It was a light moment during a mostly serious, scholarly and highly insightful discussion about Sinatra's musicianship and legacy at the Austin Convention Center. This was not the place for wild tales about the Rat Pack; but if you cared about the intricacies of Sinatra's various arrangers, you were more than well-served.
Some of the takeaways:
-Frank Jr. refers to his father as "Sinatra." For panelist Max Weinberg, Van Zandt's E Street Band mate, it was "Mr. Sinatra."
-He was, not surprisingly, a tough boss. Frank Jr. said that serving as his father's musical director "was a learning experience. There are many times I would get undressed to get into the shower and I'd turn around and look at the buttocks on my backside and see a size 7 footprint on them."
-He was the first Justin Bieber, according to Charles Pignone, senior vice president of Frank Sinatra Enterprises. "He was truly the first teen idol because of the hysteria around his performances. … You see pictures and see this footage and it's just unbelievable, the hysteria caused for that young generation. We have interviews where [Sinatra] talked about it…This was during World War II; he was the boy left behind. A lot of these kids had their boyfriends, fathers go off to war, so he was a symbol of that. But I don't think it hurt his career, because as he progressed and his audience got older…the younger audience he made attracted to him stayed with him the rest of his life…You can listen to stuff that's 60 years old now and it sounds like it was recorded yesterday."
-He made Van Zandt proud to be Italian. "It was part of the music of our time and the family…We couldn't help but have a little pride…I don't think people realize how important a role Frank Sinatra played in terms of a role model and what we could aspire to, no matter who we were or where we were or what our economic position was. I think it was a critically important thing to have one of our first heroes who was in fact Italian-American. Not only a great singer, but a force of nature, somebody who was powerful and wasn't shy about being powerful. That kind of stuff is very encouraging for young people, to see someone who, this little skinny kid from nowhere, Hoboken, could reach that kind of height on sheer talent and willpower. Nobody gave him anything; no matter what you might read, he earned every single thing he got, and that is encouraging. Still is."
-His social activism often gets short shrift, according to Weinberg. "It's something that's very real. 'The House I Live In,' a song he did, was about racial intolerance. Growing up in Hoboken, he had been the victim of intolerance. We all felt it in our own ways growing up. He really took a stand. The early days of Las Vegas, a Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, they could perform in the rooms but they couldn't stay in the hotels. Frank Sinatra was the guy who said, 'If they don't stay here, I'm not staying here.' They stayed there. So well before it became a popular and necessary movement, Mr. Sinatra was on the forefront of that. Basic decency and the pursuit of happiness. It is a vital part of his story that this is a guy who took a stand."
-All those movies were more than dalliances, according to Van Zandt. "In the '60s, his ability to compete with whatever's gong on was the movies and the whole Oceans 11 and Robin and the Seven Hoods, that's where the Rat Pack thing started to happen. That Rat Pack thing…these guys just got together and were following in the footsteps of Humphrey Bogart and his gang; the group of them together, I think, strengthened the identity and strengthened the ability to compete. In other words, as the bands came over the first time, the Beatles and the [Rolling] Stones, they also formed a band, if you will, of Sinatra and [Dean Martin] and [Sammy] Davis and kept that unique identity that could compete with the Beatles and the Stones throughout the '60s.
-While he was clearly a disciple of Bing Crosby, Frank Jr. said his father was also heavily impacted by Billie Holiday. "Billie Holiday affected every singer in the industry during those days, and this was a tragic figure, absolute tragic figure…He was very taken by her directness to the audience…This is one of those people who says two words and you know who it is and she was absolutely marvelous in the sense that everything came out of her naturally. She had no training, she never really got to sing with big bands or anything. She was just a small little backroom singer when she wasn't being a whore and a dope addict and all the terrible things that befell her….But every singer in New York in the great days of what was known as 52nd Street, when all the little nightclubs were there, you'd go in and there would be Billie Holiday, always with a gardenia in her hair, and you'd look around the room and every singer in the industry, I mean the biggest names in the industry, would be sitting there, just taking a lesson. She was a most definite influence."