Frank Sinatra, Tony Consiglio and Michael Bolton with his band Blackjack

Vocal Locals

These are the tales of two crooners. One hailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, and picked up a close pal in New Haven along the way to becoming one of the most famous singers of the 20th century. The other is a star of later vintage, New Haven-born and -bred, who found fame on the West Coast and more recently extended it by dressing as a pirate in short comic films on Saturday Night Live.

Both vocalists are celebrated in books put out in the past few years. Sinatra and Me: The Very Good Years (2012) is a posthumously published memoir by Tony Consiglio (ingeniously arranged and edited by Hamden-based writer and poet Franz Douskey from years of exclusive interviews). Consiglio was one of the superstar singer’s closest friends for over 50 years.

The Soul of It All (2013) is an autobiography from New Haven native Michael Bolotin, better known as Michael Bolton (pictured above with his late ’70s/early ’80s metal band Blackjack; the rare photo hangs in Mamoun’s Falafel on Howe Street). Bolotin grew up in the city’s hippie-folk and heavy metal scenes before changing his name and finding a niche as a ’90s soul-rock icon.

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Both books offer valuable glimpses into the history of music and culture in the Elm City, seen through the eyes of men who traveled the world but continued to return home. Consiglio and Bolton both give loving, detailed accounts of what New Haven meant to them.

For Consiglio—a member of the family which founded and runs the world-renowned Sally’s Apizza restaurant on Wooster Street—New Haven is where he chose to live out the rest of his life after decades of globetrotting with Sinatra. There are frequent mentions of now-defunct local clubs, concert halls and ballrooms. Sally’s figures largely in an anecdote where the entire Tommy Dorsey band is famished after playing until 1 a.m. at the Musician’s Ball charity show at the Goffe Street Armory. “I told Frank I’d take care of everything and called my brother Sally.” The Sally’s Apizza ovens stayed stoked until 4:30 in the morning. “Frank never forgot that night,” Consiglio recalls.

Bolton’s book is full of intimate details about his childhood in the city. Bolton’s father was active in local politics, and the singer reminisces about the movers-and-shakers who’d be planning election strategies in his family’s kitchen. He mentions living in houses on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, Elm Street and Whalley Avenue. He tosses off the names of a multitude of music clubs and coffeehouses that existed in the city in the 1960s and ’70s.

Bolton, who turned 60 years old on February 26, was shockingly young when he began his professional music career. At an age when most kids are still messing around in the basement with toy instruments, he had formed rock bands that played Toad’s Place (and its earlier incarnations, Hungry Charlie’s and Caleb’s Tavern) on a regular basis. When, after years of paying his dues in the Connecticut music scene, Bolton and his band Joy made their big move, driving cross-country to California to pursue a record deal (not to mention an older woman Bolton was lusting after), he was still just 14 years old. He remembers busking on the UC Berkeley campus, scraping up change so he could eat, performing the same songs which he’d already played for years in New Haven clubs; two decades later, Bolton would be selling millions of records with some of those songs. “I can’t fully explain why we had to leave Connecticut to refine our music,” Bolton writes, “but then I can’t explain, or remember, most of my teenage years.”

In any case, Connecticut had more to add to the Michael Bolton story. Joy ended up returning from California to the New Haven area in 1968, so they could make a demo recording affordably at Syncron Studios (renamed Trod Nossel some years later, and still a going concern in Wallingford). Bolton notes that “we rented a big house at 555 Amity Road in Woodbridge that became known as the ‘Joy House,’ where the band held rehearsals and insane house parties.” The demo, and a live audition at a martial arts studio on New Haven’s Broadway which the band used as a rehearsal spot, landed them a deal with Epic Records.

Every time things soured for Bolton on the West Coast, New Haven was there for him. When his solo deal with RCA Records was not renewed, he regrouped here. He got married and raised kids here. When he decided to temper his drug use and embrace spirituality, he began visiting the ashram of Maharaj Ji on Whalley Avenue.

Like Bolton’s autobiography, Consiglio’s memoirs of Sinatra give a complete picture of a pop singer’s precarious rise to fame, and chronicles the occasional difficulties of staying on top. When Consiglio met Sinatra, they were schoolboys playing hooky. Consiglio would hitch rides on a delivery truck to play with his cousins in Sinatra’s hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey. When Sinatra started getting attention for his singing with the Tommy Dorsey Band, Consiglio was already traveling with him regularly and had become one of his closest confidants. Sinatra gave Consiglio two nicknames: “The Clam,” because he could be depended upon to “clam up” and not reveal secrets, and “America’s Guest,” because Sinatra and the other celebrities who enjoyed having Consiglio around would pick up all his expenses.

But Consiglio is clear that he wasn’t just a hanger-on. He had an important job: “to get Frank out of his moods.” In one chapter, he writes of having to break the news that Sinatra’s friend and idol Humphrey Bogart had passed away. Consiglio then had to arrange for Sammy Davis Jr. and other major talents to perform in Sinatra’s stead at the Copa. Then Consiglio stayed at the despondent Sinatra’s side watching TV nonstop for days.

The final chapters of My Sinatra are like a valediction for the unassuming, good-natured Consiglio. He had settled in New Haven with his family, but still connected with Frank on the singer’s increasingly rare East Coast visits. He tells of several occasions in Connecticut—at a restaurant in Foxwoods Casino, and after Frank’s death at a Frank Sinatra Jr. concert at the Oakdale Theatre—when Consiglio was at first turned away or rebuffed when he tried to explain that he was a friend of the Sinatras, only to be given the red carpet treatment when his identity was confirmed. At New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Sinatra acknowledged Consiglio—who was sitting at the show with the Governor of Connecticut, the mayor of New Haven and film star Burt Reynolds—as “my dear and closest friend.” Consiglio’s reaction? “When I went backstage, I turned to Jilly Rizzo and told him how embarrassed I was. ‘There are a lot of famous people out there, and Frank didn’t mention them.’”

As humble yet crucial appearances go, however, the major presence which underscores both these musical life stories is our own melodic Elm City.

Written by Christopher Arnott. This slightly updated story was originally published on March 8, 2013.

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