The Middle Distance 10.7.11: In The Wee Small Hours

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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.

News

AP
February 12, 2016 | NPR · Clinton and Sanders sparred on Wall Street’s influence on politics, on which candidate is more loyal to President Obama and the record of Henry Kissinger as secretary of state.
 

AP
February 11, 2016 | NPR · The Nevada rancher’s arrest is a setback for his self-styled militia supporters and their anti-federal lands fight. The charges stem from a standoff with federal agents at his ranch in 2014.
 

February 11, 2016 | NPR · More companies are offering employees training to deal with shooting threats at work. But it presents a dilemma: “How do you create awareness, without creating paranoia?” one expert says.
 

Arts & Life

Courtesy of 21st Century Fox
February 11, 2016 | NPR · NPR film critic Bob Mondello says Deadpool goes in deep on its R rating — and has plenty of fun doing it.
 

Roadside Attractions
February 11, 2016 | NPR · The drama stars Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby as artists hospitalized with bipolar disorder and struggles in its exploration of the link, if one exists, between their work and their illness.
 

Courtesy of Kino Lorber
February 11, 2016 | NPR · Chinese writer-director Jia Zhangke follows his characters from 1999 all the way forward to 2025, where a sun-bleached tomorrowland threatens alienation from tradition.
 

Music

Courtesy of the artist
February 11, 2016 | NPR · A year ago, the 10-piece band was working day jobs and gigging on weekends. Ari Shapiro talks with members Kam Franklin and Adam Castaneda about making the leap that landed them on a national stage.
 

NPR
February 11, 2016 | WBGO+JAZZ.org · Pianist Eric Lewis did a turn in the crossover celebrity spotlight with his “rockjazz” method. But he pledges allegiance to “the jazz republic” in a new trio with Reginald Veal and Jeff Watts.
 

Courtesy of the artist
February 11, 2016 | WXPN · The Delta Spirit singer rocks solo in a special episode, recorded live in Austin, Texas.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab