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New Mexico musicians weigh in on performing with Frank Sinatra

SANTA FE, N.M. — You couldn’t wear brown shoes with the Chairman at the microphone.

Frank Sinatra was a swirl of quirks and contradictions orbited by women, public battles and allegations of mob connections, all grounded by The Voice.

With his birthday centennial looming Saturday, Dec. 12, celebrations are erupting across the country.

In Los Angeles, the Grammy Museum has opened the multimedia exhibit “Sinatra: An American Icon,” after borrowing it from the New York Public Library. Sinatra historian Charles Pignone released the commemorative photo album “Sinatra 100.”

Bob Dylan recorded “Shadows in the Night,” a collection of pop standards recorded by the singer. Capitol, Sony and Universal are all releasing new collections. The singer’s family has launched a Sinatra app, as well as a Sinatra-branded whiskey courtesy of Jack Daniels. The Recording Academy will broadcast “Sinatra 100 – An All-Star Grammy Concert,” at 7 tonight on CBS. The concert will honor the nine-time Grammy winner in celebration of his 100th birthday. Slated to perform are Grammy winners Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Adam Levine, Carrie Underwood and Usher.

Although the singer never performed in Albuquerque, the city is home to three musicians who backed him and musicologists who acknowledge his vast influence on those who followed.

Bobby Shew of Corrales, a trumpet player, played with Frank Sinatra in the Caesar’s Palace house band in Las Vegas, Nev. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Bobby Shew of Corrales, a trumpet player, played with Frank Sinatra in the Caesar’s Palace house band in Las Vegas, Nev. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Chance of a lifetime

Albuquerque born and bred trumpet player Bobby Shew accompanied Sinatra at a Caesar’s Palace two-week date in Las Vegas, Nev., in the late 1960s. Shew played in the house band, backing everyone from Elvis Presley to Ella Fitzgerald.

The musician spoke from his Corrales studio, where the walls groan with 8,000 vinyl albums, a trio of cabinets houses 3,000 CDs and a garage moans with 12,000 more. Trumpets in various colors and styles sit on the floor next to a black baby grand piano. He designs the instruments for Yamaha. Shew has been teaching music for 58 years, most recently to a London musician via Skype.

Performing with a legend

He was just 28 years old when he learned he would be backing Ol’ Blue Eyes. First he heard about the eccentricities.

“You don’t want to wear brown shoes,” he said. “He thought it was a tasteless thing to do. You could wear tennis shoes or anything else. It was hilarious.

“He was a meticulous dresser,” Shew continued. “I never saw him in a pair of jeans; always a shirt and tie and a hat. He came from that old school of the well-dressed Italian. He used to call people bums sometimes.”

When Sinatra arrived on a rehearsal stage or in a recording studio, the reaction was hushed awe.

“When he walked in a room, everything went totally silent,” Shew continued. “His presence in a room was pretty charismatic, but was also a shudder. It was, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Frank Sinatra.’ It was like the Pope.”

Jazz guitarist Michael Anthony performed with Frank Sinatra. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Jazz guitarist Michael Anthony performed with Frank Sinatra. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque guitarist Michael Anthony was a Los Angeles studio musician for 20 years. He once backed Sinatra at a political rally in the Houston Astrodome. The singer’s daughter, Nancy, was the opening act.

“The Friday night before he treated us all to his show,” Anthony said. “We got to hang out in the wings and watch him.

“He was just a master of phrasing,” Anthony continued. “He didn’t sing directly on the beat; he used syncopation. He’d hold back and come in a beat late and wrap it up just perfectly. They called him the president. I think that was just natural for him.”

For all his talent, Sinatra never learned to read music, Shew said.

“The few times I heard him screw up an entrance, he’d blame somebody else.”

Shew sometimes wondered if that arrogance stemmed from insecurity.

“You have to watch your P’s and Q’s. There’s no chattering. He wants to be totally in control. You whisper if you have to.”

Sinatra was notorious for his disdain of rock ‘n’ roll, the music that killed the Big Band era that launched his career.

Anthony heard about a music contractor who cared little about stylistic differences. He phoned a rock guitarist and set him up for a recording date with Sinatra.

“All of a sudden, you hear these strange sounds that didn’t fit anything,” Anthony said. “Sinatra said, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ Finally, (the guitarist said) ‘I don’t think I’m the right person for this job.'”

Doug Lawrence performed with Frank Sinatra, who gave him the orange baseball cap he’s wearing. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Doug Lawrence performed with Frank Sinatra, who gave him the orange baseball cap he’s wearing. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque-based tenor sax man Doug Lawrence played with Sinatra at both Radio City Music Hall and New Jersey’s Meadowlands in the ’80s. He still has the orange baseball cap the singer gave him. Orange was Sinatra’s favorite color.

“I’ve got kind of a history with Sinatra,” he explained. “My oldest brother Fred played trombone with Sinatra back in the ’60s. He also had a bit of an affair with Nancy” (Frank’s daughter).

Lawrence also played in a brief revival of the Rat Pack, consisting of Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.

“He was always very professional and always very nice to the musicians,” Lawrence said. “In his heart, he was a musician first rather than an entertainer.”

Frank Sinatra shown on stage in Oct. 1973. (AP Photo)

Frank Sinatra shown on stage in Oct. 1973. (AP Photo)

One of a kind

At his Las Vegas concerts, Sinatra’s set list featured such classics as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” Shew said.

“He had a tremendous respect for musicians,” Lawrence continued. “He’d come in and say, ‘Hi, fellas’ to establish a rapport. But it wasn’t personal at all. He knew certain people like family members and then there was a wall.”

While there are many imitators, no one else quite captured Sinatra’s buttercream baritone and smooth style, University of New Mexico acting director of jazz studies Chris Buckholz said.

Sinatra’s most obvious contemporary inheritors include Harry Connick, Jr., and Michael Bublé.

“Harry Connick is in many ways a Sinatra imitator,” Buckholz explained. “Bublé even more so than Connick. He’s singing that kind of phrasing and dipping into the bag of tricks of Sinatra in a more modern context.”

The singer picked up his legendary phrasing from one-time idol Tommy Dorsey’s trombone playing, Buckholz said. Sinatra sang with Dorsey during the Big Band era.

Before the arrival of Bing Crosby, singers projected loudly because there were no microphones. Crosby popularized a laid-back, more intimate croon that Sinatra would go on to perfect into a more nuanced, bel canto style, conveying the emotions of the lyrics and music, Buckholz said.

Sinatra facts

  • Sold more than 150 million records worldwide.
  • Winner of 9 Grammy Awards.
  • When he was born in 1915, he weighed 13½ pounds, and the doctor used forceps, which punctured his eardrum.
  • He left high school in 1931 without graduating, having attended just 47 days before being expelled for “general rowdiness.”
  • His mother Dolly was a midwife whom author Kitty Kelley accused of running an illegal abortion service for Catholic girls. In 1983, Sinatra filed a $2 million court case against Kelley. He dropped the suit in 1984.
  • An unabashed perfectionist, Sinatra reportedly recorded 22 takes of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
  • Sinatra suffered from mood swings and mild to major depression throughout his life. These often imploded into violence often directed at people he felt had crossed him, especially journalists. He once said if it hadn’t been for music, he would “probably have ended in a life of crime.”
  • Sinatra was a supporter of John F. Kennedy, often inviting him to Hollywood and Las Vegas, Nev., for womanizing and partying. In 1962 Kennedy snubbed him by staying with Bing Crosby because of FBI concerns about Sinatra’s alleged mob connections.