Letter Winners

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(Pictured: the original Lettermen, Jim Pike, Tony Butala, and Bob Engemann.)

A while back, after I tweeted a March 1971 Hot 100 chart, a friend noted the presence of Andy Williams singing the theme from Love Story among the legendary rock and soul records of that day, referring to it as “jarringly out of place.” And yeah, if you look at it one way, it is out of place; but then again, that kind of thing happened all the time in a day when there were fewer radio stations, and they had broader audiences. Stations wanted and needed to play records with adult appeal, and if the kids liked them too, great. So behold the two most iconic hits of the Lettermen, superstars of easy listening, and the records with which they shared the chart:

February 10, 1968:
1. “Love Is Blue”/Paul Mauriat
2. “Green Tambourine”/Lemon Pipers
3. “Spooky”/Classics IV
4. “Judy in Disguise”/John Fred and the Playboy Band
5. “Chain of Fools”/Aretha Franklin
6. “I Wish It Would Rain”/Temptations
7. “Goin’ Out of My Head”-“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”/Lettermen
8. “Nobody But Me”/Human Beinz
9. “Woman Woman”/Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
10. “Bend Me Shape Me”/American Breed

September 20, 1969:
1. “Sugar Sugar”/Archies
2. “Honky Tonk Women”/Rolling Stones
3. “Green River”/Creedence Clearwater Revival
4. “A Boy Named Sue”/Johnny Cash
5. “Easy to Be Hard”/Three Dog Night
6. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”/Tom Jones
7. “Get Together”/Youngbloods
8. “Jean”/Oliver
9. “Little Woman”/Bobby Sherman
10. “I Can’t Get Next to You”/Temptations
11. “Oh What a Night”/Dells
12. “Hurt So Bad”/Lettermen

The Lettermen look like an outlier at a half-century’s distance, just as Andy Williams did next to Ike and Tina Turner and Janis Joplin in 1971, but at the time, they weren’t the only act straddling the easy-listening and Top-40 worlds. In these weeks alone, the records by Paul Mauriat, the Archies, Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, and Oliver were easy-listening hits too. And before 1968 got much farther along, later releases by Gary Puckett and the Classics IV would land on the easy-listening charts. Bobby Sherman would eventually make it, too.

The original Lettermen lineup—Tony Butala, Bob Engemann, and Jim Pike—coalesced in 1960 out of a group of musicians and singers who played hotel ballrooms in Las Vegas and Miami. They scored their first Hot 100 hit in 1961, a version of “The Way You Look Tonight,” and in their first year on the charts scored four sizeable hits on the Billboard Easy Listening chart, including the #1 “When I Fall in Love,” which was also went Top 10 on the Hot 100 in January 1962. They didn’t hit again until 1965, with a vocal version of “Theme From A Summer Place,” which had been a smash by Percy Faith in 1960, and it was off to the races after that. When their easy-listening/adult-contemporary chart career ended in 1975, their final scorecard was 19 Top 10s, although they never again returned to #1 on that chart: “A Summer Place,” the “Going Out/Can’t Take” medley, and “Hurt So Bad” all peaked at #2. Other major easy-listening hits included versions of “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “Shangri-La,” and a medley of the Classics IV’s “Traces” and “Memories,” a song famously recorded by Elvis Presley. Their final AC Top 10 hit was a cover of John Lennon’s “Love” in 1971. They put 32 albums onto the Billboard 200 as well.

The Lettermen started going through lineup changes at the peak of their fame. Tony Butala remained a constant until his retirement in 2019, and an edition of the trio still exists today; the senior member is Donovan Tea, who joined in 1984. Like every other performing act, they haven’t done much recently, although they have a few hopeful dates on their 2021 calendar.

The Lettermen’s most famous hits are engraved on baby-boomer DNA thanks to their ubiquity on radio, which played them til the labels fell off. They were still on the air when I worked in easy-listening radio during the 80s, and on the big-band/nostalgia format in the 90s. Today, the Lettermen represent the sort of old-time, tuxedo-clad, hotel-ballroom showbiz that you just don’t see anymore, but their records are as capable of bringing back a time and place as their contemporaries, from Marvin Gaye to Three Dog Night. At least in my house.

