The Middle Distance 10.7.11: In The Wee Small Hours

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photo by Sean Cayton

About two lifetimes ago—1975, maybe, or was it 1976—I saw Frank Sinatra perform live, onstage at a charity fundraising concert. Roberta Flack was on the bill, and BB King and a bunch of other Memphis R&B royalty, but I was there to see Sinatra.

The concert was long and star-filled and the producer saved the biggest name for last. There was an intermission at the Mid-South Arena, followed by a lull of restless anticipation. Onstage, nothing but a bar stool and a table with an ashtray. The audience mumbled and catcalled.

Finally, a silver-haired man ambled onto the stage, a drink in one hand and a microphone in the other. He wore a beautifully tailored gray suit and habitually swiped his hair over to the side. He squinted and frowned into the spotlight, then turned his back to the audience and lit a cigarette. The crowd hushed and he half sang, half spoke: What … are … you doing for the rest of your life?

Sinatra sang and grumbled for most of an hour, and rallied enough to stand for his final song, “My Way.”

I will never forget seeing Sinatra, not because his voice was in prime form, or because his performance was so great, but because I was so struck by his apparent unhappiness. One of the most famous people in the world, he reeked of dissatisfaction and what? Was it boredom? Fatigue? He was just a few years older then than I am now, and though he lived 20 more years, he was already an old man when I saw him.

I’m thinking about this because of something that happened recently. I heard something that made me remember I’d seen Sinatra and how strange it had been. I looked up Gay Talese’s legendary long essay, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and read about the journalist pursuing Sinatra, then 50, and his enormous entourage of staff across America. Talese observed the anxiety and alienation of this icon as well as his unmistakable talent and magnetism. I remembered the day Sinatra died in 1998, and the NPR moment in the driveway at the end of a long work day. I was 44 and I couldn’t pull myself out of the car to go in to cook dinner for my waiting family. Sinatra sang and I cried, not for the loss of his life but for the exquisite phrasing of his song.

So here’s what happened. Most weekends I have Saturday dinner at a downtown restaurant here in Colorado Springs where I go to hear the piano player, a seasoned New Orleans musician with a celebrated career in pop music. This musician has got the joy thing down. When he plays, his fingers are fast and weightless and he bounces and sways on the bench. He wears black and is round and he smiles like he’s got a secret. He morphs from one tune to another with intricate transitional chords and riffs. He has more fun than anyone in the room.

A few weeks ago, I was there when a tall man with gray dreadlocks got up and started blowing saxophone with the piano player. The two masters alternated solos and blended sounds so closely it seemed they had played together for years.

The small crowd of diners went wild when the two finished their first set. Nobody knew the saxophone player, but we soon learned he was a local musician who hadn’t played professionally for many years, though he had played when he was young with many jazz greats as they migrated through town.

The piano player and the saxophonist took the stage for a second set and played with polish and tenderness to a dwindling audience, swinging into the old Rodgers and Hart tune, “The Lady is a Tramp.” I turned toward the bar to sip my martini, then swung back around to the small corner stage when I heard Frank Sinatra singing.

A guy about my age, silver-haired and dressed in a natty suit and expensive shoes, crooned into a hand-held microphone. His shoulders slumped and his eyes were cast down and the drink at the end of his arm dangled like a natural appendage. When he hit a high note, he looked up and closed his eyes, just like Sinatra. His lady friend watched from a booth and he winked at her when the lyrics called for it.

I drained my martini and called it a night. Outside, the city streets were quiet. I wished for a radio station that would play “The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” the Sinatra version.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

5 Responses to The Middle Distance 10/7/11: In The Wee Small Hours

  1. Marty says:

    What a powerful story.

  2. Joe Lillard says:

    No one does “We Small Hours” like Frank. His albums, Only the Lonely and Where Are You?, exactly describe the moods you saw in him onstage. It almost seemed like there was a chip on his shoulder ready to fall off at the least provocation – that sometimes he would fall down and shatter. But I love his music.
    Now I gotta find your downtown bar.
    Great column – if that’s the correct nomenclature today.
    Joe

    • kathryn says:

      The bar is Springs Orleans; the piano man is The Commodores’ Thomas Dawson (he plays on alternate weekends, call to check); the saxophonist is Lyle (don’t know his last name); I don’t know the name of the Sinatra impersonator.

  3. Rosanne Gain says:

    Thanks for the memories. While a student in college, I worked the summers of ’64 and ’65 at the NY World’s Fair, light years away from my student existence at Fla. States. I saw Frank Sinatra summer of ’65 at Forest Hills tennis stadium with Count Basie. Afterward, my date took me to Jilly’s, Sinatra’s favorite saloon on W. 57th street in the City. I actually “bumped” into Sinatra while trying to get through the crowd to the Ladies’ Room. It seems like yesterday after reading your exquisite piece.

  4. Paula says:

    I too saw Frank in 1975, but in Chicago at the Stadium on New Year’s Eve. I was in awe and could have just sat there and watched him for days. He sounded great and seemed to really enjoy himself, talking to people in the crowd that he knew. The evening ended much too soon, but I have a lifetime of memories.

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