In 1988, when he was 44-years-old, Frank Sinatra Jr. was hired as the conductor and musical director of his father's band. He describes this moment as one of the proudest of his life. But in talking about it, he remains remarkably unsentimental.
"If I had not succeeded," he said, "I would have been replaced."
The sincerity of that moment says a lot about Frank Sinatra Jr.'s relationship with his father. It strips away most of the romanticism, that idea of the son following in his father's footsteps. That's because Frank Sinatra Sr. knew something about his son that most people don't. He knew, above anything else, that his son was a good musician -- good enough to make his own footsteps.
It's an idea that has been drilled into Sinatra Jr.'s head since childhood, when his mother, Nancy Barbato Sinatra, first encouraged him to study piano.
Maybe encourage is too strong a word. "I was one of those kids that was forced to take piano lessons," he said. "But I was reluctant to do so. I always wanted to be a baseball player." But as the years went by, Sinatra Jr. became infatuated with playing the piano. Soon, it was all he wanted to do.
"I wanted to write songs," he said. "I wanted to score movies. I want to write music for big bands. That's what I was essentially preparing for as I was getting ready to graduate high school."
Still, he remains adamant that his famous father played no part in his decision to become a musician. He says it came from within, from his love of making music.
After a brief stint as a music student at the University of Southern California, Sinatra Jr. took a job as a member of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Only this time, he wasn't sitting behind the piano. He was singing in front of it.
It was with this band that Sinatra Jr. got his first taste of the show business. He sang to sold-out audiences almost every night and toured concert halls around the world.
Since then, the music business has been the only life he's known. He has seen it change, watched the trends, and lived to witness the struggle for its existence. You can sense the despair in his voice whenever he talks about it. But what hurts most, he says, is how jazz seems to be surviving in every other country but this one, the place where it all began.
"If you were riding in the car in United States and you turned on the radio, you would hear some terrible rap group," he said. "But if you're riding in a car in London, in Paris, you're going to hear Duke Ellington. You're going to hear Count Basie. "
When asked if he thought it was his duty to carry on the tradition of jazz, to play a part in its revival in the United States, his answer was humbling.
"I work with some very, very talented people," he said. "Many of the people in my group have been with me for over 35 years. I can only tell you that, at this point in time, it's working with them that has become the tradition."
And so Frank Sinatra Jr. carries on, creating his own tradition as he goes, indebted to no one and nothing but the music he puts forth. In singing, he is not merely imitating his father. That would be too dangerous a trap, as the music business is already glutted with too many Frank Sinatra impersonators.
Instead, he lets the music speak for itself. He plays the arrangements straight, as if they were lifted from the airwaves all those years ago. The oldest song in their repertoire, Victor Herbert's "Indian Summer," was written in 1897.
"We do it straight down the pike," he said. "No embellishment. No bells and whistles. No gimmicks."
Some might wonder how a man who seeks to leave no fingerprints on his music can imbue his songs with such a personal touch. In that regard, Sinatra Jr. likes to think of himself himself as an architect. And what he builds with his voice is a house in which good music lives, a shrine to the people and places of American song.
And that's the funny thing about Frank Sinatra Jr. He could have easily exploited his name and background to sell tickets and CDs. But his commitment to the music far exceeds his pedigree. He sings under the name Frank Sinatra Jr. not because he wants to be compared to his father but because it is the only name he has. And although he does see it as an advantage, he knows his influences stretch further back than the next highest branch on the family tree.
So when Frank Sinatra Jr. sings, he sings to music that was written by people who have long since lived and died, with lyrics that have been whispered by countless musicians throughout the ages, perhaps most powerfully by his very own father. But his passion -- that thing that drives him, propels him, and keeps him coming back to the stage -- that is entirely his.
Frank Sinatra Jr., "Sinatra Sings Sinatra," 8 p.m. Thursday, July 12, at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, 5550 NW 40th St. Visit ticketmaster.com.
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