It was probably the most exciting engagement I have ever done in my life, since I started performing.
Frank Sinatra on the 1966 shows at The Sands
In July 1966 Frank Sinatra released his first live album: the classic Sinatra At The Sands. He was accompanied by Count Basie and his orchestra, conducted and arranged by Quincy Jones.
Frank Sinatra and Las Vegas
On September 13, 1951 Frank Sinatra debuted in Las Vegas. He performed at the Painted Desert Showroom of the Desert Inn hotel. By that time Sinatra’s star had fallen and the only place he could perform were the hotels on The Strip in Las Vegas. In 1951 Las Vegas housed only 7 hotels, which were all owned by the mafia.
One of the reasons Sinatra had lost the public’s affection was the way he had handled his marriage. He had eloped (and left his children) with actress Ava Gardner whom he married in 1951 (the marriage lasted 6 years). After Gardner’s advise and Frank Sinatra’s offer to forfeit any salary, Sinatra was cast for the movie From Here to Eternity. The movie was released in 1953 and brought Sinatra back into the limelights. In 1954 he received a Golden Globe and an Oscar for ‘best supporting actor’.
In the 1972 movie The Godfather the character Johnny Fontane begs the head of a New York crime organization to secure him a role in a movie in order to further his career, resulting in the (in)famous ‘horse head in bed’ scene. Fontane gets the part. The story goes that the Fontane character was based on Frank Sinatra. However, this was never confirmed and is probably untrue.
The movie’s success ensured a bigger audience for Sinatra’s shows. Sinatra was a big and important name for Las Vegas, that expanded in a rapid pace. It’s no exaggeration to conclude that Frank Sinatra played a pivotal part in this. Billy Wilder stated: “When Frank Sinatra was in Las Vegas, there is a certain electricity permeating the air. It’s like Mack the Knife is in town, and the action is starting.” Almost single handedly Sinatra turned Las Vegas into, not only, the biggest gambling town in the world, but also the Entertainment Capital of the World, as the town liked to call itself.
The renewed success also translated to music. He released a number of beautiful albums, including the impressive In The Wee Small Hours in 1955 and Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! in 1956.
The Rat Pack
Sinatra wasn’t alone. He also worked with Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Dean Martin, a group of friends who called themselves The Rat Pack and who performed together, partied together, made movies together and particularly oozed a lot of ‘cool’ together. In part due to their presence and in part due to the 1960 movie Ocean’s 11, Las Vegas became even more and more popular.
At the time of the beat explosion, big names like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan stayed as far away as possible from Las Vegas, where Frank Sinatra was Lord and commander. It was his town, he even had a 2 percent interest in the The Sands hotel, where he started performing in 1953.
Count Basie and Quincy Jones
In 1962 Sinatra had his first collaboration with Count Basie and his orchestra, resulting in the Sinatra-Basie album, two years later followed by It Might As Well Be Swing, which also introduced Quincy Jones.
Frank Sinatra 50 years old
On December 12, 1965 Frank Sinatra had turned 50. His popularity was at an all-time high and his voice seemed to be getting better and better. The years of The Rat Pack had been long gone and he had embellished the half a century celebration with the great The September Of My Years album, which contained a huge hit with It Was A Very Good Year, a tribute to middle age.
The Sands, Count Basie, Quincy Jones
On January 9, 1966, Frank Sinatra began a 4 week stint at the Copa Room of The Sands hotel. Sinatra performed with the Count Basie orchestra, which was conducted by Quincy Jones. A total of 7 shows were recorded for a proposed live album.
Sinatra At The Sands
Frank Sinatra released his first live album Sinatra At The Sands in July 1966. The recordings had taken place in January and February of 1966 when Sinatra performed twice a day. It’s a perfect impression of Sinatra in 1966. Vocally he was at the top of his game and the band had genuine swing. A number of the performances are even part of the very best he ever recorded.
Come Fly With me, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, The Shadow Of Your Smile, but also the new The September Of My Years and It Was a Very Good Year show Sinatra’s perfect timing and show that Sinatra thoroughly enjoyed his cooperation with Count Basie. On top of that, Sinatra looks impeccable on the album cover, charismatic, oozing ‘cool’ and ‘in control’.
But, the album also harbors an elephant in the room, the monologue called “The Tea Break”. It’s basically an intermezzo in which Sinatra tries his luck at a sort of stand-up comedy. In itself it’s not too bad, but Sinatra was not a comedian. However, some of his ‘jokes’ and remarks are downright racist and distasteful. It was the same criticism The Rat Pack had received earlier: misogynist, discriminating attempts at humor, that shows that civilization was nothing more than a thin layer of varnish. But, the (white) audience loved it, and Sinatra knew it.
