Backstage With 'Ol Blue Eyes
Hank Cattaneo shares stories from on the road with "Mr. S"
Musicians Are Not Like Earth People.

From the liner notes of Live At The Meadowlands

"Who put the snatch on the Limburg baby, was it you, you or you? There was little Auggie, playing with his doggie, was that the human thing to do? Who put the snatch on the Limburg baby, was it you, you, or you?" This little ditty, and countless others, would sneak out backstage from the dressing room before showtime. These were songs that brought back fond memories for Frank Sinatra. Fond memories of the way he once toured in the good old days.

Francis Albert Sinatra, when asked, liked to characterize the type of singer he was with the response, "I'm a saloon singer!" He wore that description as a badge of honor. He loved to reminisce about the smoke-filled clubs, the joints, and the saloons. That was his world - the guys, the "chick singers," and the ditties and madrigals they would sing or compose on the band bus as they traveled from one venue to the next. But, those days were gone, and it was now the time of large clubs, casinos, and arenas. While he greatly enjoyed performing at Carnegie Hall, Radio City, and Royal Albert Hall (which he renamed "Francis Albert Hall"), demands on seating, and the potential for greater profits for both promoter and performer, had brought to light the arena and stadium venues. Those small clubs, with the intimacy and atmosphere he so loved, were no longer the venue of choice.


Sinatra And Cattaneo
Photo Courtesy of Hank Cattaneo

Frank Sinatra created a tremendous amount of excitement whenever he was to perform at any given location. Unfortunately, this generated an extraordinary amount of calls, which inevitably failed in addressing the necessary technical details of his performance. Instead, callers would focus on such things as the color of his dressing room, the carpet, and the color of his towels. "We were going to make fresh chicken soup for him," was a common one. I would then have to explain that the reason I specified "Campbell's Chicken Soup with Rice" was simply a matter of consistency. We could travel the whole country and know that the soup would always be the same. I could pack a case in one of my road boxes when we traveled to Europe, or anywhere else in the world, and always have it available. He also happened to like it (Cherry Life-savers and Tootsie Rolls were also favorites of his). Promoters, especially first timers, could not accept what an easy date Frank was, both technically and logistically. However, it was an exacting date. If the ticket read 8:00 pm, I cued that overture at 7:59 - sharp. Delaying the show's opening was not an option. Get the audience in their seats. There are no excuses for delays - end of discussion.

Since this show was to be at the Meadowlands Arena, we would be self-contained and were providing crew, staging, sound lights, etc. Our rider was about thirty pages long and detailed the support we required with respect to crew calls, lodgings, catering, transportation, security, and dressing rooms. We planned on a 3:00pm rehearsal with the band, and one at 4:00pm with Frank, who liked to rehearse when performing in the New York area. It was the first time again in many years that his pianist, Bill Miller, would be conducting. We also had to sort out some issues we had had with the stage set-up the last time we had performed there. Frank had to walk a long path through the audience to reach the stage. Working "in the round" is great for the audience, but it left him very exposed and accessible to over-zealous fans on that long walk to the stage. I wanted the stage positioned right at the location where the hockey players enter the arena. It was a much shorter walk, and easier to secure. Performing "in the round" was the perfect format for Frank, as well. He was alone on stage, and the orchestra was positioned on the floor of the arena and enclosed within a three-foot pipe and drape railing. I always had to contend with fire code issues, as he wanted the audience seated as close to the stage as possible. Since many seats in an arena or stadium are far from the stage, video screens are often a requirement. We always found it odd how, even those people fortunate enough to be seated close to the stage would strain their necks to see a screen thirty feet above them, while the performer they were viewing might be less then ten feet away.

Line by line, the promoter's coordinator (Phil Guiliano) and I would go over the rider until we were both satisfied. "Oh, by the way who's your opening act?" asked Phil. "Red Buttons," I replied. "What happened to Tom Dreesen?" "He's booked, and Red has been on Frank to give him a shot." Red Buttons ended up doing a couple of more gigs with us until he and Frank had a falling out and parted ways.

The arena was not far from where I lived in Connecticut, but March weather in the tri-state area can be unpredictable. I had our travel agent, Anna Cruz, find a hotel as close to the venue as possible, regardless of the hotel quality. It just made good sense. If necessary, we could walk to a venue as we often did. It also gave us time to go back and wash up and change before the show, if we were fortunate enough to finish early. I always remained behind and changed at the venue. With Sinatra, you always dressed - no long hair, no pierced ears, and you had to be clean-shaven. If you were late, and had not had an opportunity to change, then the alternative was to hide. I did not need to see you, and I certainly did not want Frank to see you. Once, at a show we did in Las Vegas, I just ran out of time, and got the house curtain closed as they were opening the doors. Frank was early, and in his dressing room. I walked in, still dressed in khakis and a tour jacket, to see if he needed anything. He looked at me, and before I could say a word he nailed me. "I'll see you when you're better-dressed, Hank." I never got caught again.

