This week, we got to attend our wonderful San Francisco Symphony again for the first time in more than two years – it was an unforgettable evening of joy. And our second concert is coming up Wednesday – a holiday musical tribute to the artistry of two giants – Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. I’ve been reflecting on the power of music, universal in its ability to provide a sort of magical ticket away from the daily stresses and rebirth joy – perhaps through remembered moments, perhaps by unearthing some lesser explored part of our hearts, setting energies free to sing and dance, even if only to ourselves. I listen to music constantly – rediscovering songs I had forgotten through streaming services, along with new artists, new voices. It lifts us, it can inspire, infuriate, renew and reveal – artists vocal and instrumental, composers and lyricists whose names deserve more recognition than the performers. Some – a few – are timeless; we can form bonds with music that last a lifetime, that become the soundtrack to our history.
My Mom loved music too – and as we look forward to hearing the Sinatra tribute this week, I realize how much his music meant to her throughout her lifetime. My memories of her are many, but they all have a common thread – she suffered from debilitating pain throughout her time on earth. Born in 1926, having me as her second child in 1958, she was already developing problems from rheumatoid arthritis after my brother’s birth 3 years prior. She had health problems from childhood, multiple surgeries and hospitalizations, and by the time I was five, separated from my Dad, disabled and raising two boys on minimal child support and alimony. As the years and the deterioration of her muscle strength progressed, she had to have special shoes made for her feet and became dependent on pain treatments that today’s patients happily can avoid. I remember the many nights when she would try to take care of things around the house, pushing through the pain, and the sounds of her distress and discomfort were not easily ignored – nor easily forgotten, decades later.
But music could somehow transform, or at least diminish, her distress into joy, in moments. She had a pretty large collection of 78’s – big, bulky, scratched, in these sort of cardboard folio albums – along with later LP’s. She also had held onto an upright piano, gifted from her mother who passed before my entry on the scene – and encouraged me to take piano lessons, which I did for years. She also would occasionally peck at the keys a bit, but more often just turn on the radio. As a teen, I remember digging through the record cabinet, wondering at the names – some I knew, many were unknown. She didn’t listen to 70’s artists; I think her most contemporary albums were by Jack Jones and Rod McKuen (no Beatles, and certainly no rock!) – but there were many scratched 78’s and several 50’s/60’s albums by Frank Sinatra – the “Chairman of the Board”, “The Voice”, the emblem of a generation.
It wasn’t until my 40’s, when she entered a long term care facility and I took on the years long task of cleaning and repairing her home, and the many boxes of her life that remained unopened for decades, that I began to see how much Sinatra had been part of her life. By this time, I had become more familiar with the music of that era – certainly loving many of the songs he made popular, especially later when I started enjoying karaoke at the bars in Palm Springs. Frank himself had passed by then – I’d seen some movies and knew a little of his history from the tributes and television coverage. So, when I came across the boxes of photos, and the magazines, and programs – it was like a time capsule of my Mom’s love affair with his songs.
It was during those years, the final few of her life, that she began to share some of her memories of the 40’s in LA – before meeting my Dad, before the ravages of health gnarled her hands and distorted her feet, keeping her in a physical prison and to a degree an emotional one as well. Seeing pictures of her as a glamour teen, in a bathing suit, were kind of astonishing – this was not the woman who had raised me, to my eyes at least. Growing up in Long Beach and working in that area, she had made friends with ties to Hollywood, somehow – after all, as a teenager at the outset of World War II, with so many young men leaving to fight for freedom, young women were exploring new ways of living that their parents never imagined. She had gone on a bowling double date with Mickey Rooney, had lunch at the Paramount studios commissary with Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth one table over, and visited the home of Errol Flynn – a young woman bursting with life, and dreams and hopes of romance. All influenced by the crooner that ruled the radio, and in time movies as well – Frank.
She told me how her father took her to the Hollywood Bowl in 1943 to see Frank break with long held tradition there – somewhat controversially – performing “popular song” instead of the usual classical fare. Years later, visiting the Bowl Museum, I heard a recording of his comments that night – it was the beginning of many ups and downs in his career, but a pinnacle for the scrawny kid from Hoboken. My uncle, a few years her senior, was in England building glider planes for the Allies – he told me later how much all the enlisted men hated Sinatra for staying home, getting all the attention from the screaming fans. It surprised me to see on display at the museum the same program I had found in her belongings, carefully preserved.
She even shared how, as the president of a chapter of the Sinatra Fan Club, she had attended some of the earlier west coast radio feeds earlier in his career, from LA for the Major Bowes Amateur hour – a few of which I share here – with notations for the timing of the breaks, and songs, on the I imagine now rare scripts. Thinking of her in Los Angeles, occasionally getting to ask for his autograph, long before the realities of life brought her elsewhere with two sons and no husband or job or car – I began to understand her life from a different perspective.
As I enjoy the recordings of Frank today – and have retained the photos and magazines and other items, despite my brothers encouragement to sell them since at the time of his passing they had more value – I also remember the joy that those songs brought my Mom, a kind of healing, at least for a moment, a respite of sorts for her spirit. Perhaps, when she sang along with those records, or played the radio for a special song while struggling to keep up with the responsibilities that lay on her alone, she was carried back to those moments – those hopes and dreams. But my Mom never expressed regret that things did not work out as she had imagined – she focused on the challenges of the day, caring for us, and trying to sort through the choices we all have to make, in whatever circumstances we face.
Unlike Mom, I never saw Sinatra perform live – at least, not that Sinatra. After my Mom’s passing, a friend and I drove to see his son, Frank Jr., perform in Orange County – sitting a few seats away, his daughter Nancy (without her boots), knowing and reliving their own memories of their father through song. The upcoming symphony performance is nearly sold out – a remarkable testimony to the legacy of Sinatra and Ella, the composers and artists, and the power of music to give us life. Over two years ago, we enjoyed a similar tribute to my own favorite vocalist, Nat King Cole, and Aretha Franklin there – voices that remind us that our humanity is shared, our desires are not so different, and our yearnings unchanged from generations prior. I am glad we can again be gathered together, celebrating not only the season, but the timelessness of music – and of the hopes that it nourishes. My heart will sing along; I will smile, thinking, just maybe, Mom will be listening, too.
Wherever your week takes you – I hope you find some joy. It’s there, for the discovery – and the sharing. Until next time – thanks for stopping by to visit. You are always welcome!
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