By Matt Micucci
When in December 1995 the top of the New York Empire State Building was lit blue for three nights, it was a symbolic gesture of the celebrations of Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday. On December 14, 1995, ABC aired Sinatra, 80 Years My Way, a birthday celebration of the man and his legacy that had been recorded a month previous, on November 19.
The event was was attended by thousands of people and included some of his closest friends and collaborators as well as many celebrated artists and Hollywood personalities.
Given his very private personality, it is not surprising that Sinatra was not too keen on this type of public extravaganza. He had also decided to unceremoniously call it a day on live performances after a particularly difficult string of concerts, which ended with a run in Japan in 1993. His mind was only made up when he was assured that the event would raise money for two charities – the Barbara and Frank Sinatra Childrens Center in Palm Springs and AIDS Project Los Angeles. Throughout his career, he raised over one billion dollars for charity, having started taking part in charity events from the very beginning at the age of eighteen.
The show kicked off with Springsteen introducing Sinatra on stage to the audience, and then helping him to a ringside table, before performing his version of Angel Eyes. After that came Ray Charles, Sinatra’s longtime friend, with his version of Ol’ Man River.
When Natalie Cole, whom the crooner had known since she was a little girl, she said “Frank, it’s no secret that you are my second favorite male singer. You are also my Dad’s second favorite male singer.” She went on to sing, They Can’t Take That Away From Me.
Other notable performances of the night included Bono’s Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad, Tony Danza’s Our Love is Here to Stay, Little Richard’s That Old Black Magic, Tony Bennett’s I’ve Got the World on a String and Salt-N-Pepa’s Whatta Man. Along with vocalists and musicians, backed by a huge orchestra, many other show business personalities came to pay their tribute, including Gregory Peck, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Angela Lansbury and Don Rickles, the great stand-up comedian who is still making the rounds and telling the stories of their times together to this day.
Sinatra even took to the stage at the end of the show, and joined his guests in a huge performance of New York, New York, that rocked the house down. This would sadly be Sinatra’s final on-stage live performance – died two years later on May 14, 1998.
One of the most touching moments of the whole concert came when Bob Dylan serenated ol’ blue eyes with a performance of Restless Farewell, generally read as a folk musician’s My Way. Apparently, Bob Dylan had originally intended to play his version of That’s Life, but changed his plans when Sinatra requested he play this song – reportedly, in fact, it was the only song he requested on the whole show. Lines such as “the closing sign says it’s closing time” and “it’s for myself and my friends my stories are sung” evoke a stoic and reflective goodbye.
Dylan attended Sinatra’s funerals on the December 20, 1998. The following night, he reprised Restless Farewell, at a Los Angeles concert, as a final encore.