Frankly Speaking

They'll be no talk of booze and broads when vocalist Walt Andrus joins the Don Wilner Quartet to perform A Tribute to the Music of Frank Sinatra this weekend. You see, Andrus doesn't need Scotch and gender slurs to emulate Ol' Blue Eyes. He is not an impersonator, a subspecies Andrus describes as obese guys in spandex jump suits who think they are the reincarnation of Elvis. "I don't put on a hat or throw on a coat," Andrus notes, speaking over the phone from a Super 8 Motel in Columbus, Ohio. "I just sing the songs that Sinatra made famous."

Well, there's a little more to it than that. Andrus shares a bit of history with the Chairman of the Board. The 34-year-old vocalist has spent the past ten years on the road as the singer for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, now directed by Buddy Morrow. Back in the early Forties, Sinatra was the voice of the Dorsey Orchestra, when it was led by Tommy Dorsey himself. In addition to holding down the same job, Andrus and Sinatra both possess distinctive baritones that are eerily similar in timbre and range.

Raised in the northeast, Andrus began his musical career at age twelve playing piano, saxophone, and trumpet in various small and big bands. "I was drawn to standards because I grew up listening to my father's and my grandfather's records," he says when queried as to why he didn't gravitate toward rock and roll.

He first saw Sinatra in the flesh when, as a senior in high school, he attended a concert at the Hartford Civic Center. "[Comedian] Pat Henry opened the show and then without any fanfare, announcement, or spotlight, Sinatra just appeared on the stage," Andrus recalls. "The crowd went totally nuts. It was amazing. I thought to myself, 'I can do that!'"

Three years later Andrus took up singing and discovered his voice resembled that of his new idol: "I realized Sinatra sounded a lot like a horn player when he sings. I began in music playing the horn, so it was easy to understand his phrasing." Lucky for Andrus his sound is reminiscent of Sinatra in his prime -- the period from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties when he recorded for the Capitol label and his own Reprise imprint. "If you listen to Sinatra on his Dorsey recordings, he had a beautiful voice but he hadn't yet nailed down a style," Andrus explains. "Much later he really became the great singer."

This past January, when he was in Florida for a brief vacation, Andrus met Don Wilner, music director for the Van Dyke Cafe on Lincoln Road, who encouraged him to perform there informally one night. The musicians worked so well together that Wilner extended an open invitation to Andrus to come back and sing whenever he wanted. Now with ten days off from his touring schedule with the Dorsey band, Andrus returns to town and will hook up with Wilner's quartet for a musical tribute to Sinatra.

"We're going to keep the repertoire loose, easy, and relaxed," claims the crooner. "We'll definitely perform 'The Song Is You.' That's the last tune Sinatra recorded with Dorsey. We'll probably do 'New York, New York,' even though it sounds better with a big orchestra. And if I must, I'll sing 'My Way,' though I really don't like that song. It always sounds kind of pompous to me."

But isn't a pompous song such as "My Way," by now considered one of Sinatra's signature numbers, apropos of the man considered by many to be the greatest singer in the world? "Yeah, I guess," shrugs Andrus. "But I can't say for sure. I've never met him. It's easier to meet the Pope than it is to meet Frank Sinatra!"

-- Nina Korman

A Tribute to the Music of Frank Sinatra with Walt Andrus and the Don Wilner Quartet, featuring pianist Eddie Higgins, takes place tonight and tomorrow night at the Van Dyke Cafe, 846 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Showtime is 10:00 p.m. Cover charge is $6. Call 534-3600.

 
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