Frank Sinatra’s Drummer Tells the Story of His Final Concert
Gregg Field worked with the legendary singer for the last few years of Sinatra’s professional career. In honor of Ol’ Blue Eyes’s 100th birthday, Field reflects back on both the good and the bad. There was no grand announcement, no farewell tour. He had tried that 20 years earlier, and it didn’t stick. But on February 25, 1995, after singing for more than 60 years for kings, queens, pirates, and presidents, Frank Sinatra stepped out on a stage in front of adoring fans for what would unknowingly be the last time.
As his drummer, I knew the day would come. With every year and every passing performance, Frank’s prophetic “My Way” lyric, “And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain,” became more difficult to ignore. Sinatra graced thousands of stages, grand and gritty, over the course of 70 years. Let me tell you my story of the final few.
I first became part of Frank’s world in 1981 as a member of Count Basie’s band, then permanently a few years later after Irv Cottler, Sinatra’s close friend and drummer of over 30 years, died. It was a rough time for Frank on a personal but also musical level—he burned through four drummers and two bass players in six months. When conductor Frank Jr. called to offer me the gig with his father, I never for a moment considered turning it down.
“Let me think about it,” I joked. “Yes!”
Working for Sinatra was a coveted and cushy gig: first-class travel to glamorous corners of the world like Barcelona, Japan, Paris, or Hong Kong, extended stays at Ritz-Carltons and Peninsulas, and never having to wait (I mean never) for a table at an Italian restaurant. But it was never about the perks. It was all about the music.
The musical relationship between Frank and his musicians, especially his drummer, was intense and personal. Frank loved the powerful rhythmic propulsion at his back, often driven by a cracking “back beat” on the snare that he wanted targeted dead in the middle of his unparalleled rhythmic sense. It was 80 percent reaction and 20 percent action. If I let up, even for an instant, he would turn my way looking for more heat. I never took my eyes off of him.
Yet despite our intense stage relationship, a year into my role I had never so much as lifted a glass with him, much less held a conversation. I thought it odd—I was a fan too, after all. But it was Bill Miller, Frank’s longtime pianist, who told me early on that “Frank needs a drummer, not another friend.” I got it.
That all changed one late night in 1992, at the Monaco Red Cross Gala, in Monte Carlo.
We had finished the concert and it was about two A.M. when I was walking through the lobby of the Hotel de Paris. As I passed the bar on the left, I saw that Frank was holding court with the usual suspects— Gregory and Veronique Peck, Roger Moore, Frank’s wife, Barbara, and her son, Bobby Marx. Bobby caught my eye and motioned for me to join the table. I instantly remembered the words of Bill Miller and waived him off. But Bobby motioned again, and the idea of joining that group was irresistible.
Bobby got Frank’s attention. “Your drummer wants a drink!” “My drummer doesn’t drink,” Frank said. “Oh, he drinks Jack Daniels!” The next thing I know a waiter comes to the table and presents a silver platter with a bucket of ice, an empty glass, and a fifth of Jack. Frank got up from the end of the table, walked over, pulled a chair up next to me and said, “It’s time I get to know my drummer.”
For the next couple of hours we talked about music, music, and more music. Frank’s bass player Chuck Berghofer, who had joined us, asked Frank how he always had such impossibly great rhythm and timing. “I just get a cuckoo rhythm section and get out of the way,” Frank said.
At some point the talk turned from music to personal to Jack Kennedy. Frank began to tell us the story of how Joe Kennedy had called him during his son’s election, asking for help using his connections in swaying the Illinois and West Virginia vote. Frank obliged. Once his close friend was in the White House, however, he couldn’t get a returned call, and this night, all the years later, it still really annoyed Frank.
I thought. “This isn’t something I’ve heard on TV. This is the real thing.”
It was only a year and a half or so before the final concert that we got wind of a new Sinatra-album project in the works, Duets, where Frank would be paired with seemingly every major music star of the day. The concept was not without its risks. Frank hadn’t been in a studio since L.A. Is My Lady 10 years before, and some thought that he would never step foot in one again—most noticeably, the former head of Reprise and Warner Bros. Records Mo Ostin, who is rumored to have turned down the album for that very reason. It went to Capitol Records instead.
Any doubts about Sinatra’s ability to deliver vanished as soon as it hit the market. The album exploded worldwide and became the best-selling album of his career, going triple platinum. But even with historic success, I often heard critics say that Frank’s voice on Duets wasn’t what it was. It was the album producer Phil Ramone who said, while listening to the new recording of “One for My Baby,” that those looking for the Sinatra of years past were missing the point. “You don’t get it, that’s 60 years of pain, whiskey, and Ava all in that vocal.”
The signs of Frank’s difficulty carrying a concert however began before Duets and were slow but relentless as time progressed. There was the concert in front of the great cathedral in Cologne, Germany, where Frank shouted to the crowd: “Two of my favorite cities, New York and London!” It was a night during the December 1993 run at the MGM Grand, in Las Vegas, however, that seemed to spell the beginning of the end. Frank’s memory and ability to read the teleprompter that evening were so impaired that he would stop mid-song, looking confused and unable to remember the lyrics. Frank knew as well as anyone he hadn’t delivered and immediately after the concert summoned his manager, ordering him to give the patrons their money back.
