By Matt Micucci
Frank Sinatra’s first taste of nationwide fame came as part of a vocal group from Hoboken and after winning a popular radio talent show.
Frank Sinatra developed an interest and love of music from early on, being especially infatuated with the big band jazz sound and inspired by artists such as Gene Austin, Russ Colombo and his idol Bing Crosby, who was the king of the crooners. At fifteen, he received a ukelele from his maternal uncle and started performing at family gatherings.
From his mid to late teens, he began playing at local bars of his native Hoboken, such as The Cat’s Meow, as well as in local radio stations. All these performances were unpaid, and at most young Frankie would be rewarded with a hot meal or cigarettes. Despite the fact that he never learned to read music, he sought to improve his skills as a vocalist in any way he could, and began taking elocution lessons for a dollar each. His coach John Quinland has been credited for being the first to discover his excellent vocal range.
At 19-years-old he was hanging around a vocal group named The 3 Flashes, composed of three childhood friend who had grown up on Sixth Avenue in Hoboken. It was composed of James “Jimmy Skelly” Petrozelli, Patrick “Patty Prince” Principe and Fred “Tamby” Tamburro. They were employed as truck drivers but performed a regular set at a roadhouse near Alpine in New Jersey named Rustic Cabin.
Sinatra was originally hired as a roadie, chaffeuring the band around in his sports car. But he had no ambitions of becoming an agent or manager – he wanted to perform, thus when the band decided to give show business a fair go and audition for the popular radio show named Major Bowes Amateur Hour, one of the most popular precursors to the modern style type of talent shows, he asked them to join them in their act.
The band was originally reluctant to let the skinny kid enter their clique. There are two versions of why they might have in the first place. One is that, being aware of the future king of the bobby soxers skills as a vocalist, they worried about his desires to audition as a solo act. The other, perhaps more probable one, is that it was Frank’s mother Dollie who persuaded the group to let him in, having finally resigned to ever seeing Sinatra become a businessman or engineer as she would have wanted. Thus, in the process, The 3 Flashes became the Hoboken Four.
The group performed Shine by the Mills Brothers and Sinatra sand Night and Day by Cole Porter. They were introduced by host Bowes by “dancing and singing fools”, but ended up getting the most votes in the show’s then two year history, thus winning the competition and the final prize, which saw them embark on a bus and train tour of the US and Canada on the winter of 1935-1936 with one of the host’s touring companies. They each recveived 50 dollars per week plus meals while on tour, which was more money than they ever made.
However, the original Flashes didn’t seem too cut out for life on the road, under the strenous schedule that saw them doing an average of 35 performances a week in 19 different states. It didn’t help that during the tour, it became more and more obvious that Sinatra was the real star, and he gained unprecedented confidence, shaping the cocky persona with which he would become identified on his road to stardom. It was Tamburro that allegedly first laid his hand on him, smacking him on the head after a joke the kid had cracked at his expanse on stage during an act. This started a bullying pattern in which Petrozelli joined in.
It didn’t take long for Sinatra to say so long. Before the end of the year, he quit the tour and return to Hoboken to continue pursuing a solo career. The irony was that he would shortly after land employment as a waiter in the very same place where The 3 Flashes had been singing – the Rustic Cabin. But a few years later, he would gain notoriety and popularity as the lead singer of the big bands on Harry James first and Tommy Dorsey later.
Meanwhile, the original group became the Hoboken Trio, but soon decided to call it quits, finding ordinary steady employment. Tamburro, for instance, simply went back to being a truck driver and part time singer.