Late on a recent Tuesday night, I parked myself at the bar in the second floor dining room of the Van Dyke Café, eschewing the four-dollar music charge and the small circular dining tables in front of the bandstand. There sat some of South Beach's late-night winners -- people who had each other. Determined to brood I drank my whiskey with a four-cube maximum, the way Ol' Blue Eyes liked his. Little did I know I was in for a night of saloon standards. When guest vocalist Tony Fernandez joined the Don Wilner Trio around midnight, it was the first time I would hear the 24-year-old baritone from Boca Raton. The crowd had dwindled to less than a dozen. A few contented lovers at the tables played counterpoint to myself, lone loser at the bar, symbol for whom Sinatra sang his best songs. That night Fernandez delivered.
Like so many bimbo beauties who make South Beach their stomping ground, Fernandez is blessed with something exceptional yet insubstantial. And like many of those inarticulate bombshells, when quizzed about the choices he's made in his life, he doesn't really have clear answers. Asked why he prefers one song over another in his repertoire, he replies, "It was in Leaving Las Vegas. Do you like Nick Cage? I love Nicholas Cage." Truth is Fernandez doesn't have to be articulate about what he chooses to sing. Like the greats who have preceded him, the timbre of his voice provides volumes of eloquence.
In the way of a shape-shifter, the young singer can move from a stuttering nervous patter off-stage to a flawlessly becalmed rendering of "Don't Worry 'Bout Me." The bass, drums, and piano of the Don Wilner Trio can't quite keep up with all his incarnations, however. They can only play two Spanish-language songs -- "Besame Mucho" and "Una Historia de Amor" -- while the bilingual Fernandez, who has been experimenting with the tropical voicings of Cuban crooner Benny Moré, is champing at the bit to do a version of "Yiri Yiri Bon." Despite his ability to bring forth impeccable versions of signature Sinatra standards such as "Fly Me to the Moon," which recalls the honeyed perfection of the Chairman of the Board before he shellacked his vocal chords with a permanent coat of smoke and whiskey, Fernandez is anxious to take the first flight out of Fauxboken and join a rock group. During breaks, while the band plays instrumental standards or leaves the stage, Fernandez attempts to unwind, downing Heinekens and bumming cigarettes. Off-stage at the bar, immaculately dressed in light-color pleated pants, long-sleeve shirt, and brown square-toe shoes, he is typically wired with energy. Much as Sinatra during his early years, Fernandez has a mature voice in what is still a very young man's body. Lanky and nearly six feet tall, he habitually hunches his shoulders and speaks in brief staccato-stuttered passages, some sort of emotional Morse code. But he is never really at ease unless he is singing. Onstage he snaps his fingers to the beat and is prone to smiling, eyes closed, enraptured. Completely focused, his clean baritone resonates through the club, subtly framing any conversation or thought. He can tail a phrase with perfectly controlled vibrato. His voice has richness, and if he hasn't really learned how to tell the stories of the songs he sings, he still has the power to seduce with his technique and the possibility of what he might become.
Fernandez claims a psychological parallel between Jim Morrison, Sinatra, and himself. "It's sort of a bipolar thing; I won't say more than that," he notes. He admits to having been prone to the excesses of his heroes. After a chance encounter with Van Dyke restaurant and club manager Ryan York at Churchill's Hideaway, Fernandez finally got the reference he needed for a guest gig at the South Beach joint.
Powerful voice and personality of requisite darkness notwithstanding, Fernandez sometimes lacks the grown-up graces it takes to pull off jazz standards. But he's on his way. Scratch Sinatra and you found an actor, a storyteller, a full-fledged persona who could fill the role behind any mask. Scratch Fernandez and you are liable to find a young man with common longings, great pipes. Scratch deeper and you will find a Cuban-American kid with a startlingly good ear in search of a vocal sound all his own.