"Frank Sinatra: The Man and His Musicians"
by PAUL KREIBICH
"…I just get a koo-koo rhythm section and stay out of the way!"- Sinatra
A candid roundtable discussion with the men who swung with him and hung with him, The Rhythm Section: Pianist Bill Miller, guitarist Al Viola, bassist Chuck Berghofer, and drummer Gregg Field.
The life and times of Frank Sinatra are part of the cultural history of America. His life reflects the lives of all who lived during these times young or old. So much has been written about Sinatra; from his humble beginnings in Hoboken, New Jersey on through his early rise to fame as a big band singer and matinee idol. We know of his ups and downs and "ol' blue eyes" comeback in the 50's, and of course, his superstar status in the 60's and beyond. It's all classic Frank. But what of the inside Sinatra? What was he like to work for? What surprises were in store for those who met him and got beyond the image and into the real person? Who better to ask then the musicians who shared the stage with him?
We've gathered four musicians who were very close to him at many stages of his career. Al Viola first joined Sinatra in 1946 and worked with him on and off for over 30 years. Bill Miller was a mainstay on piano since 1951. Chuck Berghofer and Gregg Field did their tenure during the latter part of Frank's career in the eighties and nineties.
PK: First question -how did you get the gig?
Al: I was just out of the service in 1945 and with the Page Cavanaugh Trio. We were playing a chic nightclub on Sunset Boulevard called the Beau Cage where the top talent such as the Nat Cole trio, Peggy Lee and Mel Torme would play. .Sinatra would come in to see what was going on. He heard the trio and took us to New York City in 1946. This is when his public was still the bobbysoxers. He wore the floppy ties, and his voice was a higher pitch not the strong baritone or swing style. In those days ballads were the thing with all the singers. We worked in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria in the Wedgewood Room and in Atlantic City at Steel Pier with comedian Jack E. Leonard. Working with him in the 40's was a great experience because I lucked out and got to see hear the teenagers screaming like they show in the newsreels. In 1949 I left the trio and Sinatra got very busy making movies. I didn't see Sinatra again until the middle 50's.
Bill: I got the job accidentally. I was working with a trio in Vegas, and he (Frank) came through. At the time he was ready to change the chair. He asked me if I wanted to do the TV show. Yeah, in late '51. I was 9 years old…ha-ha.
Gregg: I got the gig indirectly through Basie. Basie was doing a special with Frank in 1981 called The Man and His Music. I was a member of Basie's band and it was unusual because they actually used Basie's rhythm section instead of Sinatra's . Then it was actually 10 years later in 1991 I got a call from Bill Miller, saying he and Chuck discussed drummers and mentioned my name. Sol Gubin came in for about a year after Irv Cottler died. (Irv had played drums for Sinatra for almost 30 years and it was a tough chair to fill). They went through 3 guys in about 6 months and it was sort of crazy. I figured when I got the call this guy must be a tyrant, and it must be a really difficult job, but five years later I was still there! I had a ball.
Chuck: Quite some time ago I did some recordings including "Strangers in the Night" in the 60's. It happened to be a big hit. It's funny because it's one of the tunes he hated! Through the years Irv Cottler asked me to go on the road with him. I was busy in the studio and didn't want to go on the road. Finally during the last 5 years or so, Frank Capp was on drums and asked me to go to Europe for a month with Sinatra. I said, "That sounds great - I'll do it!" That was the beginning. I figured I'd do it for a month, did it, and thought, "this is so thrilling." He still had moments when your hair would stand up on end, and I said, "This is the greatest guy I've ever played with! He's got the greatest time feeling and makes the band swing." I was having a great time and I thought "why quit this?" and I stayed for as long as he wanted me.
PK: Let's talk about first impressions - What was your initial meeting like?
Gregg: The first time I actually met Sinatra I was in high school and I had gone to Caesar's Palace and they were playing there with Basie and Ella in 74. I snuck backstage. I got into an elevator that goes up one floor and here's Frank standing there with a security guard who said "you'll have to come out of the elevator." Frank said "No, no it's ok." They entered the elevator and he asked me if I heard the concert? "Yeah." I said. "What did you think?" he asked "Great!", I replied. "See ya later!", he said. (He did of course!).
