At Christmas time in America, “We Three Kings” could take on a different connotation. The royal triumvirate of traditional Christmas music consists of Nat King Cole, King Bing (Crosby), and the chairman of the board of Christmas music monarchs, Frank Sinatra. The Cole and Crosby catalogs haven’t been so heavily mined for holiday nuggets recently, but there’s a full-on push to keep Sinatra as much of a presence in Christmas-celebrating households as peppermint or pine scent.
To that end, Universal Music has released yet another Sinatra compilation CD (and double-LP), “Ultimate Christmas” — one that comes closer to living up to that name than any of the previous Sinatra holiday sets, by virtue of bringing together material he recorded from the early ‘50s through early ‘90s. The new album is one more way Nancy and Tina Sinatra are trying to ensure their dad maintains his fatherly position in the households of present and future generations, too.
“Nobody embraced Christmas as he did,” says Nancy, the eldest of his three children. (Middle child Frank Jr. passed away in 2016.) The family shared some photos with Variety as they also passed along some memories of Christmases that were in some ways traditional — or at least as traditional as holidays presided over by a divorced couple can be — and in other ways extravagant.
A black-and-white photo in the new CD booklet pictures Sinatra, drink in hand, standing next to a tree that looks to be more tinsel than actual topiary. Some color outtakes bring family members into the picture, like Tina, “in that stunning white dress with the red polka dots,” she laughs, at Nancy Sinatra Sr.’s post-divorce home at 700 Nimes Road in Bel Air, “where Elizabeth Taylor lived out her days once we sold it.” They also have fond memories of earlier Christmases at their Carolwood house in Holmby Hills (which was, in recent years, purchased and controversially razed by ex-Paramount head Brad Grey).
“My mom was a tinsel master,” says Nancy. “My dad and his friends would come over late Christmas Eve, after a night of revelry, and they would just throw tinsel at the tree. And my mom and I would undo it afterwards and make it what you see in those pictures.”
“Things got a little askew,” laughs Tina. “But that tree was my mother’s pride and joy. She and Nancy, like fools, stood there for I don’t know how many hours, adding a few strands at a time. It just used to astonish me that they had the patience, but they did.” The women’s handiwork would get done and undone as the family patriarch descended. “Dad would often be there Christmas Eve at night, with (songwriter) Jimmy Van Heusen or some pal, and that was also usually when what I call the ‘little elves’ would get mischievous. The next morning they would still be there.”
The fact that Frank Sr. and Nancy Sr. had divorced in 1951? Not a problem, apparently. “We would spend Christmas Eve and morning with in L.A.,” at their mother’s house, Nancy says, “and then we would drive to [Palm Springs] in the afternoon and have Christmas night there. Families who are divorced generally have that sort of tradition,” she says. “Oftentimes Mom would come (to the desert), too,” says Tina, “and it was always very friendly and familial.”
That conviviality continued at least into the 1970s, after Nancy Jr. had married her late husband, dancer-choreographer Hugh Lambert. “One particular Christmas, I was in Las Vegas with Hugh,” she recalls. “We had two shows Christmas Eve night” — back in the days when live show business did not take a pause for the holidays — “and Dad sent his plane for us. The last show was at midnight, so by the time we got into Palm Springs it was probably 3, and we were really tired. When we got to the airport, we saw a little crowd on the tarmac. It turned out to be Mom and Dad and a group of mariachis, singing ‘Jingle Bells’ as we got off the plane.”
In 1968, Frank Sr. and the three kids got together to record an album of solo and joint songs, “The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas,” four selections from which feature on the new collection. Two of the kids were already accomplished performers, and Nancy remembers it as one of the favorite experiences of her life. Tina, who was never forced into a studio before or since, felt differently.
“It was over quickly enough so I didn’t die of a stroke,” says the non-singer of the family. “I did the best I could! I take such ribbing for that every year.” Of her solo number, Tina says, “I’ve forbidden Lou Simon, our station manager for [satellite radio channel] Siriusly Sinatra to play it. I said, ‘If I hear that once, you’re gonna get it!’”
The new collection also revives the whole family’s group take on “12 Days of Christmas,” with rewritten lyrics by Sammy Cahn. On Christmas morning of ’68, the kids surprised Dad: Picking up on Cahn’s all-new dozen, “Nancy had arranged to have every gift we sang about hidden,” Tina recalls. “We had to, one at a time, run around him like little fairies, bestowing him with the gifts we were singing while lip-syncing to the record. He was smothered in stuff, including ‘a most lovely lavender tie.’ I couldn’t get the T on the ‘most’ to save my life on that. He’d always say, ‘Enunciate!’” But, Nancy remembers: “We used pretend stuff for some of it. We couldn’t find the four Meerschaum pipes.”
Nancy’s pick of her father’s holiday records? “I think my very favorite is ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’ It’s very sentimental. He always tried to make it home for Christmas.” Tina’s favorites skew in a different direction. “I am one who really loved the more religious Christmas carols,” says the baby of the family. “They conjure such images and softness and gentleness. My real favorite of my father’s is ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’ And I love the sweetness of ‘Silent Night,’ which is so pure and gentle, and which was one of the last times he was in a recording studio. It’s beyond breathtaking, as his kid, to hear that.”
Unbeknown even to most fans, Sinatra recorded “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in three different decades for three different labels. He first cut it in 1948 for Columbia, before it had become a standard, using the sad lyrics Judy Garland had sung in “Meet Me in St. Louis” four years earlier. Then, in 1957, when he was working on his Capitol release “Jolly Christmas” — the only full, solo Christmas album he ever recorded as a whole — he approached the song’s writer, Hugh Martin, with a request. As Martin told this writer before he passed away in 2010, Sinatra “called to ask if I would rewrite the ‘have to muddle through somehow’ line. He said, ‘The name of my album is “A Jolly Christmas.” Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?”’ Martin did do a rewrite, not just on that but a few other melancholy lyrics, and because of Sinatra’s intervention, the suddenly cheerful tune became of the biggest Christmas standards ever. And when Reprise Records was getting underway in 1963, Sinatra recut the song as his sole contribution to a rare promotional LP for the label called “Frank Sinatra and His Friends Want You to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Tina is not going to make any claims for her father’s sole kingship of Christmas. “Bing Crosby was there first,” says Nancy, “and as much as we were listening to Dad, we truly were listening to Ella and Rosie Clooney and Mathis and Tony Bennett, and I remember specifically as a little one loving Nat King Cole – I mean, a lot.”
But Nancy might go there with the superlative. “I really think he might be the voice of Christmas. Someone might argue that, because of ‘White Christmas,’ Bing Crosby’s is. I don’t know. I just think that the sentimentality of my dad’s recordings is what grabs people. He was emotional when he sang them, and people are emotional when they hear them. That doesn’t really change. And we can hope that every child who hears ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ will carry that through life to his or her family.”