Let's be Frank

"Why am I doing this?" I kept asking myself last Saturday night, as I lined up outside Disney's Atlantic Dance to witness Frank Sinatra Jr. in concert. To me, Junior had always been the butt of every good joke about show-business nepotism. I hadn't heard his new "As I Remember It" CD, but those who had had assured me that it was an unspeakably maudlin attempt to cash in on his father's enduring legacy. It seemed that whatever Frank had paid those kidnappers to get his boy back in the early 1960s had been too much.

Try telling that to the congregation of swing-o-philes who patiently waited for the doors of Atlantic Dance to fly open on Saturday. Mostly older but awfully well turned out, they chattered excitedly about the brush with secondhand greatness the evening represented. Their unspoiled enthusiasm was hard to belittle, but that didn't stop a few of the other, scruffier visitors to the surrounding Disney's Boardwalk from perching themselves atop nearby benches and sarcastically braying Sinatra standards to those in the queue. They were probably all hyped up on that ostrich meat they're serving over at Animal Kingdom.

As a palliative for the long wait, waitresses from inside the old-fashioned dance hall began passing through the line to take drink orders, like stewardesses on a long flight to Istanbul (having your libation of choice brought to you before you've even entered the premises is one service you won't see repeated at HempFest).

Suiting up

Suiting up

Once inside, we all drank up the ambience of the simply gorgeous Atlantic Dance, whose ornate interior called to mind New York's late lamented Roseland ballroom. Seating for a full orchestra was set up on the wide stage, a position that was soon taken by a multigenerational outfit led by conductor Terry Woodson. As the combo struck up an intro number, I noticed that several of the instrumentalists had to be pushing 70, minimum.

"I don't think that drummer is going to make it," I whispered to the woman on my right.

" I don't think most of them are going to make it," she chuckled.

We should have known better. They played flawlessly all night, hitting marks men half their age might only dream of approaching. Guys like these just keep turning out great stuff until they finally do keel over; then they play some more.

When the star of the evening ambled out on stage, he was met by unquestioning applause. "He has his father's mouth," my friend noted approvingly as Sinatra Jr. launched into song. I was about to argue that he didn't sound that much like the great man when I realized that it was the shape of his mouth to which she was referring. And it was indeed a lip off the old block, albeit set into a face that was vaguely turtlelike.

Appearance didn't matter one iota as the Sinatra-spawn quickly set about the business of making all of us true believers. Far from the distasteful cash-in I had dreaded, his set was a capable, respectful run through material from across the swing/jazz spectrum, with glowing tribute paid between songs to Duke Ellington and other giants of the genre.

The avoidance of grave-robbing was admirable, both in the choice of material (the Sinatra covers were fewer and more carefully chosen than I had anticipated) and in vocal style itself. Although some of the folks at my table swore that they had but to close their eyes to imagine it was the Chairman himself on the stage, Junior struck me as a songster with his own talents to contribute. The similarities were there in the lower ranges (probably due to heredity as much as practice), but most of the younger man's melodies sat comfortably in higher registers that weren't Dad's stock in trade. This is not to say that his offspring is a better singer than Sinatra; no one will ever be able to replicate the latter's throaty tones and genius-level phrasing. But unfair, unavoidable comparisons may one day prove to have held Frank Sinatra Jr. back as much as his name has insured him a steady stream of gigs.

Filling his shoes

The program had its low points, to be sure. An extended Dean Martin parody was both inaccurate and somewhat distasteful, and the inclusion of "A Friend Like Me" from the movie "Aladdin" constituted unnecessary pandering to our Disney hosts. If Universal Studios Florida had a dance hall, would we have been treated to a scat rearrangement of Bernard Hermann's theme from "Psycho?"

Such missteps were mercifully few, the sole thorns in a bouquet of heartfelt vocalizing that connected like gangbusters with the ladies at my table. "He winked at me!" one gushed. Let's see 'N Sync try to draw that kind of reaction when they're past retirement age.

The parade of nostalgia inspired a flood of similarly sentimental chatter around me, as fans young and old told what they had been doing when they were first exposed to the seductive lure of the big-band sound. Some had experienced it firsthand, others from their fathers in the course of childhood dance lessons. I almost volunteered that a brassy melody line will always remind me of the time I saw my own dad slap a Vegas blackjack dealer around after he caught him pulling from the bottom of the deck. But why spoil anyone's fun?

The evening culminated in a short medley of Sinatra's "One More for the Road," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Street of Dreams" and even a closing line (thank God it was only one line) from "My Way." If it had been placed at the beginning of the set, the suite would have come off as a cynical move, but the band had established so much credibility with its earlier travelogue through jazz heaven that any such qualms were rendered moot. I was, however, a little shocked by the star's repeated references to his paterfamilias as "Sinatra" -- as opposed to "Dad" or "my father." The thought of a household whose senior member prefers to be called my his last name is too close to a scene from "The Great Santini" for my comfort.

The irony of it all was that Frank Jr. had won me over so greatly in the preceding two hours that I didn't need him to genuflect to his lineage. He may not be "Sinatra" in the grandest sense, but he's a worthy enough carrier of the tradition.

"We want to thank you for picking us tonight," he humbly offered as the show came to a close. Vaudeville lip service, to be sure, but music to the ears of our table of happy suckers. It was refreshing to be in the presence of a performer who considers his audience a blessing, rather than a right.

Maybe it's just something in his genes.

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