It's a Sinatra Christmas — Bo Wagner style — at the Oaks Theater
As a Frank Sinatra tribute artist, Westmoreland County's Bo Wagner has a major leg-up on most other performers paying tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes
Wagner actually sang with and for Sinatra during Wagner's year in Las Vegas with Canonsburg's hit do-wop group, The Four Coins, with whom he performed from 1975 to 1980.
Sinatra's friend, Jilly Rizzo, saw them entertaining at the Tropicana and told Frank about The Four Coins. “They asked us if we'd play at the Jockey Club on Sundays, but we didn't know it was Sinatra's place until he came in one day,” recalls Wagner, who will be performing his “Sinatra Christmas” show Dec. 23 at the Oaks Theater in Oakmont.
“We sang every Sunday for him. We talked with him, shook his hand and had a drink with him. He just liked us, young guys out of Pittsburgh, singing uptempo type things, wearing white suits. Dean Martin, Don Rickles and others would be there too,” he says.
The first time The Four Coins met Sinatra at the club, he came up to Wagner and said, “Don't ever call me up on stage. If I want to come up, I'll just walk up.”
“That night he walked up on our second song and sang (the group's million-seller, the most-played record of 1957) ‘Shangri-La' with us,” he recalls.
Wagner, who grew up in West Mifflin, eventually moving to North Huntingdon and now Irwin, always admired Sinatra. He insists he was never nervous singing with Frank. “No, he was such a nice guy and so nice to us,” he says. “He came up and sang with us every once and a while.”
Wagner had another brush with fame when The Four Coins were preparing for a trip to Memphis to perform. Someone with the group had a connection to Elvis Presley, and Wagner had an opportunity to speak to The King on the phone before they reached Tennessee. Presley invited the group to stay at Graceland.
That never happened, because Presley died two days later. “Someone told me I was probably one of the last people to ever speak to Elvis,” Wagner says.
After returning to Pittsburgh, Wagner began a long run in the Vogues, then decided to concentrate on his Sinatra tribute.
He gave considerable thought to his decision to turn his full attention to Sinatra. It's not easy, he says, to walk away from a Pittsburgh institution like the Vogues, which he fronted from 1982 to 2003. “I liked being a Vogue. I loved the songs they did and had admiration for the people who came to see us, and being part of a great musical institution. They were the biggest act ever to come out of Pittsburgh,” he says. “Through my career I was always with a group of guys on stage. But I also wanted to go out and see if I could do something on my own,” he explains.
He now also performs in a nationally touring version of the Vogues, in addition to maintaining his solo career.
Through the years audience members would remark how much he looked and sounded like the mature Sinatra. “People even would yell ‘Frank,' “Wagner says, laughing. “The other thing was that the older I got, and the more hair I lost, the more people said I looked like him,” he added.
He does not try to impersonate Sinatra.
“I resemble him. I just do a tribute to him. Audience members just love the show,” he says. He will offer a mix of familiar Christmas tunes and Sinatra classics.
“Frank made a lot of albums for Christmas,” he reminds, and Wagner has his own “Sinatra Christmas” CD from which he will draw. “I love Christmas,” he says.
He also loves performing in front of his live orchestra, some of the best musicians in the region, he says.
“It is a powerful orchestra. I enjoy being in front of a large orchestra like that. And I enjoy the audience who comes to see me perform Sinatra,” he says. “There are a lot of young people in the audience and they know all the words. People just love that guy.” Wagner plays some of them every Saturday on his “Bo Wagner's Tribute to Sinatra” radio show, airing noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on KFB 97.5 FM/770 AM, North Versailles.
One fan told Wagner, “As long as you are alive, Frank Sinatra will be alive.”
“It is one of the best compliments I ever had,” he says.
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune Review contributing writer.