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The enduring appeal of Frank Sinatra

June 20, 2003|Steve Carney | Special To The Times

Even five years after his death, Frank Sinatra seems as popular and pervasive as ever, with a show debuting this fall at Radio City Music Hall in New York, new CDs and DVD releases, and the unreachable goal of so many artists: regular radio airplay. His music sustains not just one, but two, L.A. stations -- with a little help from his offspring.

KLAC-AM (570) and KSUR-AM (540 and 1260) play adult standards, the classic jazz and show tunes that comprise "The Great American Songbook" -- the music of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others, performed by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and newcomers such as Diana Krall and Michael Buble.

"If not for 'The Great American Songbook,' it would be a great American wasteland," said Nancy Sinatra, the crooner's oldest child. "We're hurting for good radio."

For those to whom "standards" and the "Great American Songbook" are arcane references, just saying a station plays Frank Sinatra says it all.

"He's kind of emblematic," said Brad Chambers, KLAC program director. "He seems to be the one artist that everybody agrees is timeless."

And the stations' devotion to him is obvious. KLAC launched its format last Dec. 12, Sinatra's birthday, while KSUR's logo features an Al Hirschfeld caricature of him. Both stations have hourlong weekend shows focusing on his music. Frank Sinatra Jr. works with KLAC at 10 p.m. Sundays, and Nancy co-hosts a show on KSUR at 4 p.m. Sundays.

"We were charged with the keeping of this flame. We liken it to a family farm," Nancy said. "The body of work is the crop. We try to bring the music to younger generations."

On the anniversary of Sinatra's death, May 14, KLAC played marathon sets of his music and invited listeners to sound off on the artist. "We had kids calling," Chambers said. "We had a 16-year-old who is discovering the music. There's something out there that is creating this buzz. There's something about his music that is creating a whole new curiosity."

In November, Capitol Records released "Classic Duets," 21 recordings from his network television shows of 1957-60, featuring songs with Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. The following month, the television program of the same name aired on PBS. Also in November, USC dedicated Frank Sinatra Hall.

In August, Reprise is scheduled to release a surround-sound version of "Sinatra at the Sands -- With Count Basie & Orchestra." And the multimedia show "Sinatra -- His Voice. His World. His Way." is scheduled for October at Radio City, featuring a 40-piece orchestra and the Rockettes.

"It's amazing," Frank Jr. said, "the number of young people who are interested in Frank Sinatra."

"They love his voice," Nancy said.

"They also love the mythology," she noted, buying into the whole cool, smooth, Vegas, cocktail, suit-and-tie, Rat Pack package. Unfortunately, she added, "some of them are drawn to the myths rather than the truths and the real man."

Even if the music is attracting new fans, though, is two stations too many?

Chambers said he's confident the support is there -- standards are featured in television and movies, such as this year's "Down With Love." Rock stars such as Rod Stewart and Bryan Ferry have released standards albums, and new artists compatible with the genre, such as Norah Jones, are hitting it big.

In preliminary spring ratings released this week, KLAC garnered .6% of the local audience ages 12 and older, compared to .8% in the winter quarter. KSUR had .4%, up from .3%. But numbers at both have declined since last year; KLAC had a 1.1% rating when it was still a talk station last summer, while KSUR had a .6% in the fall, before KLAC changed formats and began competing for listeners.

"There's no question they took some of our audience," said KSUR owner Saul Levine. "I'm just stubborn enough, I'm going to stay with this. I love the format and I love the songs."

Frank Jr. said he's grateful for stations like KLAC and KSUR, as well as other outlets for the music in the genre.

"Some people think that means there's a big comeback brewing. I think it's wonderful," he said. "I'm delighted to know there's somebody not interested in Madonna and Michael Jackson and not all these ... rappers."

It's not surprising that Nancy -- who topped the pop charts in 1966 with "These Boots Were Made for Walkin" -- has a different take on rock music.

"I raised two kids who brought all kinds of music home, including rap," she said. "From punk to techno, I always found something I liked about it."

There is something special, however, about the classics by George and Ira Gershwin, Sammy Cahn and others who have contributed to the standards canon, she said.

"It all begins with the written word and the written note. These songs survive in spite of the fact that generations have come along that ignore them," she said. "We have a lot of young people who are just learning about the music.

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