Page 4 of 5   <       >

Frank Jr., the Unsung Sinatra

Merrill Kelem sits in the auditorium. He was an Atlantic City police officer for three decades. Then he went to work security for Big Frank. "We didn't like using the word 'bodyguard,' " he says.

He works security for Frank now.

Kelem used to love being part of that squadron circling Big Frank. Leading Big Frank through the hallways, getting him to the limo.

Big Frank: There was the music -- years and years of it. But there were also headlines and scraps with newspapermen and marriages and divorces (Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow among them) and retirement and the legendary comeback. And more beautiful music for lonely, broken-hearted people. He was one Francis Albert Sinatra, and he knew how to wrap melancholy around a lyric, and he was a decent actor, and he had some tough and shady friends, and he was a great pal to his allies, and he even paid their hospital bills when they couldn't, and he gave hugely to charities, and he said Billie Holiday was one of his great influences. And when his shows opened and the musicians started wailing, you couldn't see him just yet. And then he'd rise from the half-hidden milk crate he had been sitting on with his back to the audience, without any formal introduction, and he'd turn to the audience and watch them go wild. And he had children: two daughters, and one son, Frank Jr., by his first wife, Nancy. And therein lies the history, and the shadowing, and the blue-lit ghost against the mountain.

The great Bill Miller, who had played all those years with him, went home after Big Frank died. There wasn't much work. Mostly, he was alone. Who knows what an old pianist sitting alone thinks about? The phone rang. It was Frank. Let's go, he said.

'He Was Good to Me'

The pianist was born in 1915. He's slim and the body is bent. The bent body looks almost courageous, as if he's been pummeling things mortals can't see. His fingers are long and pink and elegant. He likes a little vodka in the evenings. He likes Key lime pie. He's never done his own album. "It never came about," he says. "It's a little late now. But" -- and he lifts a hand like a bird's wing rising slowly up from a nest -- "who knows?"

His piano on the potent Sinatra number "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" is considered classic. "That was an accident, really," Miller says. "We did the recording after two or three takes. You just hope for the best. I got lucky with that."

During a time of great romantic ballads, Bill Miller found love with a woman by the name of Aimee. They married, and sometimes she would join him on the road. Her love, his piano: Life was sweet. In 1964, they were living in California with their small daughter when a rain-soaked mountainside gave way, unleashing a torrent of mud and water. The family was separated. Miller's daughter somehow made it safely to the top of a hill. Bill was washed away in the debris, found clinging to a car at the end of a road.

They found Aimee the second night. Bill looked up from his hospital bed to see Big Frank standing over him. "Frank identified her body," he says. "Frank said, 'If it's any consolation, there wasn't a mark on her.' It wasn't any consolation."

Big Frank replaced everything for Bill. "The old man, he was good to me," Miller says.

'A Singer by Accident'

It's dinnertime. And there's a long table at this upscale steakhouse. And Frank's got most of the orchestra around him.

He's actually kind of shy.

<             4        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company