Ol' Blue Eyes Was The Blueprint: Houston Music Remembers Sinatra

Sinatra did it first.
Sinatra did it first. Album cover
This week, Houston plays host to Justin Timberlake. The popular singer is in town for multiple shows at Toyota Center and he’s a hot ticket because he is an all-around entertainer. He’s an actor who is especially good at comedy. He’s got good looks, a famous wife and frequently hams it up with a goofy sidekick, Jimmy Fallon. First and foremost, he’s got a brilliant voice, the kind that piques interests and opens doors to other opportunities.

Timberlake is talented, but hardly original in that he’s simply following a blueprint fashioned by someone Houston musicians are also thinking about this week. Timberlake may be in the boardroom but there’s only one Chairman of the Board. Frank Sinatra cut the pattern Timberlake and other “multi-threat” artists have followed since Sinatra burst onto the music scene way back in 1935. Sinatra was a looker. They called him “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” He was an actor with comic timing. Famous wife? He had more than one, pal.  And, of course, his singing melted hearts and gave voice to 20th century standards we know and love.

Sinatra died 20 years ago this month. With one of his most successful musical descendants in town, and with the anniversary of his departure from these mortal ranks on their minds, some local acts shared their favorite songs from The Sultan of Swoon.

click to enlarge Mikey Drag (foreground) and Flower Graves - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS KWASNY
Mikey Drag (foreground) and Flower Graves
Photo by Nicholas Kwasny

Mikey Drag

“My grandmother introduced Frank Sinatra to me at a young age and the movie Swingers really got me into the Rat Pack as a teenager, so totally went through a small phase of listening to Sinatra, Deano and Sammy,” says Mikey Drag, who lends his own considerable talents to two of Houston’s busiest acts, Flower Graves and The Phantom Royals. “Some of my top, fave songs by Ol' Blue Eyes would be “Come Fly With Me,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “Night and Day,” but one that sticks out the most for me would be “Strangers In The Night.” Don't know if it’s the story he's telling, the chord progression, orchestral arrangement but it really strikes a chord for me.”

Flower Graves opens for Austin’s Annabelle Chairlegs Friday night at Satellite Bar and plays Rockefeller’s June 16 with Ringo Deathstarr and Holy Wave. The mysterious masked men of Phantom Royals can next be seen June 1 at D&W Lounge.

James “Dirty James” McDowell II

It would be easy to ask every jazz artist in town for their favorite Sinatra tunes, but it would limit the impact he had on all sorts of music. So we asked one of Houston’s prominent punks, James “Dirty James” McDowell II, if he has a special place in his mohawk-wearing heart for Sinatra. McDowell has been playing music with a variety of bands in Houston for years. He’s behind the popular annual Punxmas fests. As D.I.Y. as they come, it’s no surprise his favorite Sinatra tune is “My Way.”

“Frank Sinatra has always been one of those artists that I found very interesting, not just in his sound but also in his life, in his style, and in his demeanor. The man had gone through so much and yet he carried on, always moving, always doing what he said he would do. This is a man who knew what he wanted, and he wasn't going to stop until he got his way,” observed McDowell.

“This song, though I have many favorites, I will say is the one I'd have to name here but probably mainly for its lyrics and tone. It's dark, it's beautiful and it's very confident and uplifting. I love songs like that, and to this song, I relate very well. All the way down to feeling like I'm at the end, but don't we all sometimes feel this way? It's inspirational and it is probably the one song he has that actually hits me deep, ‘right in the feels’ as the kids say these days.”

McDowell notes “My Way” is also one of the great songs to drink to. You can have a drink and hear some of the songs Dirty James has cooked up as front man of Gen Why. The new-ish band is getting lots of love lately and for good reason. You can sample its brand of street punk June 1 at La Playa; June 2 at White Swan with San Antonio’s Drink Fight Thugs; and, June 9 with Hub City Stompers at Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top. The band represents Houston punk at June 29’s Fuck You We Rule OK fest in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

click to enlarge Tianna Hall - PHOTO BY  KRISTIAN RANGEL VALLARI
Tianna Hall
Photo by Kristian Rangel Vallari

Tianna Hall

We gave the final word on this matter to Tianna Hall. After all, she’s a true expert in standards and her work – whether leading acts like The Houston Jazz Band or Mighty Pretty Mixtape – gives a living, breathing and luminous voice to these songs.

“My go-to is ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,’” she said. “Sinatra made over 2,000 recordings and this one was my absolute favorite. It stands the test of time not just for its beauty but because of its sincerity. I think Sinatra’s sincerity is what has drawn people in for generations along with his effortlessly natural phrasing. I love that specific recording so much that I included a version of it on my first CD.”

Hall takes serious the mission of carrying these songs into a new era, so she’s generally one of the busiest musicians in town. She’s got a quick wit, good looks and the voice – sound familiar? Maybe all she’s lacking is a good sidekick to break through to superstardom. Until such time, she can be found every Sunday at Brennan’s jazz brunch, Wednesday evenings at the Marriott Westchase, Thursdays at McCormick & Schmick at City Centre and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays at Mascalzone.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.