Chuck: The very first thing he said to me was "What are you waiting for!" from the stage. It was my first night on the gig. I was daydreaming while the conductor (Frank Jr.) was pointing at me and I missed my cue for the intro on Mack the Knife!
PK: How did you find Sinatra to work with musically?
Bill: After the TV show went off, after 6 months in '52, that's when he had his down period. He wasn't singing as well. I'm firmly convinced it was all psychological. He was a little edgy. He hadn't done any movies yet and it was a year before he made From Here to Eternity. He had to go on the road again and I went with him. He could be aggravated. For example, we had a good band in Chicago in 1952 and almost after every show he would say, "Are they playing that way for spite?" It was a marvelous band led by Brian Farnum. I said to myself, "this man's in trouble". It wasn't easy, he blamed me for everything - he blamed everybody. And it all changed as soon as he got going again with the movies and everything. He had a mean streak in him that showed now and then, but he made up for it in so many other ways.
PK: As a piano player, how did you feel playing behind him? Do you think he knew music well?
Bill: He knew what he wanted. Sometimes it was hard to explain. I learned how to say "I wanna do this" as opposed to what he's used to. He'd say ok. In other words, I had to get him outta of his "vanilla" frame of mind, so to speak.
PK: …and more into a jazz mentality?
Chuck: He's the only singer I know who makes the band swing instead of the other way around. You can sit there and rehearse the charts without him, and they just kind of lay there. As soon as he comes and sings them, that makes it happen.
Gregg: We've all played these charts with other singers, and if you want to hear Frank Sinatra's contribution you need to hear these other singers because they don't measure up. Not that the writing was poor, but it was a combination of the writing, obviously, and Frank Sinatra singing it.
Al: Some people say "he always has to have a big orchestra behind him". Well this CD we did, Live in Paris, is with a small group with Bill, Ralph Pena on bass, Irv Cotler and Emil Richards on percussion. The good thing about this was that Sinatra taped this for himself, to see how the group sounded.
Gregg: And it sounded great!
PK: Did he select the tunes himself that he wanted to sing?
Bill: He mostly picked his own material, but sometimes would do a favorite for a friend or ask a musician for a tune it he couldn't think of anything.
PK: Do you think that the arrangers wrote specifically for his style?
Bill: Not exactly. After Nelson Riddle started getting more daring, he said to me, worried, "we got to watch out for him". Nelson was using polytones and other tricks he had up his sleeve. And the same thing with Billy May, he was fearless. He would write something for him and say "if he doesn't like what I do - that's it." But Johnny Mandel must have called me two or three times on each arrangement, "Do you think he'll like this?" I said "John, he hired you because he knows what you could do." Don Costa occasionally would ask the same thing. Everyone was kind of treading softly where Frank was concerned. They wanted to do good the first time around.
Gregg: …And you didn't want his foot up your ass!! (laughter) He could give you a look that would make Benny Goodman's "ray" look like Mother Theresa!
PK: Did he show appreciation when he felt the band was playing well.
Gregg: Oh yeah. It was a big thrill when he would turn around to you. I found the more aggressive I got the more he liked it. When I first got the gig I figured Irv did it right and I tried to bring as much of that as I could. As things got a little bit more comfortable, I'd stretch a little more and play some more modern drum fills. Every time I did he'd turn around with a big grin on his face. You just had to keep the basic elements of the original rhythm section.
PK: Did you feel he was a fellow musician and not so much a pop star?
Bill: Frank was a sideman at heart.
