Because you wouldn’t want to commit a faux pas, here is the most important thing to know if you are ever a guest at the annual dinner for singers who perform music made famous by Frank Sinatra: the attendees are not Frank Sinatra impersonators. They are Frank Sinatra tribute singers—“tributeers,” some call themselves—or simply just “guys that sing Sinatra songs,” in the words of Steven Maglio, 62, who has a weekly Sinatra show at the Carnegie Club, a Midtown cigar bar. Two sets, every Saturday night.

So what’s the difference between a tributeer and an impersonator? “When I come out onstage,” Maglio explained, “I sing with my own voice, though it sounds like his. But it’s my inflections, my jokes. Other guys come out with the hat, the jacket over the shoulder, the ‘How did all these people get in my room?’”

You may recognize that crack as the line Sinatra opened with at the Sands hotel in 1965, captured for eternity on the great Sinatra at the Sands LP with the Count Basie Orchestra. If you don’t recognize it, this is not your dinner.

The Patsy’s Special

The event is held at Patsy’s, the venerable Italian restaurant on West 56th Street, where Sinatra was a regular with his own entrance and a table behind a curtain on the second floor. Last year’s dinner was canceled due to the pandemic; this year’s had the lesser misfortune of taking place on a cold and rainy Tuesday night in late October.

Normally, 15 to 20 singers would have been on hand, but the rain and lingering coronavirus fears had diminished turnout to a hardy 9, all men, from across the tri-state area. They ranged in age from 26 to 73; in size from as skinny as the swoon-inducing young Sinatra, circa 1941, to as thick and burly as best pal Jilly Rizzo, circa whenever Frank needed some muscle. Perhaps most impressively, out of nine heads, only one was graced by an obvious, Sinatra-worthy toupee.

Patsy’s, the red-sauce joint on West 56th Street, has served up fried calamari and chicken parm since its opening, in 1944. Sinatra called it his favorite restaurant in New York.

Unfortunately the group’s usual place at the Chairman’s table was unavailable—the upstairs dining room was shuttered this particular night, another casualty of the rain—so the group was clustered at a corner table on the noisy first floor. Fried calamari and other assorted antipasti were ordered for the table; chicken parm appeared to be the most popular entrée.

They ranged in size from as skinny as the swoon-inducing young Sinatra, circa 1941, to as burly as best pal Jilly Rizzo, circa whenever Frank needed some muscle.

The dinner is meant to be “informal,” Maglio, one of the organizers, explained beforehand. “It’s just getting together to have dinner and relax.” Inevitably, however, there was shoptalk.

“Sometimes, if I’m in the mood, I do ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ as a ballad,” one singer said, referring to one of Sinatra’s hardest-swinging numbers.

“Tony Bennett did it that way,” noted someone else.

“It started as a ballad,” piped up a third. (This is true: the song, written by Bart Howard, was first recorded as a pleading love song by Kaye Ballard in 1954, under its original title, “In Other Words.”)

The annual Sinatra-singers dinner at Patsy’s this fall.

The conversation segued to a discussion of the better places to eat in Ramsey, New Jersey, where several of the singers perform regularly, which led to a ranking of New Jersey catering halls; the Venetian, a wedding place in Garfield, earned especially high marks. There was also gossip about a “broad” manager someone had worked with.

During a debate over which Sinatra songs are the most surefire, this advice was offered: “Don’t try ‘New York, New York’ up in Boston.”

All Friends Here

The annual dinner’s origin story begins in 2013, when Maglio and Frankie Sands, another Sinatra singer—with that name, he’d have to be—met while promoting a 24-hour New Year’s Eve Sinatra-thon at the Empire Steakhouse on West 54th Street. They were among a group of Sinatra singers doing TV interviews together. “We were all in the greenroom, hanging out and talking,” Sands, 62, recalled. “I said, ‘It would be nice if we could do this on a regular basis.’ The camaraderie—it was so non-adversarial that I thought it would be a good thing.”

