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Sinatras on Sinatra: 'He was a lonely soul' | reviews, news & interviews

Sinatras on Sinatra: 'He was a lonely soul'

Sinatras on Sinatra: 'He was a lonely soul'

Ol' Blue Eyes is back at the Palladium. His daughters Nancy and Tina remember Frank

'We hurt him, he hurt us. It’s like any family dynamic'

Frank Sinatra is back in London in the centenary of his birth. His disembodied voice is returning in a show called Sinatra: The Man & His Music. At the London Palladium, where he made his British debut 65 years ago, there’s to be a 24-piece orchestra, 20 dancers and video effects galore in a multi-media concert featuring many of his best-loved songs. At the heart of it will be footage supplied by the Sinatra Estate.

For those who never saw Sinatra live, the idea is that this will be the next best thing, at least since the last time he was exhumed.

In 2005 Sinatra at the London Palladium used lavishly restored footage of Sinatra rehearsing for a television show in his early 40s. As that show headed to London, I met Nancy and Tina Sinatra, his two daughters by his first wife Nancy Barbato, in their office in West Hollywood to talk about the long shadow cast by their father. Frank Sinatra became his daughters’ occupation. Nancy ran the official website and the archive. Tina oversaw a four-hour mini-series about his life and founded the Frank Sinatra Foundation. Both wrote books about him: Nancy’s Frank Sinatra: My Father was published in 1985, and was revised a decade later. Tina’s book was a more emetic memoir called My Father’s Daughter, and revealed a deep personal rift with Sinatra’s fourth wife and widow Barbara (who published her own memoir in 2011).

As their father makes another posthumous return to the Palladium, the transcript of this interview, published for the first time, reveals what it was like to be the daughter of a giant.

JASPER REES: What are your first memories of your father as a singer?

NANCY SINATRA: My first memories would be of the radio, and then later on the records that he would bring home from sessions. I was maybe four or five, six. The radio was from when I was a baby. That’s pretty much all I knew of him was the radio.

TINA SINATRA: I had the same experiences but later. He was really on the radio when Nancy was home listening to him. I was listening to recordings. I remember him bringing the album he’d made two, three or four nights before. We’d all sit in the living room. I was probably under seven or eight. But I mostly remember him singing in the car on the radio. You’re always being driven around in LA.

How early did you come to an understanding that he was who he was?

TINA: I was 12 years old driving with him in the car in the dark coming from the Marymount father-daughter square dance. And we were at a street light over the 405 freeway heading home and I looked over to the car next to me and they were all going insane. They were just berserk, looking, I thought, at me. I said to Dad, “Why are they doing that?” And he said, “No no, they’re looking at me.” And I went, “Oh!” I knew that he was a performer. I knew that if I hadn’t seen him in weeks I could see him each week on TV. I also realised it the first day Disneyland opened for private friends. That was a big day.

NANCY: I don’t think I realised it till I was maybe 14. Somebody at school said, “Do you think your dad would come and sing for us?” I said, “Sure, I’ll ask him.” I asked him and he did and of course the kids went crazy. I realised it then. They just loved him. And this is before he became that Ratpack icon.

TINA: Nancy had first-hand experience when she was really young on movie sets. I’ve seen those pictures of you and him in The Kissing Bandit wardrobe.

NANCY: You went to a movie set too.

TINA: I only remember one and I think it was The Tender Trap. But you went all the time.

NANCY: I think that Mom and Dad tried to figure out ways to make us part of his working life. That was always a good way.

Did you go to recording studios?

NANCY: Definitely. We recorded with him. We did a Christmas album.

TINA: And let’s skip the whole subject, puuhlease!

NANCY: She didn’t like that album.

TINA: I stank.

How musical are you, Tina?

TINA: I sing, don’t I?

NANCY: She sings very well.

TINA: Occasionally. I wander. I flunked piano lessons. I’m not not musical and I certainly know when someone’s on or off key but Nancy sits down and harmonises. I was always in the glee club though. I was an alto. Or an altoid.

You never had any desire to follow the Sinatras into the business?

TINA: None. I’m too shy. They are performers by nature. I’m not.

NANCY: Tina is the producing end of the family.

You’ve both done books. What motivated you to write them?

NANCY: Mine’s an encyclopaedia.

TINA: Mine’s a memoir. We wrote our books for different reasons but ultimately for the same purpose. I spewed, I vented cathartically.

NANCY: Not as much as I wanted her too.

TINA: The publishers wouldn’t let me. Nancy’s was really with sidebars and was a learning reference book.

I think you should write a book and tell the truth

NANCY: The head of Random House Publishing and a good friend of Dad’s – I guess it was 1970, maybe, or earlier – was complaining about all the garbage that was written about Frank and he said, “I think you should write a book and tell the truth.” The weight was heavy on my shoulders because that’s a huge life to try to capture, even then. I started collecting material and writing to people to collect enough anecdotes to make a book worthwhile. It took from the late Sixties – I’m sure it was the late Sixties because Mia [Farrow] was there at this conversation. It took till 1985 to get that book completed and out there. And a lot more stuff was added in 1995. When Tina’s book came out it was because there was a very important story that needed to be told.

TINA: I was healing with the writing of it. It saved my emotional fibre. It’s bigger than life. On the one hand I was reticent to do it because I don’t like breaking the bounds of privacy and the privilege of knowing someone so wonderful and big and great. On the other hand, since I knew it would all be about how much I dearly loved him and I certainly don’t write myself as a perfect daughter, because I wasn’t, it felt more than right to do. I dragged my feet for a little while and then wrote it in about nine months with a great co-writer.