Al: The most interesting thing is when rehearsal comes up. He shows a different personality. When he runs a rehearsal, if the tempo isn't right he talks about it, even on the charts we've played many times. That shows a perfectionist which is great. Another thing he would do is change the arrangement on the spot. For example in Gordon Jenkins arrangement of "If" the strings were not moving with Bill Millers conducting so he said "leave out the strings I'll just do it with guitar." So it became like a new chart. He's creating. He created a new arrangement and it sounded terrific. He did it also on "Send in the Clowns". It wasn't flowing like he wanted it to, so he let Bill play it alone on the piano. And as far as the orchestra, I didn't miss it anymore.
PK: So he knew instinctively about arrangements.
Al: Yeah, yeah - And he could judge what the public would like.
Bill: He got his ideas from the arrangers and still used the imagination in his head and he would experiment. It didn't always work but usually it did.
Gregg: The other side of that in terms of the swing things, and this being the rhythm section we all felt it, he demanded that the rhythm section always "snap". He wanted as much rhythmic momentum as you could put out. If you followed his singing with the backbeat, it would really pop.
Chuck: He took pick-ups on "What Now my Love" by himself: "What…Now…My…Love", that's all he's doing…
Gregg: You knew exactly where the time was.
Chuck: I never heard anyone do it the way he did.
Al: His time is impeccable. He's a natural.
Gregg: One of the last recordings we made was a duet with Pavarotti and Sinatra. You gotta figure how is he going to hold up against Pavarotti? But what transcends the vocal technique is his ability to communicate. When he starts singing all you can think about is the story. You are not aware of who has a bigger voice. Chops did not enter into it and that really says something. A guy 79 years old singing with Pavorotti and you don't miss anything!
PK: He's quoted as saying that he concentrated a lot while he was performing. It sounded like it was off the cuff, but wasn't. Is this true?
Chuck: I never told you this…we were in Monte Carlo, I'm at the table and we're talkin. "Frank," I said, "you've got the greatest time feeling I've ever played behind and I've played with Zoot, Stan Getz and others. Do you actually think of that while you're singing?" He stopped for a minute and said "No, I just get a koo-koo rhythm section and stay out of the way." And that's a star talking!
Al: The chart that Nelson had on Summer Wind was a medium tempo. Frank stopped the band and said, "No that's not it, that's not the tempo". He changed it to what became a classic. It was a hit. He changed it to a Count Basie tempo (slower). That was done right on the spot.
PK: Did you model your sound after the Basie rhythm section?
Al: I would say Frank loved that when he heard it. Sinatra was from the school of four beat rhythm. He loved the rhythm guitar. That goes back to the Tommy Dorsey days.
PK: Was his singing influenced, as many say, by Dorsey's trombone playing?
Gregg: He told us that! The first night Chuck and I actually got to sit down and talk with the ol' man, it was odd to hear Frank Sinatra talk with such adoration of somebody else, which is how he spoke of Tommy Dorsey. He adored him and was heavily influenced by him. He even studied his breathing. We played at Albert Hall, Frank was 78 then, and he held the final note longer than he did on the original recording. The crowds went nuts!
PK: How did you find him personally?
Gregg: I'll tell you this. No matter what mood he was in, no matter what he was doing, there was never a dull moment.
Bill: He was never a bore.
Al: On and off for the thirty years I was with him, after most of the engagements he always looked for Bill and I to join him in his suite with his friends. And we'd be there, well, til four or five in the morning. He knew we were guys that hung out, and he's always done that and been known for that
Bill: A funny story. After a concert at the London Palladium they had a supper party for a group of Italian dignitaries, important business people, show people, Gloria Vanderbilt's ex-husband, etc. Everybody made a speech. We were having a few glasses of wine and martinis and listening to the speeches. And somebody says, "Let's hear something from Bill Miller". Me? I don't know how to make a speech. I didn't know what I was gonna say, but it had to be funny because everything so far was so serious. Holding a glass of wine I started…"everything has been said before folks, the only thing I can add is that I think he's the greatest…pain in the ass I've ever had…" I didn't get any further than that and the (expletive) room broke up. Frank really broke up. He said, "I knew he'd say something like that!" Guess who wound up hangin' out in his suite that night? Al and I. 'Cause he knew I was just giving him one of these (rib poking gesture).