Despite the monologue, Sinatra At The Sands is a great time document that captures Frank Sinatra in the 1960s, warts and all. Sinatra combined with Count Basie and Quincy Jones is an unstoppable force of nature, that provided an intimate look into the world of entertainment in that moment of time at that specific place in the American desert. The beauty, which is breathtaking at times, is unbelievable and impressive. The album comes with a 100% recommendation:
, with for “The Tea Break”
- Come Fly With Me
- I’ve Got A Crush on You
- I’ve Got You Under My Skin
- The Shadow Of Your Smile
- Street Of Dreams
- One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)
- Fly Me To The Moon
- One O’Clock Jump (instrumental)
- “The Tea Break” (monologue)
- You Make Me Feel So Young
- All Of Me (instrumental)
- The September Of My Years
- Get Me To the Church On Time
- It Was A Very Good Year
- Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me
- Makin’ Whoopee (instrumental)
- Where Or When
- Angel Eyes
- My Kind Of Town
- A Few Last Words (monologue)
- My Kind Of Town (reprise)
In 1998 the song Luck Be A Lady was added to the re-release. In 2003 it was also part of the DVD-Audio release. The song wasn’t part of any other release.
- Frank Sinatra – vocals
- Count Basie – piano
- Bill Miller – piano
- The Count Basie Orchestra
- Quincy Jones – arrangement, conductor
- Harry “Sweets” Edison, Al Aarons, Sonny Cohn, Wallace Davenport, Phil Guilbeau – trumpet
- Al Grey, Henderson Chambers, Grover Mitchell, Bill Hughes – trombone
- Marshal Royal – alto saxophone / clarinet
- Bobby Plater – alto saxophone / flute
- Eric Dixon – tenor saxophone / flute
- Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis – tenor saxophone
- Charlie Fowlkes – baritone saxophone / bass clarinet
- Freddie Green – guitar
- Norman Keenan – double bass
- Sonny Payne – drums
The album was well received by the press and the general public. The album fairly quickly reached the Gold status.
During the Grammy Awards show on March 2, 1967 Frank Sinatra was the big winner. He won no less than four Grammy‘s for the song Strangers In The Night (which Sinatra hated with a vengeance) and one for the compilation A Man And His Music. The album Sinatra At The Sands was also rewarded: for Best Liner-notes. Because they truly are wonderful, they are enclosed in this article.
For a man so accustomed to appearing before the public, walking on stage this night at The Sands should have caused no more apprehension than you feel walking into your own living room.
Yet Sinatra prepared for this appearance with deliberate ritual. He tends his voice with care. He takes a steam in the late afternoon. He lays off cigarettes. Before going on stage, he works out with his accompanist, Bill Miller, for a half hour. He slips into his tailored tux, still warm from a valet’s iron.
All during dinner, the audience-on-a-fling has been trying to catch the eye of the preoccupied staff, trying to flag down a captain. At the next table, a big man asks if a $10 bill would get him a better table. Scurrying by, the captain sighs “$10,000 couldn’t get him a better seat.” Or, as Dean Martin’s fond of saying, “It’s Frank’s world. We’re just lucky to be living in it.”
The room has that peculiar air about it that only successful clubs have: a combination of cigarette smoke, overheated air, smouldering dust, Lysol Clorox cleaned linen, even the silverware smells different from home silverware. “The crowd” jams every available seat. Two thousand knees with nowhere to go.
As the hour nears nine, the dinner show customers are hustling down their filets. They’ve got to get them down. When those lights go out, they go so far out you’re likely to hustle down your neighbor’s pinky. Why do they go through all this, these normally sane?
• • • • •
The house lights make us disappear and a stage comes alive. A professionally you-asked-for-it voice booms out, “And now…” and onto the stage comes a solidly built, short and seldom-smiling man. So short and squat it looks as if some monster thumb had been pressing him down toward the earth, gravity having at last done its dirtiest.
But Basie fights back, with the aid of a carefully selected crew and the kind of rhythm section your mother used to call “solid!” Tiny Sonny Payne, Basie’s drummer, perches up near the back of the bandstand, whirling his sticks and thrashing his cymbals and snares like the man who invented drums. Three lines of unbugable horn and reed experts gaze down at their well worn charts. They’ve been traveling with this music for decades. Ask for “One O’Clock Jump” and they’ll bring out a sheet of music that looks like a hunk of Kleenex after a flu epidemic. But they do know how to do what they do. They play jazz, they play it together, and they play it better than most anybody on the planet. And that’s one reason why “the crowd” is here tonight. For this is that moment when time is turned off and rhythm is turned on.