Backstage before the concert the next night, I asked Hank Cattaneo, Sinatra’s longtime trusted friend and production manager, how the “Old Man” (our term of endearment for Frank) was. “Fine, why?” he said. “What about last night?” “Yesterday’s news.” And Hank was right. While not perfect, this night bore no resemblance to the previous night’s disaster and left us scratching our head.
For a while, it seemed things had settled back to what we had excepted as normal with Sinatra’s occasional forgetting of lyrics or a second telling of the same anecdote. Just months before the end, things even looked like they were changing for the better. There was a concert at Tanglewood, in the Berkshires, where Frank never once relied on any of the four giant teleprompters downstage. Or Harbor Lights in Boston, which was nothing short of flawless—probably due to the fact that Frank’s temporary road doctor had refused to give him the potentially fog-inducing meds we were told he had been taking just before going onstage. And there was Chicago, where Frank opened at the new United Center with a kinetic performance of “My Kind of Town.” It was vintage Sinatra, and the audience and musicians knew this was a special night.
But then came Japan.
The trip was cursed from the start. Frank had borrowed Kirk Kerkorian’s plane for the trip, and what should have been a 12-hour, nonstop commercial flight turned into a 16-hour marathon after the private jet had to refuel twice on the way. Frank arrived at the hotel looking beat up, with less than 24 hours to go before the concert.
Sinatra was and still is huge in Japan. Despite the concert being in the 30,000-seat Fukuoka Dome baseball stadium, many fans came dressed in black-tie and gowns to celebrate Sinatra’s grand return some arriving hours before the concert started.
From the moment “Ladies and gentlemen, Frank Sinatra!” echoed across the stadium, I knew something was wrong. Frank was moving slowly, his eyes were glassy, and he looked confused. As the concert went on he kept forgetting lyrics and introduced his conductor and son, Frank Jr., multiple times. Frank Jr., as discreetly as possible, would leave his conductor’s position to try to help his father, to no avail.
When the concert finished we headed straight back to the Nikko hotel bar for an over-serving of $25 Japanese Jack. No one was quite sure what to say. The handlers were joking, “Oh, that’s probably just the Old Man drinking all the way to Japan,” but we were silently asking the same questions. Was it the flight? Was it meds? Was it just time to finally call it quits?
The next night’s performance was even worse, with Frank almost completely losing his ability to even remember which song he was singing.
We were nearing the end of the concert, when the familiar saloon intro to “One for My Baby” began. Frank walked to the piano, lit a cigarette, motioned a toast, and took a sip of whiskey. It was mostly a prop. Within seconds he had lost his way, stumbling through the lyric. He managed to get out the words: “We’re drinkin’, my friend, to the end.”
I knew he was right.
That night was the last public performance of Frank Sinatra’s career. None of us not his pals, his musicians, his family, or 30,000 Japanese fans had any idea we were all witnessing history. Not even Frank.
The year 1995 only had one date on its calendar: the invitation-only Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational gala in Palm Desert. It was tradition for Frank to sing one or two songs before sending everyone off to the bar. It was to be an easy performance, but a performance nonetheless. When I saw Frank that afternoon at rehearsal he looked like a different man. He was tan, rested, and in a great mood, even joking as he started to sing that he “thought he swallowed a shot glass.”
That night he opened with “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and it was the Frank of old. Didn’t miss a word or note. Then, he called another song. And then another song, and then another. By the time he left the stage we had done a mini-Sinatra concert with Frank performing six classics. And with mic and the audience in hand, he sang his final message: “The best is yet to come, come the day you’re mine . . . And I’m gonna make you mine!” It was perfect. Frank swinging on top, owning it, and then disappearing into the chilly desert night.
The last time I saw Frank was in June of that year. His longtime assistant Dorothy Uhlemann called to invite me to join Frank for a Father’s Day dinner at Arnie Morton’s in Beverly Hills, a favorite Sinatra haunt.
As usual, we all congregated at the bar. Frank asked what I was having. The answer was, of course, Jack—but when his back was turned, I whispered to the bartender to add a little ginger ale.
Turns out he wasn’t as far away as I thought.
“Would you like a little apple pie with your whiskey?” he asked. That was the last time I ever ruined perfectly good hootch. It was nearly two A.M. when the celebrations were over. As we headed out the door and into the night, Frank said to no one in particular, “I sure miss Smokey.”
I’ll never know what caused him to think about Sammy Davis Jr. at that moment but he was in a sentimental mood by the end of the evening. As he climbed into his car, Frank reached out and shook my hand.
“See ya, pally,” he said.
At that moment all my Sinatra times turned into memories. Driving home I had “Come Fly with Me” blasting in the car. It reminded me of a favorite toast of Frank’s: “May you live to be a hundred and may the last voice you hear be mine!”
If I can’t have the former, the latter will do.