PK: You must have felt pretty secure in your job before you said something like that!
Bill: Yeah, but he knew it was good-natured.
Gregg: I'll say one thing, and I know it's true for everybody, and that's that our lives were significantly changed and enhanced by getting to work with the guy.
PK: It's probably one of the best credits any musician could have.
Gregg: Yeah, what credit do you need after that?
Al: I like to add something about whether Sinatra was caring. In 1962 we did a world tour that everybody thought would get a lot of press. But Sinatra wanted no publicity and gave all the proceeds to under-priviledged children. There's a CD out from this tour called "Live in Paris" We had a break during that tour and he went to Spain to visit a lady friend. He said "Al, when I go to Spain, I'll get you a guitar." So you figure he says that and he gets there and a few drinks later it's gone. But low and behold, after he got back he brought me a classical guitar! It's a gorgeous instrument and I still have it. So that's the kind of person he is. If you're talking about being caring I would have to say yes, cause he sure cared for me.
Gregg: I'll give you another example of how generous he was. The last gig we did was in Japan and it was when the dollar was the weakest…84 Yen to a dollar. We were given $100 a day per diem to eat. Apparently, Sinatra ordered an orange juice sent to his room and was told that it cost $19.00. Frank called Hank Itanya, the tour manager and said, "double everybody's per diem".
PK: For Al and Bill, in the early years, did you feel that you were part of something historical?
Bill: I never thought about it.
Al: I have to admit I never thought about it either, we were just doing the gig.
Bill: He said one time oh, twenty years ago "I don't understand it", meaning his popularity. I thought about it and said "I don't either, but hey they love you, ya know! (laughter)
PK: Any other personal thoughts you'd like to share?
Gregg: The first Sinatra record I ever bought was "Sinatra at the Sands" with the Basie band. I used to come home everyday and play both sides of that record I was in Jr. High School. There was a spot in there where the 'ol man would talk about "moon face Charlie" (Bill Miller). As a kid you play these records and you dream about being in that situation. All of a sudden, 20 years later I'm finding myself playing those arrangements, Bill Miller's playing piano, and it's as big a dream come true as I could ever have!
Al: As far as working with Sinatra, the years I had with him were priceless. Did I know that he was gonna be famous? When I was at the Sands, did I know that the "Rat Pack" would be talked about now? I had no idea then. I know one thing that Vegas will admit and that's the fact that when he passed away they dimmed the lights in respect to him . The point here is that he really made Vegas-the strip- famous. He put it on the map.
PK: Any other comments about the Rat Pack? Was it fun?
Bill: Yeah it was fun, but it took away from the music a little bit. That whole rat pack thing…people don't realize that most of it was impromptu, so that makes it hard to recapture.
PK: Why do you think Sinatra's style is so permeating in our culture?
Bill: He had that way, he had that presence. When he walked into a room you knew he walked into that room.
Chuck: So what is that? It's beyond music or anything, it's just a personality.
Gregg: Chuck once said, "If he ever makes it to heaven, it will be a come-down." (laughter)
Chuck: It was an attitude.
PK: How would you describe his attitude?
Gregg: He knows what he wants
Chuck: He didn't copy anyone else. He was an original.
Bill: Do you know what I think in a nutshell? Maturity didn't set in with him until he had all the hard knocks. Like after the thing with Ava and all that. When he went with Capitol, everything changed. His mental attitude, his approach, his singing was more mature; he began to gamble more (career-wise). He changed from being a crooner to being an entertainer. After he got his first couple of hit records, it was like "I got the ball, I'll know what to do."
PK: In closing, was there anything drastically different about him that people would be surprised to know?
Gregg: By the time Chuck and I got there the Sinatra legend was well in place. So the big shock to me was how much more about music he was than about all the b.s. And when you start working for him and hear that the guy screams at somebody, and all the mob stories, that's all silliness. It all pales in comparison to the guy as a musician. When you work for anybody else, you really miss working for him. He was probably one of the greatest musical guys in the 20th century. That's what people need to know.