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August 19, 2014

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Keeping Frank Sinatra’s legacy alive is Rick’s craft

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Frank Sinatra devotee and tribute artist Rick Michel performs Saturday at M Resort.

Several years ago, I sat with David Cassidy in a booth at the Desert Inn’s Starlight Lounge.

This was so long ago that the Desert Inn was still an operating casino, and the Starlight Lounge was one of the city’s swankiest spots for live entertainment.

Cassidy was dressed in a vintage-cut tuxedo that night, his face lightly dusted with makeup. Midway through the show we were watching, he bolted from the booth to sing “Mac the Knife.” This was during a performance of the stage show “The Rat Pack Is Back,” which Cassidy and co-producer Don Reo brought to the old D.I. Cassidy played a cameo in the show, summoned to the stage as Bobby Darin.

I remember how spot-on those performers were that night, the cast overshadowing Cassidy’s one-song appearance. Particularly impressive was the man who deftly portrayed Dean Martin, Rick Michel.

I had no idea that Martin might be Michel’s second-best impression. He’s one of the most popular Frank Sinatra tribute artists in the country. Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at The M Resort, he’s back in Las Vegas for his “Sinatra Forever” production (tickets are $29.50 and $19.50, minus fees and available at The M Resort box office, by phone at 800-745-3000 and at Ticketmaster.com).

Michel’s presentation is of a far larger scope than his days with “The Rat Pack” shows. Michel is to be backed by a 24-piece orchestra, many of whom performed onstage with Sinatra. Michel’s set list is 28 songs deep, ranging from the classics (“New York, New York,” “Summer Wind” and “Witchcraft,” among them) to the less familiar (“I’ve Never Been in Love Before” from “Guys and Dolls”).

Michel is taking on a noble, and massive, task in his return to Vegas. The M Pavilion seats 2,300 for a show such as “Sinatra Forever.” But there is an audience for live entertainment at The M. Last month, the Scintas drew an audience of more than 2,200 to the Pavilion.

Michel has performed in Vegas, off and on, for more than 30 years. He met Sinatra a couple of times over the years, spending some time with him at the Bob Hope Classic in Palm Desert, Calif., in 1995. Typical of the Hope golf events, the invited celebrity guests at the pro-am golf tournament cut across a wide swath of entertainment and sports figures.

“We had so many stars at that tournament,” Michel said during a phone interview last week. “Johnny Bench, Arnold Palmer, Bob Goulet, President Ford. Les Brown and his Band of Renown played. Frank Sinatra was right in the middle of this, and right before I went onstage, I had a chance to talk with Frank and (his wife) Barbara, and then we did the show in front of 1,500 people.”

Singers of all generations have been inspired by Sinatra’s vocal style and his inherently hip swagger. Many Vegas headliners today owe their Vintage Vegas vibe to the attitude brought to the stage by Sinatra and his Rat Pack cohorts.

Why was he so influential? Ask the man who sings the songs.

“The way he wraps the words around the melody. His phrasing,” Michel says. “The emotion he put into a song. This guy, I mean, was amazing. A perfect example is the song ‘New York, New York.’ You don’t think about this when you’re listening, but he sings five notes in a single word -- and the word is ‘and.’ He goes all the way down the scale. He made every song his own.”

But those who followed, like Michel, help give all that music back.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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