The morning of Friday, March 14th dawned like so many other March mornings - dreary. We took comfort in the fact that at least it wasn't snowing. The vans were all waiting outside. I made a quick head count, saw all my key guys, Jerry, Brian, Stefan, Tim, etc. and off we went. We would not see outside again until about 3:00am, when we completed our load-out. The arena was only two-hundred yards away, but the highways directly in our path had safety barriers, and there was no way to walk it. When we pulled up to the arena's backstage entrance, all of our trucks were there. That was always the big fear, that a semi would not make it in time, or at all. Good companies have good equipment, with good trucks, and great drivers. They can save your day, and often do. We were fortunate. We never lost a date, or a truck.

Thankfully, load-in went off with out a hitch. Lighting was the first to go in and set up. A neutral gray rug allowed my lighting designer, Brian Monahan (an ACE award winner), to skillfully produce multiple lighting patterns upon the stage that complemented the songs Frank performed. The sound, the monitors, and screens soon followed, and while it takes the combined efforts of many talented people to present an arena performance, in the end - it's really all about the voice and the music.

Musicians are not like earth people. They live in a world all their own and join us on occasion, only out of necessity. They speak a language some of us understand, but most do not. Bill Miller, Sinatra's favorite piano player, was now his conductor. No easy task as Sinatra was known to be very demanding of those who held that esteemed position. Bill successfully held that role until he handed the baton to Sinatra's son, Frank Sinatra Jr. Bill would later go on to work with Frank Jr, until his death at the age of 91.

Irv Cottler was Sinatra's drummer. Frank would often say he was the "best in the business." Irv new exactly what Frank wanted - he was the time machine. Bill always deferred to Irv to set the tempo of a tune while Bill would set the "feel." They respected each other's ability as musicians.

Tony Mottola, a legendary guitarist with over 30 recordings to his credit, was a favorite of Enoch Light, Perry Como, Dick Hyman, and countless others, as well as Frank Sinatra. He was asked by Frank to "join the band" after Al Viola left the Sinatra touring group. Tony agreed, and together they renewed their musical journey, which had begun when both were struggling in their early years. Sinatra would always feature Tony as a soloist, and then just the two would do a song together.

Don Baldini, a well-known Los Angeles studio bass player, joined the Sinatra organization in the 1980s. This talented musician, who with equal ease can play pop, jazz or classical, chose to leave the touring life after a few years. He moved to Vermont where he accepted the position as "Artist in Residence," and teacher at Keene State College in New Hampshire. He is the sole survivor of the marvelous rhythm section who played this date.

Joe Malin: Concert Master and musician contractor was always Frank's choice of violinists. Carmel Malin, Joe's wife, often shared the role of Concert Master. Both graduates of the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, they were well known as musical coordinators for the movies of Woody Allen, and many other famous directors. Sinatra depended on their ability to select only the finest of musicians for his orchestra. A dear man whose welcoming smile and endearing personality was loved by all who knew him.

Musicians loved the Sinatra gig. Most would have played just for the bragging rights. Legions of composers and arrangers were continuously knocking at Sinatra's door hoping that their composition would be chosen to be given life by that instrument - his voice.

Sinatra was perhaps the most important musical figure of his generation. Backstage or at the arenas it was lot different. It was just "Frank" or "Mr. S.", the guy you worked for. I would be waiting for his limo to arrive at the loading dock, and when it did he would spring out of it. "Hi Hank, how are ya, which way? - He never quite walked to the dressing room, rather he moved with the tempo of a boxer anxious for the fight. In arenas the dressing room was almost always the home team's locker. It was always dressed for the occasion - couches, drapes, tables filled of food, drinks, coffee, tea, gifts, mail, etc. If there were a ball game somewhere it would be on the TV. He loved baseball, and if he was a friend of the manager's, he had no qualms about calling him in the dugout to tell him what a bum he was. "What time do we go on, Hank?" Whatever time was stamped on the ticket, was when we went on. Knowing well his requirements that the show start on-time, I always cued the overture a minute early. I knew he would look at his watch when he heard the downbeat. Following the overture, Red Buttons was cued on and understood he was to do thirty minutes and not a minute more. Sinatra, assisted by his valet, would be dressed, having had his customary soup, and a cup of tea with honey. A meticulous dresser, he never sat while waiting to go on. His tuxedo was not to acquire any new creases. A cherry Life-saver, then a check of his pocket for that single cigarette and lighter. He would have these on stage with his signature drink of Jack Daniels. He loved to chat with the audience, and would toast them as he does in this performance with: "I hope that you have in your lives everything that you want, everything that you wish for, and mostly, love with hugging and kissing, and things like that. Salute!"

It was time to hit the stage. "Red's on his last joke, Mr. S., let's go." Again, in a brisk pace not unlike a trot, we reached the arena entrance while Buttons was taking his bows. As Red exited, Frank asked "Well?" Red replied with a shout "Wow, it's the third world war out there!" "What the hell did you expect?" said Frank. "You're in my home territory here!" As I cued the house lights to half, the audience began to quiet down. When fully quiet, I cued the house lights out. "Spots go, curtain go." As he stepped out into the spotlights, the crowd exploded with applause, and the roar was deafening. They all came to their feet. He's back, he's home. Grab it, Francis. It's your world - you caught it.

Join the audience and enjoy the performance. This is the man and the music of Francis Albert Sinatra.

Hank Cattaneo
Frank Sinatra's production manager

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This story appears inside the liner notes of the new release, Live At The Meadowlands.

 

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