The Jukebox is synonymous with the great tunes of the middle Twentieth Century. Its fashionable exterior drew the eyes and ears of all who passed by, but few saw the complex internal structure of these icons. In the same way the legacy of Frank Sinatra is known to many, but few knows the inner details of that legacy like Sinatra Archivist Charles Pignone.
Charles Pignone was on the road with Ol’ Blue Eyes and saw the details of his moments on and off stage. Luckily for us, Mr. Pignone has a sterling memory and a passion for sharing the story of a man that stepped onto many a stage and into many more hearts.
When the record starts turning and the needle hums with the history of Frank Sinatra, it will be through the writing of Pignone that generations will hear about the Frank Sinatra that was. He is the Senior Vice President of Frank Sinatra Enterprises. Charles Pignone has authored two books on Frank Sinatra. The first, The Sinatra Treasures and Frank Sinatra: The Family Album and the soon to be released Sinatra 100.
We hope that you’ll put in your dime, select this wonderful interview and enjoy the conversation with Charles Pignone, Sinatra Archivist and author.
~ Introduction by Daniel Buckner ~
I want you to kind of take us back a bit. What was life growing up for you?
Well, I had an idyllic childhood. I was born in upstate New York. I was raised on this music, being Italian and having a large family. My grandfather was actually in the vending business, so he had a lot of jukeboxes. Frank Sinatra was played all the time in the house and around. Growing up, I was also a Yankee fan. So around 1980, when Frank recorded “New York, New York” and they started playing it at the games subsequently that just kind of sealed the deal.
When I was going into college in 1984, there was an opportunity to take over the Sinatra Society of America. I was going to college for a marketing degree, and at that point I had established a relationship with Dorothy Uhlemann, who was Frank’s long time secretary. She put me in touch with Lee Solters, and Lee was Frank’s publicist at the time, and a very famous publicist. Since deceased now, but handled Michael Jackson, Barbara Streisand. If you Google “Lee Solters,” he was the last of the great publicist. He was also a character. I took over the fan club in the spring of ’84.
What I would do is, when I had time off from college, I would travel and go on the road with the musicians and wherever Frank was, and take pictures with him. We published a newsletter six times a year, got to know the people that worked with him. I had already had a relationship with his pianist, who had just come back, Bill Miller. I knew Bill from talking to him on the phone, asking him questions. I knew his previous guitar player, Al Viola, but got to know everybody on the road and sort of became a fixture. It just evolved after those four years when I graduated in 1988, eventually went on the road with Frank, the last decade that he worked.
It just evolved into a full time position to where I am now. I think a lot had to do with my age. As I said, at that time I was 18. Most 90 percent of the conversations I had with Frank Sinatra during that time were about music. I would ask about a specific song, or something regarding an album or music or a television special. I think him seeing somebody so young, interested in his music and because I had a rapport with him sort of sealed the deal with the relationship.
I don’t think know if I was 48, going around backstage and saying hello, he probably would’ve been very kind, taken a picture with me, and that would’ve been it. I think there was some kind of intrigue that somebody young was taking an interest in the music and he has said over the years in many interviews that the legacy was, he was hoping that when he stopped, that the younger generation would find this music. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, meet the right people, and it evolved into what it is. I’ve been working with the Sinatras, with Frank and the family for two-thirds of my life now. That’s just the way it’s been.
You mentioned the jukebox and your father. Were there particular tracks that you especially loved?
I have to tell you, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I don’t think you could go into a jukebox in upstate New York or anywhere in the tri-city area and not have “Strangers in the Night,” “Summer Wind,” subsequently “New York, New York” but certainly “My Way” playing. They were played almost every night in every place that I went into, ever, with my grandfather. There were other tracks, but those I remember vividly. Like I said, I think when “New York, New York” on the “Trilogy” album, that sort of was a renaissance people started discovering of the music.
When you look back historically now, it’s hard to believe, but there was a really fallow time in the ‘70s after Frank retired and before “Trilogy” that there was really no appreciation for this music. It was Frank, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, and there were a handful of other people out there, Peggy Lee, out there, working and doing it. It wasn’t really until “Trilogy” and then a few years later when Linda Ronstadt hooked up with Nelson Riddle and came up with the idea of a younger generation doing the standards.
And now, since 1984, that has been the template for any artist who is in their late 50s or early 60s, from rock or another area of music. They all seem to want to latch on and do one of those albums. The latest one is Bob Dylan, which I think is tremendous, but in talking to Sammy Cahn and people like Jimmy Van Heusen in those years, there was really sort of a reservation about people doing that music. Again, I think it was spurned by “Trilogy” and the success of Linda Ronstadt’s album that the standards are now appreciated for what they are because there was a period there where it was mostly based on the singer-songwriters. “New York, New York” kicked it off. I think that’s the beginning of the renaissance that continues today.
Earlier you were talking about the late publicist Lee Solters. Tell us a little bit about him. Could you call him like a gatekeeper? Was he very skeptical?
When I got really involved, by the time I got out of college and involved, Lee had moved on. Lee was with Frank I think from the mid ‘70s. There was an incident in Australia, where Frank had an incident with the press, and his press agent from the mid ‘60s, up until that time was a man named Jim Mahoney who is still alive. I think he lives here, he might even live down in Rancho Mirage or Palm Springs where Frank used to live. Jim Mahoney was subsequently let go after the Australian thing and then Lee took over. (Editor’s note, in 1974 Sinatra was in the press regarding statements he made about paparazzi in Australia).
