He Did It His Way

By Schoemer, Karen | Newsweek, November 20, 1995 | Go to article overview

He Did It His Way


Schoemer, Karen, Newsweek


Frank Sinatra is an old man, and in recent years he's taken to doing the things old men do. He forgets the words to favorite songs, and he seems to drink more than is good for him. He tells creaky, corny jokes, and sometimes when he's talking he rambles on for too long, until somebody gets the nerve to cut him off. He makes antiquated, off-color remarks and uses unfashionable words like "broad." He keels over in public places, scaring the dickens out of everybody around him. It's not unusual behavior for an 80-year-old, but it doesn't quite suit a legend. In fact, it's starting to embarrass us a little. Sinatra's like an aging uncle we love dearly but dread seeing at Christmas. We just can't predict what he might do. Will he get drunk, or fall off his bar stool? Will he insult Sinead O'Connor or Shirley MacLaine? Worse yet, will he beg us to let him sing in a fractured, failing voice that is perhaps better left unsung?

So, like caring, custodial children, we're nudging him away from the spotlight. As Sinatra milestone hoopla crests in the coming weeks, you'll notice that the man himself has taken an uncharacteristic sideline position. When an ABC concert special airs on Dec. 14 (his official 80th birthday is Dec. 12), an unlikely cross section of Sinatra worshipers from Tony Bennett to Bruce Springsteen to Patti LaBelle will parade across the stage, singing his songs and paying him tribute. Sinatra will be in the audience, sitting back like the grand marshal as the festivities pass him by. For his 75th milestone, in 1990, he embarked on a Diamond Jubilee tour that trotted him all over the globe for nearly two years. No such appearances this time around. He hasn't officially retired, but no concerts are scheduled. It's better this way, right? Who can do their job at 80 as well as they did at 40?

When Sinatra the man recedes, the world will have to content itself with Sinatra the legend. And this month is ring-a-ding-dinging with activities befitting a legend. Five years ago, if you had told us that anything could outstrip the three-CD Capitol box set, four-CD Reprise box set and relentless touring that accompanied the 75th, we wouldn't have believed you. But this celebration is even more excessive, more exhaustive, more obsessive. Four CDs? Ha. On Nov. 21, Reprise unveils a gargantuan 20-CD, 24-hour, 452-track, $499 extravaganza that packs all Sinatra's 1960-1988 studio recordings into a nifty brassbound trunk. It'll barely fir under the Christmas tree. Columbia has released "The Best of the Columbia Years," a smaller but no less impressive feat of repackaging. Capitol offers "Sinatra 80th: All the Best," a two-CD overview of the most repackaged years of all, 1953 to 1961. "Sinatra 80th: Live in Concert" features a summit with Luciano Pavarotti on "My Way." "Duets" I and II just weren't enough.

and that's just the music. Several new books are on the market, ranging from Will Friedwald's detail-driven musical appreciation "Sinatra! The Son Is You" to No. 1 daughter Nancy Sinatra's cozy, cuddly scrapbook "Frank Sinatra: An American Legend." A syndicated eight-hour radio retrospective will be broadcast form Nov. 18 to Dec. 10. Christie's will auction art and memorabilia on Dec. 1. There's even a Sinatra necktie collection. In case you're not choking already.

The problem is that Sinatra the legend without Sinatra the man just doesn't cut it. The legend is too huge and unwieldy; it encompasses too many songs, too many moods, too many oceans of time. When speaking about Sinatra the legend, it is impossible not to speak in hyperbole. He's bigger than Elvis! Bigger than the Beatles! The most important and influential popular musician of the 20th century! Even Sinatra can't refrain from hyperbole. …

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