Paying Attention: (London, 14 May 1998). It is 9:00 o’clock in the morning and I am walking into the headquarters of SKY TV, outside London, with my good friend and long-time working partner, Michael Brock. We are there to create a new type of TV Guide for Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV, a satellite TV service—actually the dominant satellite TV service—in the United Kingdom.
As we walk into the reception area, lined with a bank of high def TV monitors, we notice the headlines coming in from around the world and one in particular sticks out: Frank Sinatra Dead. Famed Singer Dies From Heart Attack at Age 82.
Sinatra had died at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles of a severe heart attack. He was frail in the last years of his life—actually, he always appeared frail, but it was his energy and personality that made him robust—and like other mortals, he had mortal issues: high blood pressure, breathing difficulties, pneumonia. Old people stuff. And, despite all the drama throughout his life that’s what got him. Old people stuff.
Frank Sinatra was born 100 years ago today, December 12th, 1915. The airways are filled this week with tributes to Sinatra, who moved from skinny Italian New Jersey kid to the “Chairman of The Board, an international mega-star with success as a singer, actor, performer, entrepreneur. He became, over time, more than a performer; he became an icon of a certain era and attitude in American culture and entertainment. He was good, he was bad, he had friends in high places and he had friends in low places (don’t we all) . He was surrounded by rumor and innuendo, dogged by poor choices in girlfriends and wives, and always, buoyed along on top of it all by his talent and his drive. In a very real sense, Sinatra created his own world, one that blended the glamour of Hollywood with the ethos of old Italy and the code of the Jersey streets, in which honor and loyalty accounted for much more than they do today.
There was a certain way to dress, a certain way to drink, a certain way to tip and travel and perform and be with women and be with your pals. This post is not going to dive into the complexities—good or bad—of Frank Sinatra. That’s already been done and some of the writing on Sinatra (listed at the end of this post) is among the best ever done on a performer (Gay Talese’s piece on Sinatra, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” is considered one of the greatest magazine pieces ever written and is credited with kick-starting The New Journalism Movement).
No. Best to let Gay Talese and John Lahr and Bill Zehme provide the words and thoughts that will help you frame a new understanding of Sinatra. You are encouraged to read each of these pieces, preferably while listening to Sinatra on McIntosh amplification and through Wilson Audio Speakers, while drinking Jack Daniels (straight up). All or nothing at all, baby.
Yes. This post is about an intersection with Sinatra, at a time and place long gone, an evening of unexpected revelations and surprises, about One Night In London. I never met Sinatra in person (I did meet Sammy Davis Jr. in the steam room at The Sands in Vegas where we were both recovering from a very long night out, but that’s another story). But I was brought into Sinatra’s inner circle in a way I could not imagine.
Here’s how it went down.
After a day of work at Sky Headquarters, Michael Brock—who just happens to be one of the very best publication designers in the world— and I headed back to our hotel right off Hyde Park in London. After I was in my room, Mike called and asked if I would like to go out for some Indian food that night, with a couple of his friends, one of whom Mark Burly, who was there with his wife, Penny, was one of the producers of the hit television show “Murder She Wrote”. Since then, Mark has gone on to produce “Weeds, and “Orange is the New Black” (i.e. he’s good).
Sure. Let’s go. I’m always up for a night out in London.
By 7:30 we were in a cab headed to the Indian section of London to meet Brock’s friends for dinner. Once inside, Mike spotted his pal and his wife, and we headed for the table. After introductions, we sat down and started to chat. About 10 minutes, later another couple joined us. They introduced themselves—a very nice looking young couple, Californians, living and working in London. The man said that he was a producer and that his name was “Skip”.
As the conversation moved from the “what do you do, how do you like working in London” stage to current events, I mentioned the fact that Brock and I had been stunned by the news of Frank Sinatra’s death and that we’d picked up the newscast at SKY headquarters. I told the table that I had just read a phenomenal profile of Sinatra in “The New Yorker”, written by John Lahr , and that the piece was compelling and exceptionally well written (after all, it was in “The New Yorker”), and showed dimensions to Sinatra the person and Sinatra the artist that I had never heard or read before. I felt like I had a pretty good idea of Sinatra and his music ; I started listening to him at a very early age because my dad was in the radio business and I always had access to a huge music library at his stations and I had found Sinatra early on and developed a taste for his music. I knew his music and the outlines of his public life.
One of the main themes of “The New Yorker” article was the importance of the composer Nelson Riddle on Frank Sinatra’s career. The story in the music business was that when Sinatra was down, and could not get a record deal, Capital Records signed him on the condition that he work with a very talented young composer and arranger named Nelson Riddle. The execs at Capital thought that Riddle’s talent would enable Sinatra’s talent to bloom again (it did) and that the two would be a perfect match (they were).
