Stranger In The Night

IF YOU THINK IT'S FINALLY TIME FOR OL' Blue Eyes to quit, you can dial 1-900-something and register your 75-cent vote in a New York Daily News poll. If you don't, make plans to be in Tulsa, Moline, Omaha, Wilmington, Syracuse or New York City after March 24 because that's where the 78-year-old Chairman of the Board will be belting out "My Way." The last time Frank Sinatra sang that darkly bravado anthem to a career's end (March 6, in Richmond, Va.), he collapsed. Five days before that, at the Grammys, rock star Bono of U2 presented him with a Legend award. Sinatra gave what some people called a "rambling" acceptance speech. CBS cut to a commercial in the middle of it, reigniting a controversy: what is a man, how old has he got, if people can tell his voice is all shot?

These days, Sinatra requires hearing aids and huge TelePrompTers to get through concerts of songs he's been singing for 40 years. Frankophile disc jockey Jonathan Schwartz of New York's WQEW talks about Sinatra's perseverance: "Think of what it must be like as he is dressed by his dresser. That familiar shirt, the pressed tuxedo smooth as a sheet of ice, the installation of the bow tie, the sip of whisky, his own reflection in the mirror." A record-industry executive puts it this way: "It's like the last years of Bette Davis, or when Marlene Dietrich fell into the orchestra pit."

Sinatra spokeswoman Susan Reynolds contends rumors of Alzheimer's disease are "absolutely not true." Charles Koppelman, executive producer of "Duets" (Sinatra's hit 1993 telephonic collaboration with younger stars), says the singer "was anything but incoherent [at the Grammys] . .. He was taken aback by the warm reception of the audience, and by Bono's incredible speech." Actually, Sinatra subtly cracked wise that he was "hoit" (da Joisy accent was quite deliberate) by not being asked to sing. As for his Richmond collapse, his handlers say it was just a dizzy spell brought on by the overheated venue.

Las Vegas reporter Mike Weatherford says Sinatra "yo-yos" from good performances to bad. "He was great on his 77th birthday. The voice wasn't there, but he could still sell the song." Other times, he forgets the words. But the packed houses to which Sinatra plays hear his septuagenarian tenor as grittier, not weaker, his trademark phrasing as more philosophical, not addled. Besides, isn't "Duets," 2 million copies sold so far, still riding high on the charts?

Hoboken's hero could quit tomorrow and his entry in the record books would be pages longer than Elvis's. He's cut records for half a century; racked up three Grammys for album of the year; made more than 50 movies, and won an Oscar (for "From Here to Eternity" in 1953).

So why does Sinatra go on? He is said to bring in $75,000 to $250,000 a night, but that's pin money to a guy reportedly worth $26 million. A better guess is an addiction described by Paul Anka (who wrote "My Way") as "the strongest drug in the world, the needle in the arm called show business." Schwartz says nobody else "has been so relentlessly applauded over so lengthy a time." Come late March, Sinatra will be back on the road putting fannies in the seats. Anybody sez different is a ding-a-ling.