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20 Years Later, Memories of Frank Sinatra in Concert

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Twenty years ago this week I saw Frank Sinatra in concert for the second and final time. In a lot of ways 1994 seems like yesterday -- even if hardly anyone knew what the Internet was and Derek Jeter wasn't yet the Yankees' shortstop and Justin Bieber wasn't even born yet. Seeing Frank Sinatra in concert, though.. that feels like 20 years ago. If not 50, or 100.

Ol' Blue Eyes' legend has been carefully burnished by his estate and the labels he recorded for since his death in 1998. He's been turned into a larger-than-life figure, a pop culture immortal, to the extent that it's easy to forget just how easy it was to take his presence for granted, even at the end of his career. He'd long since become a legend, of course, but after the '60s he was mostly coasting on the legend's momentum. Well into the '80s, he made records of varying quality that, for the most part, didn't sell. He toured pretty constantly for the last two decades of his career, and his shows almost always sold out, but there was no frenzy to see him. Didn't catch him this time? He'd be back before too long.

The first time I saw Sinatra was in 1992. It still astonishes me how easy, how spur-of-the-moment the whole thing was. I was walking up 6th Avenue with a friend and we saw his name on the Radio City Music Hall marquee, for a concert scheduled for about four months hence. "Hey, wanna see Frank?" "Sure, why not?" We walked up to the box office window, and a few minutes and $80 later we had a pair of tickets in the middle of the first mezzanine. No big deal.

The show was fantastic. By this time Sinatra was almost 77, and he had been declining physically and mentally for a few years. But he still had his share of "on" nights, and this night in October of 1992, he was really on. He looked great. He sounded great. He attacked the swingers with the fire of a man twenty years younger, broke our hearts with the saloon songs, even nailed the long and tricky "Soliloquy" from Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel." A guy in the audience kept yelling out "'Summer Wind!'" in between every song. Finally, Sinatra stopped his between-song patter and addressed the fellow directly: "Listen, pal, I work solo. I don't need no stooge." The crowd went crazy. The guy shut up. And Sinatra never did sing "Summer Wind" that night.

Eighteen months later, Sinatra rolled back into town for a multi-night stand at Radio City. In the interim, he'd released his first new album in almost a decade, Duets, which became the biggest seller of his career. But the record, as far as most die-hard Frank fans were concerned, was lousy. His health had taken a turn for the worse, so much so that he'd actually collapsed onstage a month earlier. His onstage mental lapses had grown more severe. The writing was on the wall; after more than a half-century of almost nonstop performing, this might be the final curtain.

The show started off miserably. Sinatra was getting over a cold that had caused the postponement of a couple of previous shows, and his voice was husky and raspy as a result. Whatever meds he was on made him woozy; he fumbled lyrics in almost every song and even lost the melody once or twice. Before "Luck Be A Lady" he told a funny anecdote about Marlon Brando... and told the exact same story again before the next song. The sold-out house applauded wildly after every tune, of course, but it felt like we were rooting for him rather than cheering for him.

In mid-concert, something happened. Maybe the meds wore off. Whatever it was, he seemed to suddenly wake up, as if a switch had been flipped. He tore into "Mack The Knife" with swinging, joyful abandon. His voice was still shot, but with Frank, the delivery and the interpretation were always more important than the chops. The crowd went berserk. He sailed through the rest of the show so joyfully that after the planned "New York, New York" closer, he refused to leave the stage, badgering the orchestra's leader and conductor, his son Frank Sinatra, Jr.: "What else ya got?" He swung his way through an impromptu "Witchcraft" and "I Get A Kick Out Of You" before he was finally persuaded to leave the stage, though he lingered long enough to blow kisses to the audience and thank us again for coming out, even as the house lights came on. I got the feeling he sensed he wouldn't be back.

Indeed, that stint at Radio City would prove to be the last time he played New York City. He stayed on the road the rest of the year, and then mercifully called it quits; his mind and body gave out before his desire did. Four years later, after a seemingly interminable death watch, he was felled by a heart attack at the age of 82. And with each passing year, it seems more and more implausible that I actually saw the man sing in person -- that I was in the same room with him, even if 5,000 other people were there too. Depressing though that second show might have been, I wouldn't trade the memories for the world. Think about that the next time you're wondering whether it's worth the money and the effort for you, or your kids, to see Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones at this late date. Once these guys are gone, they're not coming back.