The combo was deadly, of course, and most of the music we identify now with Sinatra was arranged and/or composed by Nelson Riddle (although Sinatra later worked with other conductors and arrangers), who created around Sinatra a lush, contemporary set of orchestrations that combined the best of jazz, big band, pop, even classical (Sinatra liked all music and he regularly attended classical concerts). In many ways, the Frank Sinatra Story is the Nelson Riddle Story. The two are forever linked in music history and popular culture.
There are people who listen to music and people who hear music, and I’ve always been one of the ones who listens: I love to listen to the horn charts, the solos, the chording, the orchestrations, the mix, not just the vocal. Music is very rich when you get past the first sonic layer and yes, it does take a bit of commitment and some very good equipment to get out of the music all that was put in, but it’s always worth it. Sinatra was a singer who really listened to music, all of it, all the layers, his own work and others. He got it. He appreciated it.
As I went on about “The New Yorker” profile and what an impact it had on me and the dimensions that it explored about Sinatra and his music, and kindness (he was known to provide major financial assistance to friends who’d had some bad luck, always anonymously) and his respect for the musicians who recorded and played with him, the young man who had arrived last to the table, stopped me.
“Don, “ he said, “everything you’ve said about Frank Sinatra and about Nelson Riddle is true and, if you don’t mind, I would like to tell you even more, since you seem to be really fascinated by it all. First, I don’t think you caught my full name when I introduced myself. My full name is Nelson Riddle, Jr., my friends call me Skip. Nelson Riddle is my dad. And I thank you for the respect you showed my father. And now, I want to tell you what it was like to grow up in a house where Frank Sinatra would come over for breakfast on Saturday mornings…”
I literally could not say anything but “oh, my God”…… and….”would you please take over.”
And, with that very modest introduction, Nelson “Skip”Riddle, Jr. proceeded to spend the rest of a very delightful night telling the table what it was like to grow up with a genius dad who just happened to be the musical power behind one of the biggest musical performers of all time.
Without revealing confidences, a few points that Skip said bear repeating. One was that although Sinatra could not read music he was a terrific musician, and knew precisely how everything should sound. He had a deep respect for musicians and he went out of his way to help them and protect them. Musicians who were down on their luck were among those that Sinatra helped (anonymously).
If a musician made a mistake in a recording session, Sinatra would call a halt to the taping and ask to do it again, saying that “I messed up there..let’s do another take”. He never let a musician take the blame; he always took them off the hook. But he always knew when it was not-perfect and would do a re-take.
Sinatra was a perfectionist in his recordings and stage shows but he was not the Stanley Kubrick kind of perfectionist (Kubrick would do 50 takes of a single scene). He arrived prepared, expected the orchestra to do the same, and did most songs in one take, maybe two. He was efficient and precise and he didn’t waste time. The art was done—in typical Sinatra fashion—in the preparation before he showed up at the studio.
Deep into the night we went, talking Sinatra, Riddle, music, movies, the art of “sweetening” (the little solos that that fill in the spaces in well-produced music), and how the loss of Sinatra brought to a close the end of a very glamorous, very stylish era in Hollywood, Entertainment, and Las Vegas.
When Brock and I grabbed a cab for the ride back to the hotel, I was stunned by the way the day had played out. The work—the reason we were in London—had been very well received, but the evening, the coincidental convergences that had occurred across a table in an Indian restaurant were overpowering.
How in the world does the death of Frank Sinatra come precisely at the time that I just finished reading a major profile of his life and then am invited out to dinner and at that dinner meet the son of the man who was a major creative force in Sinatra’s career.
The odds against such a thing happening are a billion to one. But they can happen.
And that is why you have to keep reaching out, going out, paying attention, and staying in the flow.
It’s life. It’s unpredictable and intensely amazing.
Today, while the world was re-immersed in the legend that is Frank Sinatra, I spent some time listening again to his music(arrangements by Nelson Riddle) and remembering One Night In London.
And it was perfect.
A Sinatra Reader: Six Articles You Should Read About Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra Has A Cold by Gay Talese (Source: Esquire)
Sinatra’s Song (Source: The New Yorker)
And Then There Was One (Source: Esquire)
Sinatra: An Appreciation. (Source: The New Yorker)
The Rat Pack (Source: Vanity Fair)
Sinatra’s Style (Source: Selvege Yard)
The Fine Print: Photo of Frank Sinatra by Thomas White, via Flickr (c)2011. Used under Creative Commons license. The photo by Mr. White has been cropped to fit the available space. All rights in the photo belong to their respective rights holder(s). Thanks for sharing.