My Way. Never was a man more fit to sing the words.
In Frank Sinatra's world, there was only the Sinatra way, debonair and uncompromising. He was, and remains, an archetypal American man, perhaps the archetypal American man, and so of course he did it his way. No one else's way would do.
Sinatra would have turned 100 on Dec. 12, and even today, no hit of his strikes a chord like My Way. It's an iconic song, but also a divisive one. It has been called smarmy, pompous, torturous, self-indulgent. It has also been called faultless, a classic, as perfect for the man who made it famous as any song ever written.
Based on a French melody, its valedictory lyrics composed by Paul Anka with only Sinatra in mind, My Way is the song we most associate with how Sinatra saw the world, and how the world in turn saw Sinatra. In a life overflowing with signature songs, this was the one that said the most.
To mark the Sinatra centennial, the Tampa Bay Times asked musicians to perform My Way, their way, to get behind those famous blue eyes and see the world as Sinatra once saw it. What could their versions say about Sinatra, 100 years after his birth? What could they teach us about the Sinatra way of life?
Watch a video of their performances at tampabay.com/music. Here, they reflect on the man, his music and the mythology surrounding both.
• • •
In a nearly empty theater, Paul Wilborn positions his hands above C-major in the center of the keyboard of a matte black Steinway grand.
Propped before him is My Way, a song he has never before played in full. In January, he and wife Eugenie Bondurant played three sold-out Sinatra cabaret concerts at American Stage in St. Petersburg. Neither is a big fan of My Way ("It's kind of a clunky song, when you really come down to it," Wilborn says), and so it was not on the set list. Fans demanded it anyway. Wilborn, who is executive director of the Palladium, gave them a verse and a chorus. That was enough.
Here, the lyrics are propped before him, his fingers just above the ivories. Notes drizzle out and he sings.
"And now ... the end is near ..."
Bondurant waits in the wings. She is a singer and actor; her striking, androgynous appearance helped earn her a role in the latest Hunger Games movie. At those American Stage shows, she wore a dark Sinatran suit and fedora, flipping the singer's alpha-male image. Yet while she stands a slender 6 feet 1, 4 inches taller than Sinatra, she knew she could never fully capture his effortless masculinity.
"You can't emulate him — he's one of a kind," she says. "If I could just be gender neutral, or take away the feminine as much as I can, then I get toward that neutral place."
When Wilborn hits the third verse ("Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew ..."), Bondurant sidles into frame.
She sings: "What is a man? What has he got? If not himself, then he has naught."
There is love in the swoony way they sing it. Little laughs, little glances, little smiles.
"The record shows ... I took the blows," Wilborn sings. Together, they harmonize the song's final line: "And did it myyyyy ... wayyyyyy ..."
Wilborn smiles and plinks a coda. Bondurant laughs out loud.
"Pretty good," Wilborn says. It sounds like he means it.
• • •
On the same day Sinatra would have turned 100, Ray Chiaramonte will turn 66. The fact that the men share a birthday has never escaped Chiaramonte, also blue-eyed and the product of Italian immigrants.
Chiaramonte grew up a fan of the Beatles and Stones; it wasn't until his late 30s that he began to appreciate Sinatra. And it wasn't until a trip to Italy a decade ago, where he was prodded into singing My Way in a crowded village square, that he began to take singing seriously.
For Chiaramonte, singing falls somewhere between a hobby and a part-time job. By day, he's the executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority; he is a former director of Hillsborough County's Planning Commission. On odd nights and weekends, he hauls his karaoke rig to weddings, parties and corporate affairs, singing tunes from all the crooners, but especially Sinatra.
A vocal coach once asked Chiaramonte what he thought were his strengths as a singer. Sincerity, Chiaramonte replied. He wanted to feel the song, and have others feel it, too. It's a lesson he picked up from Sinatra.
"In all honesty, I don't think Frank Sinatra had the best voice in the world," Chiaramonte says. "But he had a certain believability that I think is important."
At his home in Westchase, in an airy den just off his pool, Chiaramonte flicks on his rig. His My Way is softer, more earnest than Sinatra's forceful original, delivered in a warm and gentle warble. He's not trying to imitate Sinatra. Sinatra never imitated. Why should he?
"I just try to perform it like it's me," he said.
• • •
Alex Bonyata studies music at the Music Industry Recording Arts program at St. Petersburg College. My Way was released 30 years before his birth. He's 15.
While he appreciates the story of the song, it's the melody that drew him in, from the dramatic swells and ebbs of its arrangement to the minor-key accidentals that build tension in each measure. He heard in My Way a song that suited the eclectic style of himself and his vocal partner, 13-year-old Bella Beyer. The challenge was drawing it out.
