Thursday marked the 21st anniversary of the death of Frank Sinatra.
When I was growing up in Philadelphia, a local radio station’s “Friday with Frank” and “Sunday with Sinatra” programs were as much a part of our weekends as Sambuca, pasta e fagioli and shopping on the Italian Market.
The earliest memories I have of my father include him telling me, “Frankie used to sing you to sleep every night.” To this day, I can see Sinatra pacing the floor in my nursery with me in his arms, a restless baby swaddled in a pink blanket and cooing along to “The Lady Is a Tramp” or “The Summer Wind.” I can picture the stubble of his 5 o’clock shadow, the tipped brim of his hat and the sharp lines of the overcoat that was slung over the rail of my crib. I can conjure the smoky combination of cigarettes and whiskey on his hallowed breath, and feel the cool sharkskin on my hand where it rested against his lapel.
When I was about 10, my father took my aunt and me to see The Man himself in concert. The excitement in the house was palpable for weeks. But more so than the concert, it was the anticipation of reuniting with this beloved family friend — an ersatz uncle or grandfather, really — that had me in its grip. I wondered why no one was talking about it, why no plans for a great family feast had been in the making. But I figured the adults had it covered and all would fall into place once Frank’s stretch limo pulled up outside our South Philadelphia row home. I spent nights wondering which of the Rat Pack would come with him, secretly hoping it would be Dino.
I also fantasized about the look on the faces of my friends, who no doubt would be lined up, jaws to the ground, begging for a ride. And not a single one would get the chance — Frank would see to that — because not a single one ever believed me when I told them he sang me to sleep at night when I was a baby.
The concert came and went uneventfully, save for my aunt hyperventilating and briefly losing consciousness during “That Old Black Magic.” As we made our way out of the building, through the crowds, I asked my father when we would meet up with Frank. Would we leave our car in the parking lot and ride back to the house in his limo? Or would he follow us back, in case he forgot how to get there?
Dad looked at me, quizzically, and said, “What the hell are you talking about? Why the hell would he be bothering with us?”
The ride home remains the longest car ride of my life, and I’m sure my father felt the same. My aunt tried to comfort me as I bawled and blubbered and spilled my soul about believing Frank was a family friend who would sing me to sleep at night in my nursery.
I told about the hat and the stubble and about the whiskey breath and the sharkskin suit. And about the ridicule I took from classmates who accused me of lying when I told the story.
My aunt’s heart broke for me; my father couldn’t believe he had raised such an idiot and could not comprehend that I didn’t realize he meant that I was lulled to sleep at night as a child by recordings of Sinatra’s music — not Sinatra live.
In retrospect, I was ridiculously angry over what I thought was a lifetime of lies and deceit about Frank Sinatra. I made it clear that I never again wanted to hear my dad say, “Frankie used to sing you to sleep at night.”
Years passed, and the incident was all but forgotten. Then in 1985, when I was working for a local weekly newspaper, Frank came around again. And I managed to get two coveted tickets for seats in the press box at the Spectrum, an iconic and now gone Philadelphia stadium. I took my dad and my daughter (who would be born a few months later in February 1986).
At that point in his life, the Chairman of the Board was using a teleprompter. His swagger was a little less cocky. If we had seen him up close, I’m sure his eyes would have been a little less blue.
But the voice. As far as his voice went, it was still 1965 ... clear as a bell and as dulcet as ever. Women were still swooning, and the big old Spectrum was transformed effortlessly into an intimate gin joint where every single one of the nearly 20,000 people in attendance was being treated to a private performance.
In the press box, I was shocked and happy when I noticed that my dad, who was almost 70 at the time, suddenly looked closer to 40, as though he had ridden Sinatra’s impossibly long signature notes back through time.
The lights came up after the show, and Dad quickly brushed away a tear. Then he leaned over and said to me, with his ornery trademark grin, “You know, Frankie used to sing you to sleep at night.”
“I know, Dad,” I told him. “I know.”