Additional Note: I was crushed yesterday to hear of the sudden death of the writer/teacher who called himself Lance Mannion. I have been reading him regularly since 2003 or thereabouts. We followed each other on Twitter and occasionally corresponded, although we never met in the real world. He wrote about politics, literature, movies, and his family; I will miss his 5AM tweets as he sipped coffee and watched his neighborhood wake up. As journalist Tom Watson says in a tribute today, “His work was a gift to me and so many thousands of others.” 

The Total Sinatra

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I wrote this last summer after reading James Kaplan’s monumental Frank Sinatra biography. I didn’t post it then, but here it is now. 

Frank Sinatra was the first musical celebrity in the modern sense, the first to excite mobs of screaming teenagers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles and a gaggle of lesser stars would eventually do. While his popularity in the 40s rivaled that of Bing Crosby, his celebrity was of a different degree. Bing was cool and understated; Sinatra was hot, and he made other people hot. Nobody was going to tear up a theater or rush a police line to get their hands on Crosby, but Sinatra pushed people’s emotional buttons in an entirely different way.

That fundamental difference between the two men crossed all forms of media. Every week for a decade (1936-1946), millions of American radio listeners settled down for a comfortable hour or half-hour of Bing as host of Kraft Music Hall, while Sinatra hosted several different shows that struggled. Similarly, Crosby was more visible and successful on TV. Crosby’s easy charisma translated to the movie screen; as a screen presence, Sinatra was more intense. (Crosby won his Oscar for playing a kindly priest in Going My Way; Sinatra won his for playing a sawed-off troublemaker in From Here to Eternity.) Some of the differences work in Sinatra’s favor, however. Crosby disliked singing songs containing the phrase “I love you,” although he would sing of love obliquely; Sinatra was far more swooningly romantic. On the other hand, Bing could sell Christmas songs from the heart, while Sinatra never seemed comfortable with them.

While biographers have revealed that Crosby was cold, harsh, and unfeeling in his private life, there was almost never a hint of it while he was alive. By the late 40s, Sinatra was frequently in the papers for hanging out with mobsters and punching out photographers. His love life was also a familiar topic, although as Kaplan reveals, the women whose names made the papers were only a tiny fraction of the total. Eventually, many would be decades younger than he. Sinatra feuded with reporters and columnists over the way he was covered but he didn’t change his behavior, which ensured that the papers would continue to write stories that angered him, over and over again.

It has been the official position of this website for many years that while it’s appropriate to discuss the private lives and behavior of artists, we should not use private lives and behavior to judge their art. As soon as we start discounting artistic merit because of personal failings, the slope gets very slippery. Some of our greatest artists were drug users, child abusers, or simply jerks for their own private reasons. Does any of that affect the intrinsic value of their art? It should not. What’s in the grooves is what should count.

Outside of the grooves, Frank Sinatra was not an especially nice man, and often barely an admirable one. It’s all part of the historical record: he was capable of great personal kindness, but he also treated both friends and strangers callously, and he squabbled childishly with lovers. He donated time and money to charity, but he also used people selfishly and then cruelly cast them away. He hung out with mobsters, knew exactly who they were, and took professional and personal advantage of those relationships. And he did it all as if it were his due. Don Hewitt was onto something when he promised that Walter Cronkite would treat him like a president. By the time of that 1965 Cronkite interview, Sinatra had long since expected head-of-state deference from everyone in his life.

Was Frank Sinatra, in totality, a good person? Your mileage may vary. But was he a great singer, perhaps the best America has ever heard? Listen to his music and there’s only one answer: indisputably yes.

Out of the Long Ago

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(Pictured: the Supremes deplane, 1966.)