Tony Danza admires a statue of Sinatra at Patsy’s.

Since Sinatra singers tend to cross paths at the same wedding halls, event spaces, and restaurants, guys knew other guys, and the list expanded. “We’re not looking to exclude anyone,” Sands explained. “The only criteria we ever have is that people have to be Sinatra singers who are primarily Sinatra singers. If you’re a Bobby Darin singer or a Dean Martin singer, and that’s your main thing, you’re not coming. If you do Dean Martin stuff in addition, that’s O.K.”

The first dinner was meant to celebrate Sinatra’s 100th birthday, December 12, 2015, but it was moved up to November “because a lot of the guys work holiday parties,” Maglio said. This year’s dinner was bumped up another month “because a lot of the guys go to Florida for the winter.” The group is so loosely organized they don’t even have a Slack channel or Facebook group; Maglio just sends out invites via e-mail, and sometimes even uses the phone. “It’s an adventure every year,” he said.

The table made room for several distinct levels of professionalism. Some singers, such as Maglio, have regular gigs at restaurants and nightclubs; others perform mainly at weddings, private parties, and corporate events.

Out of nine heads, only one was graced by an obvious, Sinatra-worthy toupee.

Tony Della, 73, is the house singer for Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace, an Italian-centric supermarket chain based on Long Island, doing three-hour sets most Saturdays and Sundays. Al Russo, 70, plays restaurants and parties but also makes a point of singing for the elderly at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. While some sing over pre-recorded instrumental tracks, Zach Alexander, 26, performs regularly with a 17-piece big band, and Maglio fronts an 11-piece outfit at his Carnegie Club gig.

Sinatra singer Steven Maglio performs at the Carnegie Club on Saturday nights. The Stan Rubin Orchestra backs him up.

Most have day jobs. Russo is an accountant. Pete Caldera, 55, who fills in at the Carnegie Club, is a sportswriter covering the Yankees for the Bergen Record. Sands runs a personal-training business; before that, he was a New York City cop. Maglio used to own an aluminum-siding business.

Many of the older guys didn’t consider singing professionally until later in life, spurred to take the plunge by an especially enthusiastic response to a karaoke performance or a surprise win at an amateur singing contest. Russo, who said he had enjoyed belting out standards since he was a kid doing Al Jolson impressions, vowed to pursue his craft more seriously after beating pancreatic cancer 20-odd years ago.

Sands had maybe the best story: when he was in his 40s, a big night at the karaoke mike led to an invitation to perform at a fundraiser for an Elvis Presley impersonator who needed vocal-cord surgery. The Elvis guy liked Sands’s singing so much he offered, “Let’s do some shows together,” and they joined forces for a time as a duo act called the King and Old Blue Eyes.

Sal Valentinetti, 26, was the evening’s closest thing to a celebrity, having appeared on Season 14 of American Idol in 2015. There he had the nerve to sing “Fly Me to the Moon” in front of judge Harry Connick Jr. “I didn’t make it past ‘Hollywood Week,’” Valentinetti said, “but about a year after that I got a call from America’s Got Talent.

Patsy’s co-owners Joe Scognamillo, left, and Sal, his son, at Patsy’s, owned and operated by the family since its opening.

He was a finalist on that show and now performs steadily at theaters all over the country—and beyond. “I was just in Wisconsin,” he noted. “Branson I’ve done. I’ve done Winnipeg, Montreal, Toronto. I’ve done Paris. I’ve done London. The year before the pandemic, I did two shows in Oklahoma City, including a Christmas show for Hobby Lobby there, at the National Cowboy museum.” That amused him. “Who the hell would ever think that some goombah from Long Island who sings standards would be singing at the cowboy museum in Oklahoma City?”

