Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Frank Sinatra.

I'm recording a couple of more songs today for NOVEMBERNINTH, my CD of old standards. I think we're laying down tracks (that's recording artist lingo for "singing these songs") for Angel Eyes and My Funny Valentine. I love these songs. All of the songs we've selected, really. Oddly, these songs were not a part of my life until relatively late, that is to say, my teenage years. I was raised in a household that listened to country-western music, which, ironically, I'm beginning to appreciate as I get older. I hated country music way back then. But now, I can honestly say George Jones is one of my favorite recording artists. He has a depth of feeling when he sings that is nothing short of beautiful. Although it is, to be honest, an acquired tasted. He is the Frank Sinatra of country music. His way with a lyric is really remarkable.

When I was in the latter part of my high school years I became very close to my drama teacher, Doug Allbritton, and his incredibly smart and funny wife, Nancy. I used to spend a lot of time at their house. They taught me many things, two of which were how to play Bridge and how to appreciate sparse, jazz-influenced, East-Coast vocals. They taught me how to appreciate Sinatra.

I saw Frank Sinatra five times in concert. Three times in NYC, once in Cincinnati and once in St. Louis. I have never seen or experienced a presence like his before or since. This is a guy that "owned" a stage if ever there was one. And his performances were simplicity itself. Top of the show: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Frank Sinatra." He sang for about an hour and a half. Finished. Never once did an encore. Simply walked off stage and that was it.

For an actor, watching Sinatra perform a song was like going to school. Every single song was like a little one-act play, with builds and valleys and surprises. I don't know if Sinatra did this on purpose or if it was something instinctual. Whatever the case, he did it like no other.

Somewhere in the middle of the concert, Sinatra would always dismiss the orchestra, sit beside the piano, pour himself a short Jack Daniels, light a cigarette and explain to the audience that he was really just a "saloon singer." Then he would sing a few "saloon songs." One for My Baby, Angel Eyes, It Never Entered My Mind, The Gal That Got Away, My Funny Valentine, Little Girl Blue, Empty Tables, Where or When, a few others. It was magical. Sinatra, when he's really acting a song, tends to simply shut his eyes and tell a story. Unless you've seen him live, it's hard to explain this. It's almost as if he checks his rather sizable ego for a bit and gets INSIDE a song.  And most amazing is everyone thinks he's singing directly to them.

I've seen other wonderful singers live on stage (as opposed to dead on stage, I suppose): Mel Torme', Lena Horne, Michael Feinstein, Barbra Streisand, Carmen McRae, Sammy Davis, Jr., Karen Mason.  As amazing as they were, none of them could quite pull off what Sinatra did. Personal storytelling.

Frank Sinatra has always been a staple in my life.  I remember being in a dorm in college, one room over AC/DC was blasting.  On the other side of me, ZZ Top.  And in my room, much to the chagrin of the other young dormers, Sinatra and Nelson Riddle slamming out I've Got You Under My Skin.

I met him once.  Well, not really, but he looked at me and spoke.  When I saw him in Cincinnati I was with a buddy of mine who wrote for the local paper there.  He had press passes which allowed us to go backstage after the concert.  The stage manager was also a friend of my buddy and told us, "When he starts singing My Way, make your way backstage.  He won't do an encore and when he finishes that song he just walks off stage and gets in his limo and drives away.  You can catch him as he's walking out the back."  

So we did.  As soon as Sinatra started singing, "Start spreading the news...," off we went.  We showed our press badges to security (a LOT of security) and stood just offstage waiting for him to finish.  When he did he turned and strode toward us.  I was electric.  My chance to meet Sinatra.  

As he approached I had my speech ready.

"Mr. Sinatra I just wanted to say how much your music has meant to me over the years I've been a fan of yours for many, many years and I just can't tell you enough about how much your music has meant because it's so honest and personal and I've got about twenty of your albums and I listen to your work over and over again..."  I was blubbering.

As he walked by he glanced at me, a slight frown on his face, and said, "Yeah, I know."  And walked out the door and into his waiting car.

"Yeah, I know."  Sinatra had said, "Yeah, I know."  To ME.  Directly to ME.  To Clif Morts.  To ME.  "Yeah, I know."  That's what he said.  To ME.

I had a smile on my face for a month.  Sinatra and I were pals.

See you tomorrow.