Back at the beginning of the summer, we noodled with the idea of the greatest single Top 10 of all time. There are lots of candidates, as we found, but I keep going back to the one dated September 24, 1966. To refresh your recollection:

1. “Cherish”/Association
2. “You Can’t Hurry Love”/Supremes
3. “Sunshine Superman”/Donovan
4. “Yellow Submarine”/Beatles
5. “Bus Stop”/Hollies
6. “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep”/Temptations
7. “Black Is Black”/Los Bravos
8. “96 Tears”/? and the Mysterians
9. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”/Beach Boys
10. “Reach Out I’ll Be There”/Four Tops
11. (bonus track) “Eleanor Rigby”/Beatles

It wasn’t just a killer Top 11. The rest of the Top 40 was studded with classics as well:

14. “Cherry Cherry”/Neil Diamond
15. “Sunny Afternoon”/Kinks
17. “Wipe Out”/Surfaris
21. “Sunny”/Bobby Hebb
22. “Turn Down Day”/Cyrkle
23. “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted/Jimmy Ruffin
24. “Land of 1000 Dances”/Wilson Pickett
25. “Psychotic Reaction”/Count Five
26. “Last Train to Clarksville”/Monkees
27. “Working in the Coal Mine”/Lee Dorsey

Sweet mama look at that. And this:

33. “7 and 7 Is”/Love
37. “Summer in the City”/Lovin’ Spoonful
39. “God Only Knows”/Beach Boys
40. “Walk Away Renee”/Left Banke

And below the Top 40:

41. “Just Like a Woman”/Bob Dylan
47. “Blowin’ in the Wind”/Stevie Wonder
50. “With a Girl Like You”/Troggs
53. “See See Rider”/Eric Burdon and the Animals
72. “Poor Side of Town”/Johnny Rivers
73. “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing”/Lou Rawls
89. “Knock on Wood”/Eddie Floyd
90. “Mr. Spaceman”/Byrds
96. “I’m Your Puppet”/James and Bobby Purify

It was an exceptional week for easy listening music on the Hot 100 as well.

30. “Flamingo”/Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
32. “Summer Wind”/Frank Sinatra
44. “Summer Samba”/Walter Wanderley
49. “In the Arms of Love”/Andy Williams
54. “Born Free”/Roger Williams
86. “Mas Que Nada”/Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

Over on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, all six of those are in the Top 10, along with more of the easy-listeningest music of all time:

3. “Guantanamera”/Sandpipers
13. “Somewhere My Love (Lara’s Theme)”/Ray Conniff Singers
17. “The Impossible Dream”/Jack Jones

But Easy Listening is really winning on the Top LPs chart. Revolver is #1, but:

2. Doctor Zhivago/Soundtrack
3. Somewhere My Love/Ray Conniff Singers
4. The Sound of Music/Soundtrack
5. What Now My Love/Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
6. Whipped Cream and Other Delights/Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
7. Strangers in the Night/Frank Sinatra
11. Going Places/Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
13. Sinatra at the Sands/Frank Sinatra

Those big movie soundtracks, Sinatra albums, and the historic Tijuana Brass threesome make for an interesting mix with Revolver and the others in the Top 13: Best of the Beach Boys, the Stones’ Aftermath, Gettin’ Ready by the Temptations, and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Although the biggest rock acts are able to consistently break through, the album market is still dominated by acts selling to adults, although that will start to change within a year or so.

Digression: I am pretty sure that no famous movie has gone further down the memory hole than Doctor Zhivago. Adjusted for inflation, it’s still one of the top-grossing films of all time, but it never turns up on cable. [Very late edit: it’s on TCM fairly often now.] It’s on several streaming services, but I suspect there are not a lot of people under the age of 70 who are willing to pony up $2.99 on a Saturday night for a three-hour epic set during the Russian Revolution. But in September 1966 it was still popular in theaters. The score had won an Oscar, and “Lara’s Theme,” heard only as an instrumental in the movie but with lyrics added by three-time Oscar winner Paul Webster, was a smash. Conniff’s version was #1 on Easy Listening for a month and had made #9 on the Hot 100.

“Somewhere My Love” also contains a lyric line that stops me in my tracks every time: “You’ll come to me out of the long ago.” As many of the most precious things often do.

The Hot Country Singles chart for the week of 9/24/66 is not the bonanza of eternal classics that the Hot 100 is, but it’s led by a record that didn’t get off the radio for years thereafter: “Almost Persuaded” by David Houston. Although he is forgotten now, David Houston was one of the biggest stars in country between 1965 and 1971, with seven Billboard #1 hits. The nine weeks “Almost Persuaded” spent at #1 country was the longest run of any record since 1963, and it wouldn’t be surpassed until the download era. It’s also at #29 on the Hot 100 in this week, on its way to #24.

