Tuesday, December 15, 2015

No Big Fan of Ole Blue Eyes

How many of you caught the tribute to Frank Sinatra Saturday night? I’d be interested in knowing how many consider Frank “the greatest singer ever” anymore.

There are those who, believe it or not, either do or did consider him “the greatest singer in the world.” It would be more accurate to say he was one of the most popular – the man did have a way of putting a song across. And, too, he had some darn good ones in his repertoire:  The Lady is a Tramp, Let’s Fly Away, Fly Me to the Moon, My Way, New York, New York, to name a few.

Although I am of a vintage that would enable me to have been a Sinatra fan for many years, I didn’t really care for him until he was dead. I didn’t like the guy personally. (There were a lot of people who didn’t.)

I was introduced to Frank Sinatra twice – both times at Lake Tahoe, the resort on the California-Nevada border. (I mention this only seldom because I tire of seeing people roll their eyes when I say it.)  Allow me to explain:  I grew up in the Reno, Nevada-Lake Tahoe area.  Most years, I built fence in the summer and worked the resort hotels in the winter. What’s so uncommon about a resort worker – waiter, bartender, busboy, particularly a room-service waiter (eh, eh), becoming acquainted with a celebrity?  Many of the celebs were, under all the glitter, regular folks.

At one time I waited tables at the Christmas Tree Restaurant near Lake Tahoe, which was a hugely famous attraction for celebrities when they were working in the area.  There I met – and often talked to – Rosemary Clooney (who had a huge, HUGE crush on Jim DeMaria, the other waiter.)  Jim was a handsome fellow of about fifty years. His hair was premature gray, he had a great smile,  and he spoke with a really deep voice; he was charming; he was a favorite with much of our female clientele, which tended toward middle-age.  (Me? Nope. Not my crowd.  I was a bit more popular at the Peppermint Lounge). DiMaria had a lot friends among entertainment’s “swells”.  He was best buds with Frankie Laine, a famous singer of the time - That’s My Desire,  Mule Train, Rawhide (the theme song for the TV western Rawhide), Ghostriders in the Sky, High Noon, etc.  Jim and his wife often had dinner with Al Martino, another singer and he was pals with Billy Eckstein, musician extraordinaire.

DiMaria introduced me to many of his celebrity friends, and many I met through other people. I was introduced by mutual friends to Marilyn Monroe in Harolds Club in Reno in the early sixties – right after she and Clark Gable finished filming The Misfits. No, I missed meeting Clark Gable, which would have been double cool. I met Jackie Gleason at the Christmas Tree, as well as Ella Fitzgerald. On at least two occasions I sang with The Kingston Trio – Sloop John B., Tiajuana Jail – at the Christmas Tree.

Enough for background.

Something else hard to believe:  I was introduced to Sinatra by Bill Harrah, the owner of Harrah’s Stateline Gambling Casino, with whom I was breakfasting.  I bartended the graveyard shift at Stateline and often encountered Harrah, who usually took his first meal of the day on a couch in the front of the casino. He liked to look out on the morning traffic while he sipped coffee in his bathrobe. He always invited me to join him, for company – we were both pretty heavy fans of college basketball.  (Bill Harrah also owned one of the most extensive  antique car collections on the West Coast – which he sold later, when authorities (I don’t know which) forced him to license them all!) He took me to see them; I was never so in awe of a collection of anything in my life. Those cars were absolutely amazing!

Anyway, Harrah introduced me to Sinatra. (He would later introduce me to Sammy Davis Jr. at the same place.) The three of us chatted and drank Harrah’s coffee, while we smoked cigarettes inside a public place (how about that, huh?). When it became obvious the two had things to discuss that didn’t involve me, I split and went home. My next encounter with the man was at the Cal-Neva Club, where I had gone with Jim DiMaria and Frankie Laine. (This club was then owned by the Mafia. Sam Giancana, Chicago Mafia boss, one mean-looking sob, and a pal of Sinatra was pointed out to me, though I must admit, I was never sure it was really him. There is some interesting mob history in the place; google it for more details).)  I was again introduced to the Great One, and subsequently ignored.  (In fairness, this occurred shortly after Sinatra’s son, Frank Jr. was kidnapped in the fall of 1963; I imagine it was a stressful time for him.)

Whatever my motivation , I was ever a fervent fan of Sinatra. Yeah, I could listen to his music – why not? it was good stuff – but I was a product of the sixties. Give me Elvis, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dillon. I was also into country music and was a huge fan of Merle Haggard and had been a fan of the great  Johnny Horton before his untimely death in 1960.

Even when I moved to NYC in the late sixties and there were Sinatra fans everywhere one turned, I remained distant. I remember remarking to a co-worker in the deli in which I worked that I didn’t think Sinatra sang all that well. My middle-aged compadre put it all in prospective when he said, “It’s all in the way he puts his songs across.” That I could see all right. Trouble is that by this time I was more and more into country.

 It wasn’t until Ole Blue Eyes passed in 1998 that I became a fan of his music.

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