"With a whole band, you can knock it out pretty easily: Let's do a funk cover. Let's do a reggae cover," Alex says. "But with just an acoustic guitar and vocals, it's not as obvious."
Alex and Bella, who perform together as AB+, tried a few different arrangements. A bossa nova version. A mandolin version. A Hendrix-style version with lots of distorted guitars.
They settled on an upbeat folk arrangement: Alex plucking each verse finger style, Bella warbling the lyrics with a vintage, soulful lilt. When the song hits the chorus, it speeds up, almost like bluegrass.
"It's sort of the same setup as a lot of punk songs — you have a quiet, driving verse, and then it gets loud for the chorus," Alex says.
Punk. Soul. Bluegrass. It was all there in My Way all along.
• • •
Frank had just turned 53 when he recorded My Way — young enough, his daughter Nancy wrote in her 1985 memoir, "to sing the almost morbid words ... without it depressing him (and me)," yet old enough that the song passed for a credible meditation on death. That made it an anomaly in Sinatra's catalog, and in the American pop canon.
"With traditional pop, like Sinatra and Tony Bennett, we don't get too many deathbed songs," said Phil Chamberlin, 35, of Ruskin. "We're more likely to get that with country music."
Chamberlin, who writes and records under the moniker Green Light Cameras, seized on My Way's themes of mortality when he was asked to cover the song for the listener-supported radio station WMNF-FM 88.5. Chamberlin crafted an experimental sound collage of audio samples found on the Internet — spoken-word lyrics, found trumpet and piano melodies and audio clips of people talking about their near-death experiences. The piece captures the sentimentality of My Way, but adds a layer of morbidity that is eerie, yet enlightening.
"It is kind of spooky, thinking about how these people, whether you believe in an afterlife or not, have experienced something to them which is real," he said.
Chamberlin presses play and strums a guitar as a gravelly narrator recites Anka's lyrics, and disembodied voices swirl around the room.
My life flashed before my eyes.
I saw people that I recognized, and these people were people that had passed.
I saw me when I was younger, doing things that I loved to do.
I just emerged into this world of brilliant white light.
• • •
Sinatra was on a career downslope when My Way came along in 1969. Rock 'n' roll had long since pushed the crooners from the highest pop pedestals. Sinatra was nearing a much-ballyhooed (and ultimately short-lived) retirement. My Way was arguably the point where Sinatra was finally cast in bronze as the version of himself later generations would remember.
"When you really sit down and read the lyrics, it's heartbreaking," says Mark Warren. "Especially when you see the footage of Sinatra in '71 at his retirement concert. I hate to say it, but he's this tragic figure. Where does the fiction and the myth end, and the man begin? It's like he has become the mythical Sinatra at this point, almost like Don Quixote has tilted at his last windmill."
Warren plays guitar in the Vodkanauts, a self-described "power lounge" band playing rock, surf and swing songs, often with offbeat arrangements, at parties and events all over Tampa Bay. My Way isn't part of their usual Sinatra repertoire, but Warren has a vision for how the Vodkanauts can make it work: Begin with the famous Sinatra version, then segue into a disco beat, borrowing heavily from Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive.
Two anthems of survival and empowerment, recorded 10 years apart for totally different audiences, mashed up into one.
"That'll make me smile," Warren said.
• • •
Pressed tux, polished shoes, Frank Sinatra cuff links. Don Juceam is alone in the spotlight, about to run through My Way for the many-hundredth time in his life.
He is Tampa Bay's premiere Sinatra impersonator, performing up to 100 gigs a year, occasionally with up to a 23-piece orchestra, at lavish weddings, galas, birthday parties, even the odd funeral. My Way kills at funerals. Weddings, not so much.
Juceam, 60, is a walking Encyclopedia Sinatra. He has gigs upon gigs of recordings, file cabinets full of orchestral charts. He memorizes Sinatra's music, his mannerisms, his stage banter. "I study my jokes as much as I study my songs," he said.
That authenticity isn't just a point of professional pride for Juceam. It was for Sinatra as well. His enunciative delivery made him sound honest and believable. People believed every story he told them. With My Way, Juceam said, "they applied the words to their life, and projected their lives onto that song."
Who doesn't have a few regrets? Who hasn't bitten off more than they could chew? Who hasn't loved, laughed and cried?
And so Juceam believes: Who is he to make My Way his own? How could he improve on a song that already means so much to so many?
“They hear Sinatra when I do it," he says. "That's the effect I'm always looking for."
The song swells, and from the stage, Juceam sings with certainty, gazing with resolve across the room. My Way's huge finale is coming. He'll belt it out with the confidence of a man at home in the spotlight. It's just what Frank would have done.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.