Baltimoreans recall a smart, classy singer


Katharine Smeten was just a schoolgirl in saddle shoes and bobby-sox when she and her Towson Catholic High buddies each paid a dime to see Frank Sinatra perform with the Harry James Orchestra at the Hippodrome Theater.

The last time she saw him, at the Sands Hotel in Atlantic City, she paid $200 for her ticket. In between, there were another 64 shows.

Yesterday, the news of Sinatra's death hit Smeten hard.

"I'm telling you, when I heard it on the radio, I felt part of my family died," the 70-year-old Towson widow said.

To console her, Smeten has hundreds of videos, photographs and records -- her favorite song is "Strangers in the Night." And there are fond memories. Smeten used to take her late husband, Bernard, to Sinatra concerts. "Then when the tickets kept going up and up, he said, 'You know, I really don't enjoy this. Why don't you take your mother?' So I did. I took my mother -- she died at the age of 93 in '94 -- with me all up and down the East Coast."

What made Sinatra so special?

"It was the way he moved his hands," Smeten recalled. "The lay-back that he did -- he didn't stand up straight on stage, he leaned back. The charisma he had. And when he came on the stage, you thought he's singing right to you."

News of Sinatra's death summoned a variety of memories in Baltimoreans who appreciated different aspects of the multi-talented star.

Jazz singer Ethel Ennis recalled Sinatra as a "smart singer."

"He loved to be perfect," she said. "He didn't go out of his reach. He once told me that he went into the studio three times to record "Lush Life," but he never released it because he didn't like it."

Ennis remembers performing with Sinatra and Danny Thomas at a Washington governors dinner in the early 1970s. After the show, the entertainers went back to Spiro Agnew's apartment to unwind. The vice president played the piano for them.

Andy Bienstock, who is the host of an evening jazz program on WJHU-FM, was going to devote his show last night to Sinatra.

"I don't think anyone knew how to sing a song the way Sinatra did," he said. "The way he could bring the inner feeling out of a song was unparalleled. He was always a swinging singer, which gave the music a jazzy edge and drive -- and he was the master of phrasing."

At WWLD, an easy-listening radio station in Towson, program host Ken Jackson said phones had been "ringing off the hook" since 6 a.m. yesterday. "Sinatra is to us what the Beatles were to their generation."

A good businessman

Jack Heyrman, a record producer who owns Clean Cuts Music studios in Baltimore and Georgetown, called Sinatra a "complicated and brilliant person.

"I've always been a fan of the people who created amazing record labels: Frank Sinatra started his Reprise label in the early '60s and appointed an accountant named Mo Ostin, who ended up being one of the most creative record executives to ever run a company. Frank Sinatra did that! You would never think he would be that in touch with the executive side of things."

Pianist and jazz arranger Jeffrey Chappell, director of the Goucher Jazz Ensemble, talked about the way the late singer's style continues to influence students. His college musicians enjoy performing such signature Sinatra pieces as "Witchcraft."

"Some performers draw more attention to the performance than to the music -- and with Sinatra, there's an equal balance," Chappell said.

In Little Italy, Sinatra will always be "Frankie" at Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop, where three out of every five CDs played is by Sinatra.

"As soon as the customers hear 'New York, New York,' they start snapping their fingers," said owner Nick Vaccaro.

Vaccaro, 42, was "force-fed" Sinatra movies and music as a child, and finally saw him at a performance at the Capital Center in the 1970s.

"It wasn't like seeing the pope, understand, but it was a humbling experience," he said. "I always thought if I could just have Frank sit down and have espresso at one of my tables -- without anybody bothering us -- that would be the highlight of my career."

Show goes on

Mickey Light -- "Baltimore's Own Blue Eyes" -- actually did shake Frankie's hand once. And yesterday, he gamely performed his show, "The Sounds of Sinatra," at the Riverview Nursing Home in Essex and later at Enrico's in Highlandtown.

Appearing as usual in his Sinatra-inspired tuxedo and fedora, Light managed to rein in his emotions during such favorites as "World on a String" and "Embraceable You."

But then it was time for "My Way."

"I just about got through it, but the tears started coming when I sang 'And now the end is near,' " said the 62-year-old entertainer.

"Frankie had the most beautiful women in the world. The best of cars. The best of homes. He even had his own plane. Frankie was a classy guy. He had that magic about him that only certain performers, like Elvis or the Beatles, have. And he lasted 62 or 63 years in the business. He outlasted all of them.

Pub Date: 5/16/98

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