Frank Takes a Fall

updated 03/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE VOICE WAS UNMISTAKABLE—A BIT FRAYED PERHAPS, but still supple and rich. The performance, though, was another matter. Several times during his concert at the Mosque auditorium in Richmond, Va., last Sunday, Frank Sinatra, 78, flubbed lyrics to some of his standard songs, despite having a TelePrompTer in front of him. Occasionally his son and bandleader, Frank Jr., 50, had to cue his dad to which song was next on the bill. Sipping a beverage, Ol' Blue Eyes began to perspire heavily and complained, "It's hot in here"—which it was. At one point Sinatra told the audience, "I hope you all live to be 150 years old and the last voice you ever hear is mine."

Minutes later, the issue of mortality cropped up again. Perched on a bar stool crooning "My Way," Sinatra suddenly asked for a chair, then fell facedown to the floor with a loud thud. "It was really scary," says Dr. Joseph Niamtu, an oral and facial surgeon in the audience. "The place went from gasping to very quiet."

Within seconds, as some concertgoers wept, paramedics and several doctors in the crowd, including Niamtu, rushed onstage. "He was cold, clammy, sweaty and very, very pale," says Niamtu, who took the singer's pulse. "Anytime you witness a situation like that in his age group there is always the fear that this is just the tip of the iceberg." Sinatra was unconscious for about a minute. When he came to, he asked for a wheelchair. As he was ushered away, he waved feebly to the crowd, which responded with a thunderous ovation. "It was incredible," says Lisa LaFata, a Richmond TV anchor who was at the concert. "I never understood the depth of feeling his fans have for him until that moment."

Backstage, a cardiologist who happened to be present hooked Sinatra up to a portable EKG machine. The readings were normal, as was the singer's blood pressure, all consistent with someone suffering from dehydration or a fainting spell. At first Sinatra wanted to go straight to his plane and fly home to Palm Springs, but Frank Jr. persuaded him to stop at a local hospital for observation.

Sinatra's friends acknowledge that the singer experiences occasional memory lapses but say he is not suffering from anything like Alzheimer's. Yet at this month's Grammys, where he received a Legend Award, the singer launched into a rambling acceptance speech, which was cut short on television. His publicist says the Chairman is now feeling fine and plans to resume his tour schedule on March 24 with a concert in Tulsa. Since he pulls down an estimated $400,000 a performance, and adulation beyond price, retirement may be one luxury that Sinatra doesn't want to afford.

JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington and DORIS BACON in Los Angeles

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