Were there repercussions?

NANCY: There was no dispute. It couldn’t possibly be disputed, because it was all true.

Did he tell you you weren’t a perfect daughter?

TINA: I can remember a couple of times he said to me, “I thought you were smarter than this.” Like when I got hit on a motorcycle. He would tell you if he thought you’d screwed up.

Could you tell him back?

TINA: Sure.

NANCY: I don’t remember any specifics except complaining about the way he said a word in a song or something.

TINA: I was a wretched teenager, so if he did something that I felt was unjust or unfair and he gave me that “Do as I say, not I do,” I wouldn’t buy that, so then we’d have a little head-to-head. Didn’t last long.

Did you inherit the Sicilian temper?

TINA: Well, she’s got one too, you know. She’s not adopted.

NANCY: The funny thing is we joke about Tina’s temper but she’s really a lot more reasonable than I am. When I lose it, I lose it and probably forever. It’s the thing, if you cross me once, shame on you. If you cross me twice, shame on me. I’m very tough. I think it’s just life experience and being fed up with a lot of bullshit. I have a hate list. I never thought I would have a hate list in my life but I have one now. They say, "Forgive." No thanks.

TINA: Dad would say, “Put the name in a drawer and some day you open it and take it out.”

NANCY: I said to him once about somebody, “I don’t think we, meaning the kids, exist for her." He said, “You may be right.” So there is a list of people that don’t exist for me.

Was the fact that he was an only child important for his art?

TINA: We all start with the fact he was a latchkey child.

NANCY: The other part of it was observing all that prejudice around him when he was growing up with his own family, and how prejudiced they were.

TINA: And how various blocks with different ethnicities they couldn’t cross because the Irish would kick the crap out of the Italians and vice versa, and the Germans would get chased out. It was a pretty hateful little city, Hoboken, which is a mile square but it was all compartmentalised ethnically.

NANCY: I think somewhere in him he vowed to fight that.

Are his songs partly about loneliness?

TINA: He was definitely a lonely soul.

NANCY: But he liked being alone.

TINA: He could be in a room alone with a kid or a dog or nobody and read and just indulge himself. His world, he often said, was never a quiet one, so he liked that. But the early stages of dementia took a quietness away from him which I thought was very crucial to his physical stamina and surviving the physical ageing process. You need your mind.

He didn’t have to have a court?

NANCY: Not at all. He didn’t have to do that. He spent weeks at a time by himself. Creativity comes with isolation.

It is an odd song for a father and daughter to sing to each other

What was his attraction to London?

NANCY: There is a connection to the UK in general that was very strong for him. He recorded there, he did some amazing programmes there. The fact that we could actually communicate with people in the UK on our website delighted him.

TINA: We had an apartment in London for years in Grosvenor Square.

NANCY: The London audiences embraced him probably more than any other. They were just more generous in their applause and their love and their tears.

TINA: He always said they were so polite and civilised.

NANCY: European audiences are not interested in age. Nothing colours their love for the music and the artistry. There is no prejudice involved if you are in your seventies or eighties. I did a TV show celebrating Top of the Pops and they invited all the people who had had number one records. The audience was filled with number ones. They invited me to perform and I did. I walked out on the set and all these people stood up and cheered, it seemed like for three minutes. And I thought, oh my goodness, why haven’t I come here sooner? They don’t care that you’ve aged 30 years. They just are so happy and grateful to see you. And that’s the same as it was for Dad. There’s just something magical about. I don’t want to rave about the Brits too much but I can’t help it.

What about your recording of “Something Stupid”?

NANCY: It was very quick. Dad was recording with Jobim that night and they had a very specific group of musicians for that session and at the end of that session that group of musicians left and another group came in, the Wrecking Crew rhythm section, and I believe they maintained the same string section from the Jobim but I’m not sure. And we listened to the arrangement a couple of times and it sounded great and we went to the mic, we were facing each other and we sang it. We would have printed probably the first take except that he kept making me laugh. It was take two or three and that was it, it was over really fast. We had rehearsed it separately.

TINA: It is an odd song for a father and daughter to sing to each other.

NANCY: You think so?

TINA: I do.

NANCY: I don’t know. People joked about it and called it the incest song, which I thought was pretty silly. But yeah I can see the point.

TINA: I think it’s adorable.

NANCY: And then Dad bet Mo Austin that it would be number one, and he said, “No, it’s going to be a bomb.” And I have the two dollars framed that Mo sent to pay up.

You only have about one note.

NANCY: Pretty much.

What would he have thought of your book, Tina?

TINA: I think he would have thought it was good and fair and sad. It would have made him sad.

NANCY: He helped Tina with her mini-series.

TINA: Which he then couldn’t face. Be careful what you wish for. I only know that he started to watch it maybe twice and found it painful, but he was older then. He was looking at his life.

NANCY: At some point he was ill in bed and I was looking after him in the desert and a mosquito was in his room. I smacked it and he said, “Oh.” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I don’t want to hurt anything any more.”

Did he ever hurt you two?

TINA: Sure he did.

NANCY: We hurt him, he hurt us. It’s like any family dynamic.

  • Sinatra: The Man & His Music is at the London Palladium from 10 July to 10 October


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