By BRUCE DENNILL
Sinatra And Me, starring Richard Shelton as Frank Sinatra is currently touring South Africa, with the award-winning Shelton backed by Adam Howard’s Joburg Big Band. The tour takes in Pretoria (20 March); Johannesburg (21-24 March); East London (27 March); Port Elizabeth (29 March) and Cape Town (30 March).
Richard Shelton discusses his connection to the Chairman of the Board.
Frank Sinatra is generally held as one of the the finest interpreters of the work of other songwriters and musicians in history. Your reputation positions you as one of the finest interpreters of his work. These skills are not the same, though: his genius was in making subtle changes to material; while to recall Sinatra, you need to encapsulate exactly what he does. How do you both of those threads running simultaneously and effectively?
My relationship with Frank Sinatra is that of an actor. I portrayed him in the hard-hitting drama Rat Pack Confidential, for which I was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and I only know how to approach him that way. I’m interested in what goes on behind the blue eyes and the mercurial character of the man. One moment he could be charm itself and in the next, lose his temper savagely – and that’s what interests me. It’s channelling those real human emotions and characteristics into song, so you feel the honesty of what he was singing. When Sinatra sang Fly Me To The Moon you were right up there with him. When he sang One For My Baby, you were alongside him in the bar at 3am. It’s by accessing the emotional side to him and letting go of me that I can evoke him.
How important is a live big band for not only authenticity but also in terms of the energy and scale of the performance?
It’s vital. Creating live music is a collaborative process, whether it’s with just a piano or a guitar or a big band. When it’s live, you’re making something fresh and real in the moment. Nothing beats live music and nothing beats a big band, especially with these songs. It’s like being in front of a great big roaring jet engine – once someone presses ‘go’, there’s no turning back. You’ve just got to launch up into the sky with it and keep going until you come out the other side. It’s an exhilarating experience.
You link the songs with a narrative about experiences you’ve had as a result of singing the songs. Were Sinatra details and links something you sought out once you started working with his material, or were there coincidental, serendipitous connections as well?
Both, really. When I did Rat Pack Confidential, I discovered I’m the exact size of Frank Sinatra. When I went to live in Los Angeles, quite by chance his tuxedo walked into my life. It’s an exact fit, like it’s been tailor-made for me. The fact that the tux is really his Sinatra’s was borne out on British television by Sir Roger Moore, James Bond himself, when he said, “Show me the label – ah, yes! That’s Frank’s. He called me up and said, ‘Roger, where’d you get your tuxedo made, I want one’ and I sent him to Cyril Castle. I can confirm that’s Frank Sinatra’s!” It was a surreal moment. I was also one of the last people inside Sinatra’s last home as it was being demolished. These are just two examples among many serendipitous coincidences connecting our lives.
With your passion for travelling, do you find yourself looking for Sinatra link in new locations when you visit?
I always research if Sinatra had been to the places I’m visiting and see if I can make a connection. Sometimes, I’ll create a moment to make it seem like he’d been there or link it in to events happening around that time in his life.
As an actor, you’ve worked in a number of genres and formats, including a couple of years on the soap opera Emmerdale. Fans of soaps can often get rather emotionally involved with the characters. Did you ever have any weird interactions with people wanting to connect with Dr Adam Forsythe?
Well, Dr Adam Forsythe was a psychopathic murderer, so I’m pleased to be able to tell you I had absolutely no weird interactions with fans! Actually, I got a very warm reception. Adam was a much misunderstood character. I actually think he had a good heart in the beginning and want to help people but events rather overtook him and he went mad. Fans were always very generous when I met them.
Does something similar ever occur when you’re playing Sinatra – people communicating with you as they might have wanted to do with Frank himself?
Yes, that happens – I think Frank Sinatra is beloved to many people and I take them on a nostalgic journey. I think some people are persuaded that they’ve been in his company for a while so they’re understandably moved. When that happens, I know I’ve done my job. It’s an honour.
Would you say your Frank is a persona or a character? In other words, is being Sinatra on stage every night the same as being a character on TV or in a film (where you as an actor vanishing speaks of a job well done) or a performance where your own talents as Richard Shelton make the piece what it is?
Quite simply, when I’m on stage as Sinatra, Richard vanishes and I let go of my ego to allow space for Sinatra to come in. I’m channelling him, if you like. That’s the process as an actor. There are technicalities I observe – how to work the room, how to engage in spontaneous repartee as Frank. Sometimes, I improvise a song. All these things create an original experience, evoking a moment of magic with Sinatra. As an actor, you always bring your technique and skills but the primary focus is the character you’re portraying. The rest takes care of itself.