It’s well known that terrestrial radio stations, even ones specializing in oldies or classic hits, have largely dumped 60s music. But it’s not because music of later decades is consistently better, cuz it ain’t. And the chart from 9/24/66 is Exhibit A.

Sadie’s Song

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(Pictured: Hall of Fame songwriter Johnny Mercer.)

Here’s one last story inspired by James Kaplan’s Frank Sinatra biography, although Frank himself isn’t involved much. 

Like other people in other times and other places, Sadie Vimmerstedt, a fiftysomething widow in Youngstown, Ohio, was interested in the lives and loves of celebrities. Sadie had been outraged when Frank Sinatra threw over his wife and the mother of his children for actress Ava Gardner in 1950, and felt vindicated when Gardner divorced him in 1957. The latter gave her an idea for a song. A good song, too, not that rock ‘n’ roll junk the kids liked. Trouble was, she was no songwriter. She had only one line: “I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.” She thought that “When Somebody Breaks Your Heart” would be a good title. But what to do with the idea?

Isn’t it obvious?

Sadie took a couple of sheets of paper from an old desk calendar and wrote to the most famous songwriter in America, Johnny Mercer. By 1957, Mercer had won two Oscars, created famous Broadway musicals, helped found Capitol Records, and wrote or co-wrote many entries in the Great American Songbook: “Fools Rush In,” “Blues in the Night, “Skylark,” “That Old Black Magic,” “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” “Autumn Leaves,” and many others. Sadie did not know Mercer’s precise address, so she put “Johnny Mercer, Songwriter, New York, N.Y.” on the envelope and dropped it in the mailbox. The post office didn’t know Mercer’s address either, but it figured that ASCAP, the songwriters and publishers’ association, would. So the letter was forwarded, and ASCAP sent it to Mercer.

Johnny Mercer sat on the letter during a couple of fallow years in the late 50s, finally writing Sadie back to apologize for the delay, at about the time he started writing new songs again—a period during which he’d write two more Oscar winners, “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” He incorporated Sadie’s suggested line into a lyric, but changed her proposed title to “I Wanna Be Around.”

Sources vary on exactly what happened next. Sinatra biographer James Kaplan says Mercer told Sadie he would not have the song recorded until he found the right singer for it. But it’s possible that if Mercer said that, he was just being polite. According to Mercer biographer Gene Lees, Mercer’s son-in-law said the songwriter thought that the song “stunk.” Mercer told a song plugger named Phil Zellner that it was “the worst song I ever wrote.” But Zellner heard something in it, and he placed it with Tony Bennett. However it happened, Bennett premiered the song on October 1, 1962, singing on Johnny Carson’s first Tonight show. In the winter of 1963, “I Wanna Be Around” went to #14 on the Hot 100, higher than Bennett’s previous hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

When he finished the song, Mercer told Sadie he would give her a co-writing credit and 10 percent of the royalties. When the song hit, he upped her royalty to 50 percent. “I never expected any royalties,” she said. “[The song] was his to do with what he wished.” Toward the end of 1963, Sadie Vimmerstedt opened her mail to find a royalty check in the amount of $50,000—and money would keep flowing in for the rest of her life and beyond. She also became a Grammy nominee when “I Wanna Be Around” was nominated for Song of the Year, and she attended the awards banquet. She traveled to Cleveland and Cincinnati for radio interviews and to New York for a TV show, and she was even asked for her autograph from time to time. All the while, she continued to work as a cosmetologist. The demands on her time caused her to write Mercer at one point and say, “I’m getting tired of show business.” The two apparently maintained a correspondence for years. Mercer once said, “She’s just the cutest thing.”

Johnny Mercer died in 1976; Sadie Vimmerstedt died in 1986. Tony Bennett celebrated his 94th birthday earlier this month. And while “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” will always be Bennett’s best-known song, “I Wanna Be Around” is probably #2 or #3, and his version is definitive. Sinatra recorded it with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1964.

