As fate would have it, I went on a nation-wide tour with Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine in 1992. Up to that point, I had never heard Sinatra sing live. Of course, it was rumored that Frank could not sing artistically any more, but the truth was that his voice was deteriorating. Frank was 78 at the time, and many of fans came to hear him not because they expected outstanding singing, but to pay homage to the great man whom they feared would soon retire or die. Many wanted to boast that they had attended one of the last concerts of Sinatra's long and illustrious career.
I was saddened that I hadn't heard Sinatra when he was in his prime, but I was also anxious to hear whatever remained of his vocal magic and mastery, but I quickly became pessimistic about the prospect. To contribute to Sinatra's purely vocal difficulties, not only was he having a hard time remembering lyrics, when they were shown on the stage monitors, he could barely see them. His son and conductor, Frank Sinatra, Jr., had a hell of a task covering for his father's vocal, mental, and visual lapses. Sinatra would typically forget lyrics, make up new ones on the spot, or sometimes even substitute funny, nonsense lyrics such as the Italian slang expression pronounced “oo gotz.” Sometimes he would even thoughtlessly introduce lyrics from other songs. The audience did not seem to mind—they loved the old man who had sung many of their most intimate dreams and feelings over the course of their lifetimes. They applauded enthusiastically and gave him standing ovations time and time again.
Sinatra loved performing. It didn't seem to bother him a bit that he was a shell of his former artistic self. He still gave it all he had. He went after high notes with real gusto, for example. If he hit them, fine, if not, well, what could he do? After cracking on notes, he would often raise his shoulders, lift the palms of his hands upward, and tilt his head to one side so as to say “sorry about that, but at least I deserve an A for trying!” The audience found his lapses and mishaps entertaining and would always laugh and have a good time with them. But to me it was very frustrating. I wanted to hear vocal brilliance, not poorly sung and badly botched swan songs. I heard Sinatra night after night, just hoping that the deity of great art would have mercy on one of his or her struggling sons and zap him.
Then it began happening, first in specific phrases, then in a half or three quarters of a song. It all started to come back: voice, pitch, control, feeling. I finally got a glimpse of the magical live moments that his friends and associates had told me about. What I observed in these moments was not an old man struggling to stay on pitch or remember lyrics, but a timeless exponent of great art, a mouthpiece for an ideal world that says that life becomes noble when our deepest feelings and thoughts are expressed with honesty, vulnerability, conviction, and intelligence.