Mr. Basie begins to conduct his orchestra from a seated position, facing his Steinway, hearing his men movin’ without much visible motion. Mr. Cool, but you know he’d rather be doing this than anything else besides breathing. Men like he and his men don’t go through the grinding one-nighters they’ve been through these past eons without some measure of dedication to something besides a buck. They do it because that’s their way of breathing. Their music shows it, from “One O’Clock Jump” to “All of Me,” instrumentals that lift the Sands crowd up to a pitch of romping appreciation. The lousy drinks, the lousier luck at the tables, the pneumonia air conditioning is all gone and forgot.
It happens because Mr. Basie does not consider himself no prelude to nothin! He comes on. He’s got ten quick minutes at the opening of the show that are all his and, by God, they’re his. Forty years of music making jammed into ten prestigious minutes.
During the applause, a dapper young man comes out on stage to adjust his music stand. He faces the Basie band. He’s Quincy Jones, a high-talent young man who could be making a lot more money arranging his own albums or scoring films. But he chooses to be on stage at The Sands, for the same reason everyone else chooses to be there. Because an event is about to happen.
• • • • •
During the wailing of the Basie band, those jammed, perched, squoze to the sides of the room can see an anxious figure peering out at the band from the stage wings. Catching the mood of the crowd, Frank Sinatra. Looking not unlike a young man calculating his audience for his first talent night appearance. The Suave is dropped. The performer is getting himself up for one swinging night’s sing.
Again the amplified voice lets them all know. “And now… a Man and His Music!”
The band ups to the occasion. And he walks on. Doesn’t gallop on, doesn’t wave or jump or hoopla. Just he walks on. His pocket handkerchief folded in there nice. A bit of a vest peeking out from under his tux coat. He pulls the hand mike out of the stand, glances up at the light booth where a thousand pounds of spotlight bear down on him. His shoulders hunch once, like they’re absorbing the beat of Basie. He turns back to Quincy, Count & Co., smiling, extending the vamp. Go. Sonny Payne whacks his drums to stir up more groove. Then Sinatra turns back and sings. It looks effortless, the way he lazily loops the mike cable through his relaxed hands. But his face shows what he’s singing. Eyes closed, head tilted, lips carefully phrasing and elocuting.
And Sinatra runs through his best. The songs are Sinatra’s, like “Come Fly” and “Crush” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” Hip, up-tempo, wailing things.
And then he’ll change the pace on the audience. While his excitement-sated audience of people who’ve been everywhere are just happy to be there, while everyone is forgetting who’s sitting in the next chair, or that down front there’s a row of celebrities running from Roz Russell to Yul Brynner, from Mike Romanoff to Judy Garland, while all of this is being gone and forgot because the man on stage is more than will fill one’s attention, while all of these sounds and sights and impressions are piling up against the pounding beat of Basie, Sinatra switches.
Count Basie walks off stage. A thin, grey-haired man, who looks as if he hides under mushrooms to avoid the sun’s rays, walks to the piano.
This is Bill Miller, Sinatra’s piano player. Sinatra turns to the audience and tells them he’s going to sing a saloon song. And silently you can almost hear the perfumed ladies think “Yeah” and the close-shaved, shiny-cheeked men think “Yeah” and the waiters stop in the doorways and think “Yeah.”
And with just a piano behind him, Sinatra turns actor. The man whose broad’s left him with some other guy and all of the loot. And he sings—and acts—his “Angel Eyes” and his “One for My Baby.” And there is silence all about, for this audience is watching a man become that last lucked-out guy at the bar, the last one, with nowhere to go except sympathy city.
Then more Sinatra-Basie, songs ranging from the subtle “Very Good Year” to the sizzle (“My Kind of Town”). And all the while, Quincy’s at one side, setting the beat, Count’s on the other making the beat, and Sinatra’s center, demonstrating how wide and high the heart of a singing man can range.
And after an almost dozen songs, Sinatra pauses. He pulls forward a stool and a music stand. He takes his tea. Cup and saucer ir. hand, he says his words. Ten, fifteen minutes worth of greeting. His status report on The Arts and The Sands. Commentary ranging from the autobiographical to world affairs, all delivered with the same casual emphasis that marks his singing style. The audience is shifting in its chairs, knowing it has only 90 minutes maybe with Sinatra, loving him talking to them, hoping he won’t stop, and hoping he’s going to sing all night that night.
Then, with a napkin tap at the corners of his mouth, he retires the props. He’s getting no younger, says he, and he’d best sing. And he does. More of the better: “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” “Where or When,” the audience increasingly with it, knowing they’ve never heard anything better, amazed at the number of songs Sinatra’s really associated with.
