Obituary: Frank Sinatra Jr
Singer and son of Frank Sinatra who hit the headlines when he was abducted from a motel in 1963
Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30
Frank Sinatra Jr, who has died aged 72, pursued the almost impossible goal of matching his father's famous voice, but while his timbre was similar to the late singer's baritone, he lacked his father's easy charm and his singing, while proficient, lacked Sinatra Sr's magic.
Sinatra Jr did not do too badly, releasing several albums and playing some major venues, including Ronnie Scott's in 2012, but he never found stardom. "In the entertainment business," he said, "the mark of success is your name coupled with a famous motion picture, television series or hit record. I have had none of those things. Therefore I do not regard what I do as a success."
In fact he became more famous as the victim of a kidnapping that took place on December 8, 1963, when he was 19 and embarking on his musical career.
Abducted from a motel at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, by three gunmen, he was taken hostage and held in a Los Angeles hideout for four days. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of $240,000.
Because of who his father was, the case dominated the headlines. The US Attorney General Robert Kennedy offered the government's support; J Edgar Hoover activated the FBI, and the mob boss Sam 'Momo' Giancana volunteered his services. "Please," Sinatra is supposed to have told him, "let the FBI handle this."
Frank Jr was released unharmed after his family paid the ransom, but because the kidnapping ended so quickly and without violence, it sparked a rumour that Frank Jr, or possibly his father, had orchestrated the kidnapping as a publicity stunt to promote Frank Jr's career - a claim that resulted in some British news organisations having to pay libel damages to the Sinatras. "This family needs publicity like it needs peritonitis," was Frank Sr's reported response.
Yet the rumours never entirely went away, and they received a fresh lease of life when the kidnap gang (who were apprehended after three days) were revealed as a bunch of amateurs whose previous criminal experience had been setting fire to palm trees, and whose ringleader, Barry Keenan, had been a school friend of Frank Jr's older sister Nancy.
During his trial in 1964, Keenan went along with the rumours, claiming that the whole escapade had been a hoax to create publicity for Frank Jr. He was sentenced to life plus 75 years in prison but was later declared to have been insane at the time of the crime and paroled in 1968. Keenan later admitted that the hoax story had been a "blatant lie".
In 1998, 35 years after his crime, Keenan became involved again with Sinatra Jr after he agreed to be interviewed by a reporter for a story about the kidnapping, which was to be offered for sale to the media, with the profits to be shared by Keenan, the reporter and the magazine. Shortly after the article appeared, the film rights were sold to Columbia Pictures, who agreed to pay Keenan nearly $500,000. In 1999, however, Sinatra Jr obtained a restraining order to prevent the kidnappers from receiving any payment.
Francis Wayne Sinatra was born in Jersey City on January 10, 1944, the middle of Frank Sinatra's three children by his 12-year marriage to his first wife, Nancy Barbato. His elder sister Nancy would achieve fame as a rock singer and actress; his younger sister, Tina, would become a television producer. From the moment he was born, Frank lived in the glare of publicity focused on his father. Within hours of his birth, press cameras were in the hospital room, flashing at his mother, cradling her son in one arm and a photograph of Frank Sr (who, inevitably, was off making a film) in the other.
Shortly afterwards the family moved to LA, but Frank seldom saw his father and their relationship was not easy. It became even more distant from 1951 when Sinatra left his wife to pursue the actress Ava Gardner. The closest Frank Jr came to his father was through listening to his records, which he found "pleasing, pleasant musical conversations".
Frank took piano lessons from the age of five and, aged 17, having spent much of his childhood in boarding schools, formed a band. He released his debut album, Young Love For Sale, a collection of standards, in 1965. But Beatlemania was at its height and the album's rather dated content made Frank Jr the butt of jokes. While his sister Nancy ploughed her own furrow with These Boots Were Made For Walkin', Frank remained in his father's shadow, working casino lounges and what he called "little hole-in-the-wall clubs".
The bleak father-son relationship remained unchanged by the kidnapping, so Frank Jr was amazed in 1988 when his father asked him to be his musical director: "After my friends had revived me with the smelling salts, I said, 'Why me? There are better musical directors'. Then Pop said something which pleased me. He said, 'Maybe another singer will understand what I'm trying to do.'"
Sinatra Jr joined his father, by now in his mid-seventies and slowing down, and served as his conductor/musical director until his death in 1998. But their relationship never got any easier. Journalist Clive Davis recalled seeing one of Sinatra's last concerts, in which he "suffered memory lapses and began to snap at his son". It was the producer of Frank Sr's album Duets II (1994) who invited Frank Jr to join his father in a duet of My Kind of Town. Frank Jr himself admitted to reservations, because all the other singers on the album were stars: "I was in great fear ... that people would have just cried nepotism." Yet critics noted his smooth baritone stood up well against the older man's.
The similarities between their voices were evident on Sinatra Jr's tribute album, As I Remember It, made to commemorate his father's 80th birthday, and after his father's death Sinatra Jr worked to keep his music alive by touring the world in his show, Sinatra Sings Sinatra.
A polite and somewhat melancholic man, he remained modest about his accomplishments. If it were not for his father, he told an interviewer in 2006, "I wouldn't be noticed."
He married only once, in 1998, to Cynthia McMurrey. The marriage was dissolved after two years. Frank Sinatra Jr, who died on March 16, is survived by a son from a previous relationship.