Mickey Light doesn't do imitations, he takes demonic possession of Frank Sinatra. Not just the music, but the mannerisms. Not just the lyrics, but the tilt of the hat, the grip of the microphone cord. He's a man in the middle of his very own emotional echo chamber.
Three years ago, Light was a dishwasher at the downtown Hyatt Hotel but worked his way up to room service. Some called him the singing bellhop. Everybody knew he loved Sinatra, but where do you go if you're past age 50 and nobody knows your name?
"You know," he was saying yesterday, in the living room of his Essex home, "I got blue eyes, like Frankie. Who knows, my mother might have fooled around with him."
He flips the line offhandedly, the way Sinatra might. Light is a walking memorial to the greatest pop singer of the century, big enough now to have played the Sands in Atlantic City, places in Boston, Chicago and Washington, and clubs, restaurants, churches, old age homes and private parties around Baltimore.
"Crazy," he says.
The way Sinatra might.
You wait for a ring-a-ding-ding to follow.
One night three years ago he's doing room service, the next he's doing an open-mike talent show at the Hyatt and finishing third with a Sinatra medley. They penalized him, he says, because they thought he was lip-syncing. A year later, he enters again, does "Lady is a Tramp" and "New York, New York" and wins.
Then comes a call from old buddy Jake Needleman, who owned Giovanni's in Edgewood. Every year, the restaurant threw a Sinatra night, and Needleman, knowing Light's love of Sinatra -- and his collection of memorabilia -- asks to borrow some concert posters.
"We're having a guy that does Sinatra," Needleman says.
"I do a little Sinatra," says Light. He breaks out some tapes with arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Count Basie, stuff he still uses today, the same instrumentals Sinatra uses. He does a few numbers for Needleman, who says, "You're our Sinatra."
It starts with that. Now he's working every weekend. "Sounds of Sinatra," it's called. The songs, the mannerisms, the patter. The taped orchestrations behind him. The audiences on their feet for "My Way," old sweethearts holding hands and pretending they're at the Paramount. Some guy in a restaurant weeping over the old numbers.
And Mickey Light, 57 years old now, a guy who grew up in the projects and loved Sinatra and studied him ever since he was 13, who listened to his music and studied his mannerisms and envied his women, stands here now in a tuxedo and snap-brim fedora, holding the microphone just so, strutting across the stage the way Sinatra does, and finds himself in the middle of a long-shot dream.
"They flew my wife and me out to Arizona," he says yesterday morning, "to do a performance for Lee Iacocca. And you come back, and you're laying in bed drinking a beer and you say, 'Did this happen?' "
He's having a wonderful time. For years, he collected Sinatra tapes, posters, videos. Friends mailed him bootleg stuff they recorded at concerts. It's all in boxes now, maybe 5,000 concert recordings, he says.
He examines the stuff all the time, no longer merely the fan, but the student wishing to emulate the role model. It's all part of making a living. He watches Sinatra with the eye of a scout. Every nuance becomes part of the act.
It's not like those Elvis impersonators, who simply throw on a cape and dye their hair black. Sinatra's a subtler study, a throwback to a time before electronics and costumed aura counted for so much.
"People say, 'I closed my eyes and thought it was Frank.' Women will kiss me. But I try not to take it too serious, you know. I don't live my lifestyle like Frank, and I'm not one of these guys who do Elvis and think they're Elvis."
It's enough fun just being Mickey Light, who used to wash dishes but now works out front. How many people take their fantasies out from under wraps? How many do it having passed the mid-century mark?
"I did the Sands in Atlantic City last June," he says. "They called me and said some high rollers were there and they couldn't get Sinatra, so could I come in? It went absolutely great. And I said to myself, 'Look at me, playing the same hotel as Frankie.' "
He snaps his fingers: Not bad, not bad. A life worth singing about.