr.’s dedication to his craft never waned when it came to working hard on his career and his and his father’s music. I was lucky to see him in a friendly way many people had not been able to. He even did an uncharacteristically funny impersonation of “Drunk Dean” for me. When I was recently honored by the Italian American Executives of Transportation, Frank actually sent over a video congratulating me on the award! Truly a kind man.

I think he finally achieved the inner peace he longed for his entire life, albeit late in his life. I can’t help but think what his next 10 years would have been like. Probably almost as good as those 10 years with his dad doing concerts.

But in the end, the power of “The Chairman of the Board” prevails, and is further proof of Frank Sinatra’s super-human strength. Whether it is in Heaven or on Earth, when Frank Sinatra calls, you go, no questions asked. And when Sr.’s longing for his chum became so deep, Frank Jr. had no choice but to join Ol’ Blue Eyes’ eternal tour.

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About Ron Onesti

Ron Onesti is the president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans and the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, chairman of Casa Italia and a board member of the Italian American Veterans Museum. He is the founder and president of Onesti Entertainment Corp., which runs five entertainment and dining venues across the Chicago area and produces concerts, special events and festivals nationwide. Among the latter are Festa Pasta Vino on South Oakley Avenue, Festa Italiana on Taylor Street and Little Italy Fest-West in Addison. He was inducted as a cavaliere into the Ordine della Stella d’Italia by the president of Italy

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