Lee had a daughter, whose name was Susan Reynolds. By the time I had became really full time involved, Lee had moved on, and Susan, because Lee had other clients, he would send Susan on a lot of the trips. And Susan would be there most of the time. So by the time I started, really full time in 1988, they had moved on and his daughter, actually Susan Reynolds, was the publicist, and she was Frank’s publicist until he passed away.
But I knew Lee and kept a relationship with him and saw him a few months before he passed. I saw him in Las Vegas, he was at an art show representing Tony Curtis. He still represented a lot of the Golden-era people, and at one point even represented I think Caesar’s Palace as an entity. Lee was a presence out there, and I could call Lee if I had questions or if I needed information or old press releases. Lee was just an old school character and a wonderful guy. I miss him.
You talked about the Bob Dylan album that came out this year. This year of course being the centenary year of Mr. Sinatra’s birth. Who do you think is out there that is doing the best job of keeping the flame burning?
Well, I think anybody that does this music and exposes it to people, our younger generations, is great. We have a radio channel, Siriusly Sinatra, that’s strictly devoted to the standard music and not just Frank. I mean, Frank is played the majority of the time, but it’s one of the only places you can hear Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, etcetera on the radio. But we do have Bob Dylan in there, we have Harry Connick, we have Michael Bublé. We have newer people that are singing this music.
Look, I don’t think there’s anybody in our life time and beyond that’s going to come anywhere near the artistry of Frank Sinatra. It can’t be done today. It’s not financially feasible for people to do three or four albums a year with a large orchestra with 38 to 68 pieces. Michael Bublé may do one album a year; I don’t know about Harry Connick anymore. He sort of moved into another genre of music with the New Orleans and strictly jazz. There’s nobody that will ever amass a catalogue like Frank Sinatra with the quality of musicianship. It’s just… the business has changed.
The business model for music has changed, you have two generations of people. Younger people, they don’t think that music is something they should be paying for. So like I said, I don’t think it can ever be replicated from a financial standpoint. But, just from the sheer talent of it, from the musician on the arrangers and Frank Sinatra. You have to realize in those years, in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, even up until the ‘70s. You had musicians out here on the west coast and in New York that could actually make a living and work as a professional musician, so they were playing 5 to 7 days a week.
It’s very hard now, especially when people go out on their own and try to get an orchestra. There’s multiple rehearsals because they look at this music, they’ve never played it. So you’re just never going to find anybody that can carry the torch and the legacy that Frank Sinatra has. That’s why I’m very lucky. We have a wonderful catalogue. A problem I always had with the Frank Sinatra projects is not what we put in but what we have to leave out, because it’s an embarrassment of riches, this catalogue and it’s just a career that’ll never be duplicated.
One of the incredible things, just as you were talking about, was just the breadth of what Mr. Sinatra recorded. And all of these great songwriters of what they call the American Songbook. And we have lost most of them, most of them have passed away. We recently lost Ervin Drake the writer of “It Was a Very Good Year.” I was hoping you could tell us about some of the songwriters that you have encountered or learned about as a result of your work?
Frank Sinatra as you mentioned worked with the greatest songwriters, the people that wrote the great American Songbook, from the late ‘20s until the early ‘60s. Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin. I mean, Cahn and Van Heusen, and earlier Cahn and Jule Styne seemed like Frank’s personal songwriters. They knew the man so they could write songs to fit his persona. That’s why there’s nobody that can sing “Come Fly with Me” or “Only the Lonely” or some of those songs that Cahn and Van Heusen or Cahn and Styne wrote specifically for Sinatra and give the same definitive version that Frank give.
The other thing you have to realize is when Frank went to Capitol Records, he started something that a lot of people credit him with the concept album, which is true and it was fabulous. But the other thing that people forget is, he resurrected a lot of songs that were written in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, specifically for Fred Astaire and if you talk to Tony Bennett or hear him in an interview, a lot of times he says these songs are called the “Fred Astaire Songbook,” and that’s because a lot of the writers; Kern, Gershwin, Mercer were writing songs for Fred Astaire for the movies that he was in. But Frank went a step further and 20, 30 years after those movies were done with. And you have to remember, there wasn’t television, there weren’t DVDs, they weren’t shown again.
Frank would take a song, like “One for my Baby.” If you watched the movie where Fred Astaire sang that, it’s not a torch song. He sings it mid-tempo. Now when you hear “One for my Baby” you think always of the way Frank sang it. Same thing with “I’ve Got you Under My Skin” and several other songs. So I don’t think Frank gets the credit for resurrecting a lot of the great songs and making them standard. There are a handful of songs that probably are just as good as some of the songs Frank sang that he never touched. It’s a shame. If he did, they probably would be more popular now. The other thing, too, you have to realize too is that Sammy Cahn and those guys, Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer, their craft was songwriting. Of course Johnny had a career as a singer, but that was something he did mostly as a hobby.
But Kern, Porter, Gershwin; their job was songwriting. So when you got to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and you had people that thought, why am I splitting money with songwriters? I can write a song and collect the publishing and the artist share. You then had people such as Bob Dylan, and I’m not putting anybody down, or James Taylor, people that were writing their own material, and singing it. So the craft has to be diluted. That’s like if you’re building a house. Is the guy that’s putting in the plumbing the same guy that puts in the electrician? I don’t think you want the guy to do two things unless he’s really good at it. Unless you’re doing one thing and you get really good at it, you’ll never be great at it. So the songwriting got diluted.
When you got to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as I said, you only really had Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, you only had a handful of artists that were keeping these songs alive. I think that Frank really should get more credit for resurrecting a lot of these songs. The catalogue and the material that he sang is just so wonderful. It will never be replicated. It just happened, and happened in that time, and I’m glad it did.Semnat de Paul Leslie