My introduction to Frank Sinatra came by way of “New York, New York” (1979) and “My Way” (1969). Needless to say, I was not a fan. Even as a pre-teen, the over-produced bombast came across as someone, dare I say an old man, trying too hard. Besides, I was born in 1966 and came of age in the early 80s. By law, I was required to worship Springsteen, Seger, Zeppelin, Petty, Van Halen, Def Leppard, and AC/DC, not some crooner belting out anthems about how it’s up to you my way.
With a memory as bad as mine, I don’t have many memories. Flipping through a family photo album can sometimes feel like flipping through someone else’s family photo album. No joke, I have forgotten entire vacations. What I have never forgotten, though, is the moment I fell in love with “The Voice.”
The year was 1985, I was 19 and working in the maintenance department at a nursing home. The radio in the shop was always tuned to WOKY, a station that played only adult standards for folks over the age of a million: Dean Martin, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Julie London, Vic Damone, Glenn Miller, Peggy Lee, and of course Francis Albert.
To a kid my age, the music played like background music, elevator music. It neither grabbed nor annoyed me. It was just there. That all changed the afternoon Johnny Mercer’s “Summer Wind” came on.
I was alone in the shop rehabbing a wheelchair when arranger/composer/genius Nelson Riddle’s first notes hit, an amazing marriage of Big Band orchestration and an organ:
Ba ba buh buh buh buh buh buh buhbah…
And then came Sinatra at age 51, at his peak as a perfectly tuned musical instrument, interpreter of song, and storyteller:
The summer wind came blowin’ in from across the sea
It lingered there, to touch your hair and walk with me
All summer long we sang a song and then we strolled that golden sand
Two sweethearts and the summer wind
Through Sinatra’s gift, you know from the opening moments that this is a story of loss told by a man whose wounds will never heal, a man haunted by having experienced a perfection lost forever. Here, in the middle, the song builds in intensity as this poor, eternally lovesick sap shares, no, relives, that perfection — and you know that’s his only solace: endlessly retelling the story to whomever will listen, reliving it in the hopes that some magic will occur that brings about a different ending:
Like painted kites, those days and nights they went flyin’ by
The world was new beneath a blue umbrella sky
Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you
I lost you, I lost you to the summer wind
In “The Song Is You,” Will Friedwald’s incomparable look at Sinatra’s musical artistry, he explains the closing far more eloquently than I ever could: “As Sinatra’s emotions mount, the wind and the music waft upward into a crescendo of hurricanelike intensity,” he writes. “Like a tornado, it reduces the hero’s happiness to rubble and then softly drifts away, as tenderly and as cruelly as it entered.”
The autumn wind, and the winter winds they have come and gone
And still the days, those lonely days, they go on and on
And guess who sighs his lullabies through nights that never end
My fickle friend, the summer wind
The summer wind
Warm summer wind
The summer wind
Still alone in the shop, and frozen in place, when the last notes faded I was emotionally wiped out. In just three minutes, Sinatra had broken my heart forever.
To save bus fare, I walked the three miles home that night. It was winter. It was cold. It was dark. The neighborhood wasn’t safe. But I needed the two-dollars to buy a song. There was a record store just a few blocks from my studio apartment in downtown Milwaukee. They didn’t have the single, just the album it was on, which meant I would be walking the rest of the week.
I don’t know how many times I replayed that song that night, but I do know that by the time I was done I knew every word and beat of “Summer Wind” by heart.
I still do.
“Summer Wind” was my gateway drug past the bombastic comeback anthems and into the world of the greatest entertainer of the 20th Century. After thirty years, thanks to a crooner from Hoboken who poured so much into his art you continue to hear, feel, and experience something new, even in a song you’ve heard a thousand times, the love affair rages on.
The brawls, the movies, the bobby soxers, the Rat Pack, the Kennedys, the comebacks, the kidnapping, Palm Springs, Ava, Giancana… That’s all part of the legend, the myth, the noise, and completely separate from the artist and his unsurpassed artistry.
Sinatra is our Bach, our Beethoven, our Shakespeare, the artist of our time who will be remembered 500 years from now, 10,000 years from now, for as long as Western Civilization survives.
My list of Sinatra’s 11 greatest songs (other than “Summer Wind”) can be found here.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC