The answer: It is 1939, Harry James has left Benny Goodman and is determined to lead his own group....but, the road was hard. He needed a miracle...it was waiting at New Jersey's Rustic Cabin.
It came when James' wife, the band singer Louise Tobin, happened to catch Frank Sinatra singing on WNEW (New York) one night in the spring of 1939 and thought enough of him that she woke up her husband and said, “Honey, you might want to hear this kid on the radio.” And it was James who decided soon thereafter, at the end of a long day of performing and traveling, to take a side trip to the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey (Close to the George Washington Bridge on NJ route 9w.)
He liked what he heard. “This very thin guy with swept-back greasy hair had been waiting tables,” James recalled many years later. “Suddenly he took off his apron and climbed onto the stage. He’d sung only eight bars of ‘Night and Day’ when I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising. I knew he was destined to be a great vocalist.”
James offered him a contract on the spot: $75 a week. It was quite an offer, three times what Sinatra was currently making. What James neglected to say was that there were some weeks (he wasn’t especially good with money) when he didn’t have $75 to his name.
Since Harry had created Connie Haines that morning (that was the name he had conjured on the spot for his new girl singer, née Yvonne Marie Antoinette JaMais), he was feeling lucky. “Sinatra” was too Eye-talian, he said. How about Frankie Satin? It went nice with that nice smooth voice of his.
Just a moment before, Sinatra recalled in later years, he had been grasping James by the arm, incredulous at the offer, making sure his main chance didn’t get away. Now, as Connie Haines remembered sharply 67 years after that night, the singer’s eyes went cold. “Frank told Harry, ‘You want the singer, take the name,’ ” Haines said. “And walked away.”
Sinatra had already tried an Anglicized stage name—Frankie Trent—very briefly, a couple of years before. And while “Frankie Trent” was bad enough, “Frankie Satin” was much, much worse—it made “Connie Haines” look like sheer genius. It wasn’t even Anglicized; it was 100 percent corn oil. As Sinatra told the writer Pete Hamill, “Can you imagine? Is that a name or is that a name? Now playing in the lounge, ladies and gentlemen, the one an’ only Frankie Satin.…If I’d have done that, I’d be working cruise ships today.”
But when Frank walked away, James came right after him. The defiantly un-renamed Frank Sinatra joined Harry James and His Orchestra on June 30 as they opened a week-long engagement at the Hippodrome, in Baltimore. He was so new that he wasn’t even listed on the bill. Still, some girls in the audience quickly got the idea: “After the first show, the screaming started in the theater, and those girls came backstage,” Connie Haines told Peter J. Levinson, for his Harry James biography, Trumpet Blues. “There were about twenty of them… It happened, it was real, it was not a gimmick.”
They were on their way to music stardom.
Excerpted from Frank: The Voice, by James Kaplan, published by Doubleday; © 2010