(Be sure to read this comment from Sadie’s grandson, with some additional information.)

A Business Plan

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(Pictured: Frank Sinatra, Jr., on stage in 1964.)

Here’s another story involving Frank Sinatra, mostly from James Kaplan’s massive biography.

Twenty-four-year-old Barry Keenan had been a financial and real-estate wunderkind in southern California, but thanks to a disabling car accident, a painkiller addiction, and a divorce, he needed money. So he laid out a meticulous business plan, determining that his best route to success would be a kidnapping. He would invest the ransom in real estate and the stock market, and the profits would get him back on his feet. Within five years, he would return the ransom to the victim’s family, with interest.

He decided that the best potential victim would be a high-profile entertainer’s child, and he had a target in mind: 19-year-old Frank Sinatra, Jr., who was just starting his career as a singer. (Keenan had attended high school with Frank Jr.’s older sister Nancy, and he had even visited the Sinatra home.) On the night of December 8, 1963, Keenan and an accomplice, another classmate named Joe Amsler, snatched Frank Jr. at gunpoint from his dressing room at Harrah’s Casino in Lake Tahoe.

Keenan and Amsler were, honestly, fuckups. They left a gun behind at the scene. They delayed making their ransom demand because they were afraid to talk to the elder Sinatra on the phone. (A third man, John Irwin, older and with a gravelly voice, was recruited to the plot, and he made the calls.) They told Sinatra to go to a gas station and wait for a call with further instructions, but then made several calls before Sinatra could arrive, befuddling the attendant, who—quite rightly—could not understand why somebody kept calling for a famous entertainer who’d have no reason to be there. Imagine the attendant’s reaction when a car squealed to a stop and a man jumped out saying, “My name is Frank Sinatra. Have I had any calls?”

The kidnappers asked for $240,000. Sinatra asked why such a small amount—didn’t they want a half-million or a million? But $240,000 was the precise amount Keenan had calculated in his business plan. Sinatra’s bank arranged the ransom, mostly in small bills. When it was together, an FBI agent asked the bank president how he was supposed to carry it. “Go buy a valise,” the president said. When the agent got to the store, he was $15 short of what the valise cost. So he went back to the bank and was given bills from the ransom money to complete the purchase. Then the kidnappers sent Sinatra on a wild-goose chase to various pay phones before telling him where to drop the $239,985, and how he would get Frank Jr. back. Which he eventually did, on December 11.

In February 1964, the kidnappers went on trial, where Keenan’s lawyer floated a theory she had developed and Keenan approved, knowing it was untrue: that the kidnapping was a publicity stunt to boost Frank Jr.’s career. After making that assertion in open court, a second one followed: there was a “fourth defendant,” a successful singer. Not Frank Sinatra, Sr., but Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean, another high-school classmate of Keenan’s. Keenan had previously hit him up for money, and it was revealed that he’d shown Torrence his business plan in advance.

(The morning after the kidnapping, Keenan actually called Torrence to tell him that “somebody” had kidnapped Frank Jr.. “I never thought he’d do it,” Torrence said later. “I thought somebody else must’ve heard his plan.”)

Torrence and both Sinatras testified at the trial, where the hoax defense quickly fell apart. The defendants were convicted; Keenan and Amsler received maximum sentences, later reduced. Two defense attorneys were eventually indicted for conspiracy and suborning perjury, but the charges were dropped.

Because Frank Jr. was uninjured, and because Irwin released him before his co-conspirators secured the money, suspicion lingered that Frank Jr. had staged the whole thing. Gossip columnist Rona Barrett would put the accusation in print as late as 1974. The Sinatra family believed the whispers hurt Frank Jr.’s career. His sister Tina wrote in a memoir, “Frankie was utterly blameless, but he couldn’t unring the bell.”

Keenan was found mentally ill at the time of the kidnapping, so he spent only about four years in prison. After his release, he went on to become the millionaire real-estate developer he had always hoped to be. In 1988, Keenan told People magazine that he would sometimes bump into Frank Jr. at events and parties in Los Angeles. “We do not speak,” Keenan said. “I respect his space.”