The oldest members of the group came of age in the rock ’n’ roll era. The younger singers grew up with hip-hop as pop’s lingua franca. Most imbibed the Great American Songbook via their parents’ or grandparents’ old record collections, thick with platters by Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Buddy Greco, Jerry Vale—all the great Italian-American crooners—but especially Sinatra. “I liked Perry Como. I liked Dean Martin,” Russo said. “But with Sinatra, to me, he could take a plain song and make the lyrics jump off the chart. You just feel it.”

For some, the light went on with a single record. Maglio first got hooked on “My Kind of Town,” off his mother’s copy of the A Man and His Music LP. For Alexander, it was his grandmother’s 45 of “Summer Wind.” A passion for Sinatra set them apart from their peers.

While Russo allowed that he could appreciate the pop-rock likes of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge, Caldera seemed to speak for the group when he declared, “Whatever was being played in my era was not for me. I never liked it.” By the time he was in high school, he said, which was in the early 80s, “people knew that this oddball over here is a Sinatra fan. I didn’t care about fitting in in that sense. I just loved this music.”

During a debate over which Sinatra songs are the most surefire, this advice was offered: “Don’t try ‘New York, New York’ up in Boston.”

Sal Salomon, 50, had a singular backstory. A large man with big, Peter Lorre eyes and a much deeper speaking voice than Sinatra’s, Salomon lost his job selling used-car loans during the first days of the pandemic, when the dealership he worked for shuttered. By his account, he was already grieving his parents, three brothers, and a best friend, who had all died in the previous few years from various causes, and became so depressed that his wife left him—“I can’t deal with this,” he said she told him—all of which landed him in a New York City homeless shelter.

Friends who had enjoyed his karaoke outings urged him to sing on the streets to pick up a few dollars. He did, and crowds liked him enough that he started making decent money and winning paid gigs. He started out with “New York, New York” but now has 150 songs under his belt. “I do some Nat King Cole, a Bobby Darin,” he said, “but mostly Frank Sinatra, because his songs fill me with joy when I sing them. A lot of people say, ‘You should sing Barry White or something.’ And I’m, ‘No, it’s not the same feeling.’”

At Patsy’s, on December 12, 2010—what would have been Sinatra’s 95th birthday.

As a kid in Hell’s Kitchen, he had learned to appreciate Sinatra not only at his mother’s knee but also, as he got older, from proximity to the local criminal element. “Irish mobsters,” he said, “they always listen to Frank Sinatra.”

This was Salomon’s first Sinatra dinner. Valentinetti brought him after catching him in Washington Square Park one day. “I hear this voice,” Valentinetti said. “Tremendous voice. I walk up there, he’s got no microphone, because if you have a microphone in the park, they’ll throw you out and give you a ticket. And he was just great. A good command of the music. Typically, a lot of guys who do this music kind of suck. It’s phoned in. They’re more like piano-bar, lounge-lizard types. But Sal is the real deal.”

He’s done well enough that he can afford vocal lessons and has moved into a hotel. (The bill is $8,000 a month, he said, but it’s hard to find a lease when you still make a lot of your money singing on the streets.) “The only thing that brought me joy was the music,” he explained. “When I sing those notes, ‘I’ve got the world on a string,’ it’s such a happy, joyous feeling. It bubbles up from inside me, and it’s almost like an addiction. When I don’t sing for a couple of days, if I don’t have a gig, I still go to the streets. I just want to sing. It’s my therapy, it really is.” That seemed true, more or less, for everyone at the table.

Soon the guys were getting up. It was time to move on to the Carnegie Club, a couple of blocks from Patsy’s, for post-dinner cigars and ones for the road, or possibly several.

Sal Scognamillo, the chef—and grandson of the founder and original chef, Pasquale “Patsy” Scognamillo—came out of the kitchen, eager to complain to a friendly audience about pandemic-era restaurant-supply-chain problems, but mostly wanting to say good night and wish everyone well. “You guys are great,” he said, shaking a few hands and slapping a few backs. “I love that you’re keeping the music alive.”

Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult