On September 14th, Willie Nelson will release My Way, an album-length tribute to Frank
Sinatra. While the concept of a Sinatra tribute LP isn’t new, Nelson’s approach is: He finds
new, inventive ways to phrase songs like “Summer Wind” and “My Way,” both in his
vocal melodies and with his famous gut-stringed acoustic, Trigger. “I learned a lot about
phrasing listening to Frank,” Willie said recently. “He didn’t worry about behind the beat
or in front of the beat, or whatever – he could sing it either way, and that’s the feel you
have to have.”
The love between Nelson and Sinatra was mutual. Sinatra reportedly called Nelson
his favorite singer after hearing Nelson’s 1978 album Stardust, where he sang classics
from the American songbook. Though a career risk at the time, the album went quadruple
platinum and set off a standards-LP trend that artists still try to emulate to this day.
Nelson was so big in the early Eighties, in part because of Stardust, that Sinatra even
opened for him at Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget in 1984. “I don’t say that to brag,” Nelson
wrote in It’s a Long Story: My Life. “Wasn’t my idea. It was [casino owner Steve Wynn’s].
He felt that since I was selling more records than Sinatra, I’d be a bigger draw and was
entitled to top billing. I would have been happy with second billing … Sinatra’s my favorite
singer.” The run didn’t last long: Sinatra canceled his appearances after the first night due
to throat problems, although it became a music legend that Sinatra just didn’t like being
an opening act. “That’s bullshit,” Nelson said. “Like me, Frank wasn’t hung up on being
the headliner. He was the consummate pro.”
(Nelson’s former road manager Poodie Locke had another story from that time, which
he shared in Joe Nick Patoski’s Willie Nelson: An Epic Life: “Frank loved Willie’s music,”
Locke said. “But he couldn’t handle us [the crew]. We’re wearing Wranglers and we’ve got
titty dancers backstage. It wasn’t his version of classy.”)
The same year as their Vegas gig, Nelson and Sinatra teamed up for another, more unexpected
collaboration: to spread the word about the benefits of space travel. The Space
Foundation recorded several of these PSAs in the early 1980s to spread the word about
the “tangible benefits” of the space program, including digital imaging, which greatly
benefited hospital treatment.
Sinatra and Nelson recorded at least two of these commercials, and Sinatra clearly gets
a kick out of Nelson’s casual cool, beginning by pointing to his headband. “What do you
call that, Willie?” Sinatra says. “I call it ‘My Way,’ Francis.”
“Touché,” says Sinatra.
In another video, they detail a “medical system” that can be implanted, releasing medication
automatically. “And I believe it’ll be the way to treat diabetes in the years ahead,”
says Nelson. If you’re in the mood for a bizarre science lesson from two popular music
giants, today’s your lucky day.
My Way is Nelson’s second release of the year, after the excellent Last Man Standing.
He’s gearing up for a series of East Coast shows in early September, including a co-headlining
show with Van Morrison at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium on September 12th and
Farm Aid on September 22nd. We visited Nelson in his Texas studio around his 85th birthday
earlier this year to find out what keeps him going. “I just enjoy playing,” he explained,
“whether it’s on the stage, here in the studio, or wherever.”