Frank Sinatra, Jr., died in 2016. Coming in the next installment: the story of a song. 

A Very Good Year

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(Pictured: Frank Sinatra talks with Walter Cronkite.) 

Maybe once a year I read a book so good I am literally sad that it ends. This year it was James Kaplan’s gigantic two-volume biography, Frank: The Voice (2010) and Sinatra: The Chairman (2015). If you choose to read it, pack a lunch: there’s something like 1800 pages between the two volumes. This week’s posts are all inspired by the book.  

By 1965, Frank Sinatra was firmly entrenched as America’s #1 pop star, Non-Elvis Division, his career revitalized since his Oscar for From Here to Eternity in 1954 and a string of classic albums. For Sinatra’s 50th birthday that year, CBS News planned a documentary on his life and career. Producer Don Hewitt very badly wanted him to sit for an interview with Walter Cronkite, but Sinatra famously hated reporters. Hewitt got him by telling Sinatra that if he spoke to Cronkite, he would be occupying “the same seat Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson sat in.” The appeal to Frank’s ego—that the special would treat him as if he were a president of the United States—was enough. Not only did he agree to the interview, he permitted the CBS crew to film him recording “It Was a Very Good Year.” And in fact, CBS News crews followed Sinatra around for six months.

CBS had done other profiles of serious artists, such as Pablo Casals and Isaac Stern. Sinatra believed his would be the same kind of reverent retrospective on the performer and his art. But in October, when Walter Cronkite came to Sinatra’s home to film the interview, there were fireworks. Cronkite asked about his hot temper. With anger flashing in his eyes, Frank insisted that he had grown “gentler” in recent years, a claim belied by a montage of newspaper headines about his confrontations with reporters and photographers. Then Cronkite asked about Sinatra’s Mafia connections, which caused Sinatra to bolt.

Hewitt followed him into a bedroom, where Sinatra claimed he’d been promised there would be no Mafia questions. Hewitt said he’d never agreed to that.

“I ought to kill you,” Sinatra said.

“With anyone else, that’s a figure of speech,” Hewitt said. “But you probably mean it.”

“I mean it,” Sinatra replied. Hewitt fled the house, and Sinatra withdrew his consent for the special. The New York Times explained that he “objects to stress on matters not related to his profession.”

Somehow, an agreement was reached, and Cronkite was permitted to ask about the mob, although what he got in response wasn’t much: “I do meet all kinds of people in the world because of the natural habitat from day to day in theatrical work and nightclub work, in concerts, wherever I might be, in restaurants, you meet all kinds of people. So there’s really not much to be said about that, and I think the less said the better, because it’s—there is no—there’s no answer.”

Sinatra (which you can see in its entirety here) aired on November 16, 1965, with a script written by Andy Rooney. In addition to the Cronkite interview and the studio footage, Sinatra sang several songs, including one at a prison (highlighted among his many charitable works), and was seen hanging out with family and friends in his favorite saloon. Afterward, TV critics panned the show as a puff piece for not asking hard questions about the Mafia or anything else, including his colorful love life, which currently starred Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior, who would soon become his third wife. Variety called it “an unmitigated rave for Frankie Goodfellow, star performer, tycoon with a heart of gold, family man (yet), and all around ball-haver.”

In December 1965, “It Was a Very Good Year” hit the radio, eventually reaching #25 on the Hot 100 and #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart—the very recording that Sinatra had made on the night CBS cameras were in the studio. And although Sinatra had been a pop star for 25 years by then, his greatest period of sustained singles chart success began with that song. In a 55-week period between June 1966 and June 1967, Sinatra would occupy the #1 spot on the Easy Listening chart for 22 weeks with five different singles: “Strangers in the Night,” “Summer Wind,” “That’s Life,” “Somethin’ Stupid,” and “The World We Knew.” Two of them, “Strangers in the Night” and “Somethin’ Stupid,” a duet with Nancy, would also go to #1 on the Hot 100. For a man who had just turned 50, it was indeed a very good year.

In the next installment: Sinatra’s life was filled with capers, none stranger than one that temporarily cost him $239,985.