Listening to Frank Sinatra live recordings, you’ll often hear him interacting with the audience. “Where do you think Gene Kelly learned how to dance?”, or “Where does it hurt you, baby?” and so on.
I’ve been listening again to a CD I bought quite a long time ago, as I go through my Sinatra jag, it’s the Live at the Sands album, with Count Basie and his Orchestra, conducted by Quincy Jones. I often wonder exactly what the Count’s role in proceedings is. He does some stuff on the piano, nothing fancy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyway, that’s by the by. The excuse for my Sinatra jag was exam marking, but maybe it’s also something to do with my dad dying recently.
Live at the Sands is an odd, mid-60s document. The youth are on the cusp of hippiedom and Vegas is a place for squares and adults. It hasn’t yet tried to reinvent itself as a family destination. Sinatra adopts the vernacular (“groovy”) but the polite applause between numbers conjures a buttoned-up scene, seated guests who have paid well, wearing evening clothes and drinking Californian sparkling wine that was still (at the time) masquerading as champagne.
The band are tight and well-rehearsed, playing familiar numbers. Like all Vegas shows, this is just a set list of greatest hits. A few years later, Elvis would play a series of shows at the International, but The Sands is Rat Pack territory. In the 60s, The Sands was Howard Hughes’ joint, though Sinatra is supposed to have owned a stake at some time.
It’s February 1966, and Sinatra has just turned 50. So maybe I’m obsessing on this because like Sinatra I’m a December baby and that’s the age I am now. The Rat Pack was an invention of a man in his 40s, but now he’s entering another decade. How does a man in his 50s behave? Only bootlegs can really offer a proper documentary of a particular gig. Most live albums, including this one, have recordings from different dates, different sessions. It’s programmed as if it’s a single show, opening with an introduction (as if it’s the first performance of “A Man and His Music”, the generic show title that could be used, interchangeably, by any male soloist), but who knows how many different bits and pieces there are.
It’s the opening line that gets me, Sinatra’s first words as he steps out onto the stage. The band have already been playing around the intro to “Come Fly With Me”, the MC has given him the big introduction (accompanied by a hi-hat rhythm), and Sinatra could come out and start singing, or he could say good evening or something generic. He’s clearly there for a few moments before he utters a word. Looking out at the crowd, those middle-aged and middle-income Americans who have been lucky enough to get tickets. (Sinatra tickets! Something my mum never had. How hard would it have been, Dad? As hard as getting tickets for Fleetwood Mac, The Stones, Tom Petty? Or a different order of magnitude?) Basie is vamping on the bass notes of his piano. Sinatra lets 8 bars of music swing by.
“How did all these people get in my room?”
I love this. There’s the arrogance of a man who owns the stage, maybe part of the resort, the proprietor, and it’s cut with the bewildered drunken haze of a rat pack party animal who is only now waking up after an extended long weekend. Who are all these people? It’s a line from The Hangover, or is it The Godfather? It’s both. It’s a nerve-settler, an easy laugh, making everybody welcome, even if they feel they don’t belong in this fancy place with these fancy people and their fancy clothes. You can dress like them but might not feel like one of them, you’ve got the tickets, but you’ve extended yourself out of your financial comfort zone to make this trip. Now you’re in Frank’s room, and it’s okay. It’s on.
Cool as fuck.
The ensuing song is glorious. The band are not only tight but sound properly live, and you can feel Sinatra drawing on the energy, shouting during the instrumental break (is it “Six!” or “Sex!” that he shouts? I can’t tell. It’s both), and improvising around the lyric without ever dragging on the beat, which is played hard and loud by the drummer. Before the instrumental in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, he warns the audience: “Run for cover,” just before the band blasts the air from the room in an explosion of sound.
A few years later he would say of his performance with the Basie orchestra in London that it was his finest moment. You can’t get a live album of that, but there’s this, so.