The Voice goes silent

It was a moment defined not by a high note, not by a perfectly phrased lyric, not by a kind gesture or word to the audience. Rather, it was a moment defined by a single tear--a tear shed for departed old friends, for forgotten old songs, maybe even for himself.

In September 1994--just months after he fell on a Richmond, Virginia, stage and knocked himself out on a monitor--Frank Sinatra played the Fair Park Music Hall, yet another stop on the never-ending world tour he began in the 1940s. The night began as it often did: He started the show with "Come Fly With Me," and it was an invitation too good to pass up. His voice would soar often at the beginning of these nights, before it became tired and sore, and you could hear traces of the passion and presence that defined his greatest recordings from the 1950s and '60s. Then reality set in, and it became apparent as that evening wore on that Sinatra's voice had succumbed to age, given in to unforgiving time. Though he had long insisted he would never retire, his voice--The Voice--made the decision for him, going flat when he reached for the high notes.

Every so often throughout the night, the old Frank (meaning the young Frank, the pretty Frank, the Frank of memory and legend, not the old man who vanished last week without saying farewell) would peek through the fog of old age and seize a rare moment. But those were the saddest moments, when we were reminded of what made Sinatra the world's greatest singer instead of merely the music world's biggest icon. They were sad moments, because, for every sustained note, for every dead-on reading of a line, every casual gesture of old-school elegance, Sinatra would then step into an old man's wrinkled and worn clothes and forget a lyric to a song he had sung a thousand times--"My Funny Valentine," "My Way," "I've Got the World on a String," "Young at Heart." It was especially painful when he lit into that last number--never before had anyone in the audience seen Frank look that old.

He would look at the TelePrompters--three of them spread in front of the stage, their type several inches tall--and still be unable to read the words he had sung for decades. He would trip over the familiar lyrics, mumble to fill space, sometimes even just stop and move on to something else--something maybe he remembered a little better. Frank Jr., pop's bandleader and too often the brunt of his father's frustrated tirades, would even pitch in, hoping no one would notice he was throwing his voice. Which, of course, only made his father angrier: "What the hell are ya hollerin' at me for?" he would shout to Junior, only half in jest. "Oh, to work with you is murder."

These things were to be expected at Sinatra's final shows, before he really did decide to retire--and before death retired him for good last week at the age of 82; he long insisted on having one for his baby and one more for the road. Sinatra refused to get off the stage even when his voice handed him his gold watch and thanked him for all those years of service.

At least Dean Martin knew when to quit, when to stay home with his cowboy movies and Scotch before he humiliated himself in public. Martin disappeared even before he retired, becoming a recluse who could often be found at Musso and Frank's in Hollywood, sitting alone in his booth as he nursed gin and memories. When, during the late 1980s, Frank rounded up Dean and Sammy for one more spin on the merry-go-round, touring as the Rat Pack's Holy Trinity, Dean signed on out of loyalty and friendship; he didn't want to tour, didn't need the money, but loved the idea of spending last call with the boys one more time. But the tour didn't last long, and Liza took Dean's place when he was tired, humiliated, finished. But not Frank. He kept defying history, kept shaking his fists at Father Time until the very end.

I will never forget sitting across from him at dinner at the Mansion after the show, watching him--That's Frank, man, just 20 feet away!--choke down steak with whiskey. He sat at the end of a long table, all alone, no one bothering him; wife Barbara Marx (the former wife of Zeppo) and some of Frank's old pals dined at the other end. He seemed so frail and tired, like an old man or a young child, well past his bedtime. He barely spoke that late night, and when he did, it was an inaudible mumble, a once-powerful voice reduced to a whisper. Only once could you hear him speak in that empty restaurant.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky