Sinatra: When Old Blue Eyes Got Older

A sort of aimless memory post for the birthday of Frank Sinatra (1915-98), prompted by this TV Guide cover we recently came across advertising one of his TV specials in the 1970s.

I was born mid-way through Sinatra’s career. Not only was I too young (by a half century, thank you) for the first phase of his career as a heart-throb crooner in the 1930s and 40s, (which we wrote about here), I am also too young for the Rat Pack phase of the ’50s and ’60s (which we wrote a little about here, but will write more about in future). My mom was the proper age for a Sinatra fan, and she was an enthusiastic one. She had those old Reprise records, so I was aware of him. But it was an odd awareness. He seemed a historical figure, before my time. Unlike most celebrities of the day, he held himself above the usual slogging most stars and former stars engaged in to keep their image before the public. The mortals went on game shows, and weekly variety shows, or acted parts in guest shots in sitcoms and dramas. Sinatra never (or very rarely) lowered himself to that. On occasion he would bestir himself and come down from Olympus to appear on a television special (sometimes his own starring vehicles) or appear in an acting role (I wrote about some of his late ones here), but these occasions were so infrequent I had little awareness of them. Five years is a long time in the life of a ten year old. Sinatra’s most recent hit records, throughout most of my childhood, had come out when I was a toddler. You certainly still heard them on AM radio: “Strangers in the Night” (1966), “Something’ Stupid” (1966, with his daughter Nancy), and “My Way” (1969). And even these sounded as though they were from some other era, a thousand lifetimes ago.

So in 1980 when the theme to “New York, New York” caught fire, how can I explain it? It sounded like a novelty record. It was so strange and unique and weird that he and the tune were like unicorns. In 1980 even rock and roll was old, splintered into punk, disco, heavy metal, funk, and other specialized sub-genres, and some of those were already fading. The rock and roll founders themselves were now all oldies acts. What did that make Sinatra?

He seemed so old then. I look now and realize he was only 65. As I write this, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney have passed the three-quarter century mark, and while yes they seem their age, it’s much different somehow, they don’t seem quite so aloof and ossified. The tuxedo Sinatra wore was such a throwback at that stage that it seemed like a costume, despite having once been almost de rigueur among pop singers. In his way, his was as strange a persona as David Bowie’s.

So his career got an unexpected burst of new life at the end. There was a new round of TV specials throughout the ’80s. He was friends with Ronald and Nancy Reagan and would often perform at their televised functions, and was often seen in the company of his wife Barbara, the former Mrs. Zeppo Marx. He appeared with fellow Rat Pack cohorts Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Shirley MacLaine in the hit movie Cannonball Run II (1984), such as it was. And he deigned to make appearances on such popular TV shows as Magnum P.I. (1987) and Who’s the Boss? (1989).

Sinatra’s last albums Duets and Duets II (1993-94) became his best sellers, and he embarked on something like a farewell tour. My parents caught one of those last live performances, which they reported as somewhat sad, with the singer reading the lyrics off teleprompters, getting confused etc. But like the trouper he was, he soldiered on. In 1995 there was a truly bizarre TV special where young pop stars serenaded him for his 80th birthday. I watched a bit of this and was appalled when Bob Dylan appeared, saluting the befuddled “Mr. Frank” and proceeded to give one of those strange performances of his own late years that have come to overshadow the brilliance of his young ones. It seemed an invasion of sorts: Dylan and Sinatra seemed like oil and water, somehow, and how could a rebel like Dylan have anything to do with the ultimate old-school commercial pop act, a creature of the Establishment so great that Presidents kissed HIS gold ring? Little did I dream of a future in which, at this writing, Bob Dylan’s last three LPs have been Frank Sinatra tribute albums. Is it the most perverse thing Dylan ever did? Or merely the most humble?

Or merely the most aware? For we have long since crossed into show business’s post-modern era, where that old generation gap of a half century ago has become meaningless and non-existent. The pre-rock generation is mostly dead, and the rebellious generation are all grandparents. Today’s young people seem apt to pick and choose who to emulate from all sections of the historical catalog, and these days, to my knowledge, it’s just as likely to be Sinatra himself as it is Dylan. What’s old is new again and what’s old is old again and what’s new is old again and what’s new is new again. At any rate, I’m at interesting phase at present, it’s only beginning to slowly dawn on me (through exploration of the careers of pre-rock performers) what their place in the pop firmament was in those surreal days of my youth. In its own way it was as collage-like and topsy turvy as our own.