Finally “My Kind of Town,” starting deceptively with some talk about a nice city, then building choruses of mounting, modulating, upwards excitement.
And then he leaves. Walks right off that stage, just like he was finished. But does the crowd want that? They say no. They yell no and more, one more, ten more, hell a lifetime more, they’ve got nowhere to go, dammit they want more of him.
Mr. Sinatra comes back and bows, not too low, but appreciatively. He makes “the dullest speech you’ll ever have to listen to,” thanking them, not for this one hour, but for a lifetime of applause. He reprises “My Kind of Town.” He does it with authority. Nobody follows that kind of finish, not even Frank Sinatra.
• • • • •
The waiters know it, and start hurriedly distributing saucers with the tabs. The houselights force back up. It’s like dawn, and you don’t turn the sun back. Still, they keep applauding till the feeling gets hopeless.
By now, Sinatra’s probably got a towel around his neck and his toes curled up on his dressing table. So, the audience files slowly out into the smoke-choked casino, meeting once more the hardluck din of reality around the half-empty crap tables. Those huddled masses outside look into the faces of the excited crowds, looking for signs that it was really sumpin!
And what they see is mostly blinking eyes; women adjusting their coats to the onrushing night air, to the silent walk down the concrete paths to an unenchanted evening’s leftovers; men sitting down at the blackjack tables, where the waxen dealers take time during a deal to look up at their faces and ask, “You see the show?”
And the men answer, “Yeah. That Sinatra… he really puts on a show.”
Which may not be the best sum up in the world, but then you can’t expect much more from someone who’s just been through 90 minutes with the best singing man in town.
After At The Sands
Despite the success of Sinatra At The Sands, it also announced the end of an era. That very same year, 1966, Sinatra recorded the albums Strangers In The Night and That’s Life, which were both successful, but also signaled a drastic step back quality wise. Sinatra seemed desperate to keep in touch with the changing times and generations. His marriage to Mia Farrow, who was 21 years his minor, only seemed to solidify that idea. His behavior towards her and the divorce just two years later only hurt his image.
Frank Sinatra and Las Vegas (2)
The end of Sinatra’s employment at The Sands hotel arrived in 1967 when Howard Hughes bought the hotel. Sinatra, who had grown accustomed to getting whatever he wanted, including forgiving his huge gambling debts, lost his privileges. He reacted rather childish and bad, resulting in a punch in his face. Exit Sinatra.
However, Ceasars Palace was quick to offer him a new home in Las Vegas and he would regularly perform there until his first retirement, which wasn’t a real retirement (also see Frank Sinatra’s forgotten masterpiece Watertown).
After his comeback he would frequently return to Las Vegas. Even though he faced fierce competition from that other steady Las Vegas artist Elvis Presley, Sinatra remained the ultimate figurehead for Las Vegas.
When Frank Sinatra passed away on May 14, 1998 the billboards on The Strip in Las Vegas turned black, a tribute to the greatest entertainer, who was an indispensible link in the development of Las Vegas. On April 30, 2004 the city opened Frank Sinatra Drive, a connection road between The Strip and Interstate 15.
Sinatra would occasionally perform with Count Basie in the 1970s, also abroad. The Sands doesn’t exist anymore. It was demolished in 1996. On May 3, 1999 The Venetian, owned by the cooperation Las Vegas Sands, opened its doors on the very same spot.
The warm-up set Count Basie played before Frank Sinatra came on stage in 1966, was released in 1998 for the first time on Live At The Sands (Before Frank).
In 2006 the set Sinatra: Vegas was released, containing a disc with the same songs as on Sinatra At The Sands, but recorded on different days in 1966. In 2018 the second set of the January 28, 1966 show was released in its entirety as part of Standing Room Only.
What’s your take on Sinatra At The Sands? Let me know, I really do appreciate it!
Frank Sinatra – The Sands billboard image: pinterest.com
Frank Sinatra & Ava Gardner – Desert Inn 09/04/1951 image: vintagelasvegas.com
Frank Sinatra – Ocean’s 11 image: wonderfeeds.co.ke
Frank Sinatra & Count Basie 1964 image: imgur.com
Frank Sinatra – Sinatra At The Sands image: spotify.com
Frank Sinatra – Sinatra At The Sands vinyl & Frank Sinatra – At The Sands gatefold images: discogs.com
Frank Sinatra – The Sands billboard at night image: libraray.unlv.edu
Frank Sinatra & Count Basie 1970s image: jazzizz.com