One of Robert Davi’s lasting memories of Frank Sinatra is when the Chairman of the Board became the Chairman of the Bar.
Years before Davi was a James Bond villain in Licence to Kill and hassled kids as a thug in The Goonies, he made his onscreen debut opposite Sinatra in the 1977 TV movie Contract on Cherry Street. While filming, Davi was out at 2 in the morning at a New York social club with some of the actors, and after noticing him standing off to the side, Sinatra asked him over for a drink.
When he told Ol’ Blue Eyes that he didn’t drink, Sinatra responded, “You don’t drink, you’re fired.” “I said, ‘I’ll have what you’re having!'” Davi recalls. “I sat at the bar and he poured his legendary Jack Daniel‘s.
“It was my first one,” he adds. “And I’ve been drinking it ever since.”
Davi played it cool when he first met his boyhood idol — “I was excited but I wasn’t like a trembling bobby-soxer,” says the 58-year-old actor with a laugh — as he does on his new debut album, Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance.
Those who’ve become accustomed to seeing Davi play criminals, drug lords, cops and other assorted tough guys can hear him bring a similar artistic take to tunes Sinatra made famous from the Great American Songbook, which Davi labels “the Shakespeare of America.”
“It’s what made the world fall in love with our country,” Davi says. “Coming out of the Depression and during World War II, it was a blending of the black and Jewish communities creating this American songbook out of their own personal struggle and ideal, speaking to difficult times.”
“You needed the Italians to sing it, of course,” he adds, chuckling. “And that’s where for me you have Sinatra being the greatest interpreter of it.”
Much like Sinatra before him, Davi studied classical music and opera in his native New York. In high school in Long Island, he was in both the glee and drama clubs and won state competitions in voice and dramatic interpretation. He attended Hofstra University on a drama scholarship and worked with some of the top operatic voices, including Italian baritone Tito Gobbi.
After decades of focusing on his screen work, Davi was inspired to do his own album after singing a doo-wop song in his 2007 directorial debut, The Dukes. He decided to return to vocal training two years ago, and his friend Bob Cavallo, who heads the Disney Music group, recommended that he use vocal coach Gary Catona.
“I started working with him intensely every day and put together the arrangements,” Davi says. He’s taken his Sinatra show on the road in recent years during breaks in acting work.
It was hard for him, though, to whittle down a track list for the album from the expansive canon of Sinatra songs. Davi picked a theme of finding love and chose the album’s subtitle from a lyric in Nice ‘N’ Easy, one of the tunes he included.
Davi selected songs from different phases of Sinatra’s career — from I’ve Got the World on a String, which was a comeback of sorts for the singer in 1953, to The Best Is Yet to Come, the last song Sinatra sang in public in 1995 — as well as tracks that were meaningful to him.
It was Sinatra, however, who gave him a seal of approval on his acting back in 1977. Davi remembers sitting in a truck on the Cherry Street set, playing hitman Mickey Sinardos, when Sinatra approached him after watching some dailies.
“He looks at me and points his finger and said, ‘The stuff you shot was terrific.’ Right from there, people told me, ‘Hey, he likes you,'” says Davi, who remained friendly with Sinatra until his death in 1998.
In his offscreen life, Davi listens to a lot of classical music as well as tunes from the Great American Songbook — he wrote a screenplay that deals with the latter called The Voice, which he describes as “Rocky with music,” that’s been optioned as a film by producer Mark Canton. But being that he has five children ranging in age from 10 to 30, Davi has also become a fan of Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Ne-Yo.
“Some (contemporary music) is an irritant, I have to admit. Some of it I enjoy,” says the actor, who’s bringing his Sinatra show to the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas Feb. 23-25. “I’m a proponent of wanting to bring this (older) music back in a big way.
“Maybe it’s because of Goonies and Bond and Die Hard and Profiler and shows that I’ve done, but it’s bringing in a lot of young people to see and listen to this music, and they’re loving it.”