Fort Worth — Cary Hoffman starts his interview by making sure that the readers will be able listen to his recordings. The actor/writer who is known as one of the premier interpreters of Frank Sinatra is very wary of people thinking he is just another of the “foul Sinatra” imitators out there. “I know you won’t believe it,” he begins, “but by some genetic accident my voice has developed to sound exactly like Sinatra’s. It’s a problem I have in concerts. I hear my voice coming out of the monitors and I think it’s his. I want to stop and listen.” (Tracks are available at his website, http://www.mysinatra.com/index.html)
Dallas and Fort Worth audiences will have the opportunity to judge for themselves, as Hoffman brings his concert performance My Sinatra to the Fort Worth Symphony for the orchestra’s New Year’s Eve extravaganza at Bass Performance Hall.
Hoffman discovered his affinity for the greatest of American pop singers early and honestly. “You might say it was psychological,” he explains. “By my teenage years, I had already lost two fathers. My mother was a singer and her three brothers were sessions performers in New York City in the ‘50’s. They played for all the great performers, including Sinatra, so I grew up hearing that music and really drank it in. I listened to other music, like rock and roll and things like that. But Sinatra was at the height of his career and there was something about him that made it important for me to produce that sound. It became a matter of life and death to me. I missed out on baseball and dates and all those other things, listening and learning the music.”
The more he found the Sinatra sound in his voice, the more encouragement he got from people around him, especially his Uncle Joe who was a successful flute and saxophone player. When he was young, his efforts made him a “good crooner—like a Jack Jones. Unfortunately, when I tried to sing at night clubs and weddings then I failed.” But as Hoffman aged, the similarities in the two singer’s voices came together. “My voice is a perfect match for the later Sinatra. He had two voices during his career. A lot of people don’t know that during a concert in 1952, he finished two songs, but when he started the third, nothing came out except a little blood. He had to stop singing for more than a year, and then he had to relearn how to sing.” Hoffman does a scene reenacting this event in his show. “There is always a big gasp from the audience. You can imagine how the audience reacted when it was the real Sinatra.”
Despite the uncanny similarity in their voices, Hoffman says his real break was a lucky accident. “I was living on writing advertising jingles and then managing comedy writers for television and for clubs. I even wrote a [successful] off-Broadway play in the early 1970s, called What’s a Nice Country Like You Doing in a State Like This?—a political satire about Nixon and everything that was going on back then. I was getting by, but I always loved singing in music. One night in 1998 or so, a friend and I went to a club. He had to buy me dinner or else I would never have gone to someone else’s club. There was a band playing Sinatra and other standard hits, and I happened to know the leader of the band through my own club contacts. Before the evening was over, I was up there singing and the next thing I knew I had a steady job.” The job turned into a continuous gig, topped by a PBS special. From there, he produced an off-Broadway one man show about Sinatra and converted it to the concert performance which he brings to Fort Worth.
The performance intertwines Sinatra’s story with Hoffman’s own. “I try to tell the audience where Sinatra was at a given time when he recorded a song and then I fill them in on what I was doing.” It makes the music connection more personal, beyond the similarity of voice. Most important, it serves to make the almost mystical figure of Sinatra more human.
Hoffman points to Sinatra’s persona as part of what gives him his staying power and relevance as an icon. “He was really the first ‘pop’ star. Other singers were great and famous, but Sinatra was the first one that people screamed and fainted for. And he had this ‘devil-may-care’ attitude. He would be doing a session and the instrumentalists would be in their work clothes. Then here would come Sinatra in his hat, with the cigarette dangling from his lips. He lived like he was a character in a story. Some of that may have been put on at first. He borrowed a lot of the tough guy act from his good friend Humphrey Bogart. It used to be said that if Bogey could sing, there would have been no need to have a Frank Sinatra. But then the persona became real.”
But the most important aspect of Sinatra’s singing is the way that he created the song. “He put so much heightened emotionality into the lyrics and the singing. You could feel the story, as if each song were a three act play. No other male singer did that before him. Judy Garland, Billie Holliday, they all did it to some degree. But Bing Crosby or Tony Bennett, as great as they are, don’t have that personal attachment to the music or connection to the audience. And Sinatra worked hard to achieve it. He did thirty takes for his famous recording of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin.’ That kind of attention to detail was unusual as well.”
“He made each song his own,” the interpreter continues. “It’s fun to see the younger folks discovering Sinatra and thinking that he wrote his own music. Partly, it’s because so many of today’s stars do write their songs. But mostly, it’s because Sinatra’s performances feel like they come right from his heart; that he understands the music so deeply that he must have composed it. Even songwriters appreciated that. Cole Porter famously thanked Sinatra for his rendition of ‘Night and Day,’ although did say that he didn’t remember writing the word ‘babe’ in the lyrics.”
Hoffman thinks that Sinatra would have enjoyed performing with FWSO. “I have these musical arrangements which are spot on with Sinatra’s. But he worked with maybe six or ten strings. To have the full string sections soaring behind him, with his voice front and center, would have really suited him.” But he makes a point of ending the concert with a small combo.
“This is the real Sinatra, the one that you need to hear to understand the emotion and the closeness of his music,” he explains.
In respect to the New Year’s Eve setting, Hoffman has included a Big Band chart of “Auld Lang Syne” in the concert. “But I really don’t need to add anything special for the occasion. Every Sinatra performance is like New Year’s Eve. Hey, that’s good. I think I’ll use it in the show.”
» Read our new Dinner and a Show feature, in which restaurant blogger Kelly Kirkendoll pairs this concert with a restaurant in downtown Fort Worth—make your reservations now.