A review of the album 'Sinatra at The Sands' by Frank Sinatra
Review Snapshot: 'Sinatra at the Sands': the world's most famous performer recorded at his peak.
The Cluas Verdict? 8 out of 10
It’s an approximation of a Sinatra story I heard but it’s still worth telling. Glen Campbell was a much sought after session guitarist in the sixties, and he even played on the incomparable “Pet Sounds”. He was engaged to play guitar on “Strangers in the night”, a song Frankie did not particularly like. In the studio Campbell was sat at the front of the orchestra, completely and utterly transfixed. He spent the whole session staring at Sinatra as he shooby dooby dooed his way to another million. At the end of the final take Sinatra thanked the conductor, pointed to Campbell, and said, “who’s the fag??”
Sinatra – so many words have been written about this man, from the fawning extremes to the damning depths. He was a million things to a million people: a voice, first and foremost, but also a womaniser, a sharp dresser, a functioning alcoholic, a Kennedy supporter, a nut job, a loving father, a mob underling. Read the bios – if you’re stuck for a book to get you through a long haul flight check out Kitty Kelley’s “His Way” - it’s high class screed, a guilty pleasure of sorts that trashes Frankie and his reputation. More recently Antony Summers gives a more thoughtful account of Sinatra’s life, his gifts and of course, his flaws. My own view is that, like most iconic figures he led three or four lives, he packed as much into a day as many of us would just about shoehorn into a month. He was akin to a prism – depending on where you stood or how the light shined, he could be a monster or an angel, often at the same instant.
I know some Cluas readers have mixed feelings about Sinatra – his music summons up images of drunken uncles singing “my way” at Christmas, or the girls dancing in a circle at the office Christmas party doing dreadful kick ups to “New York New York”. It’s easy to copy his style, easy on the surface at least. One of the best episodes of Frasier features a storyline in which Martin Crane composes a song for Frankie - “she’s such a groovy lady / she makes my heart go hey dee hey dee”. A host of others tried and still try to approximate his style, even his look – crooners like Matt Munro, Perry Como, Tony Bennett have performed gamely without delivering the killer punch but latterly, Westlife’s attempt at rat packery was utterly risible and Robbie Williams’ “Swing when you’re winning” never even came close.
You can see why he had so many imitators - he was the greatest pop singer ever. From the mid fifties to the mid sixties he produced a stunning collection of albums, some swing, some torch balladry, some show songs, but with every cut exquisitely produced and perfectly - and I do mean perfectly - sung. What a lot of people, both his disciples and detractors, refuse to acknowledge is that his sound, his speciality, was high-class pop, devoid of graces or affectations, and this explains why so many people related to him. He completely absorbed every song he sung, so much so that you wonder if the reason why he could not handle people at different times - he was a legendary sociopath - was that he actually lived the songs he sang and that they hollowed him out emotionally. More than anyone I’ve ever heard he really inhabited his music, bled every note and lived every line.
His class, his status, his style and his voice are heard to the best effect on the recently reissued “Sinatra at the Sands”, a remixed, remastered recording of a live gig at the Sands hotel in 1966. In the outside world the Beatles and the Stones were peaking, and the Velvets were a glint in the art rock milkman’s eye. None of this means anything here, it’s the right show at the right time – Sinatra’s declining years are a bit ahead of him, his voice is as sweet as it was but it’s tempered with experience, cigarettes and alcohol. Count Basie leads the band and Quincy Jones orchestrates – you’ve never heard a backing band like them, the arrangements never overshadow Sinatra and when they do, as in “I’ve got a crush on you”, Sinatra teases the sax player who dares to step on his pitch. Sinatra’s studio albums in the fifties and sixties are masterpieces but there’s a physicality to the music here that’s completely missing from his studio work. As the show progresses his voice roughens but what really kicks in is the way he plays with the songs, adding a word here, changing the lyrics there, vamping up the band and above all just showing his mastery of the music. It’s a combination of tempo, timing, cadence, and phrasing, often more poetic than musical.
The show’s programme comprises mainly standards – there’s a kicking “Come fly with me”, a masterful “Under my skin” (check out the band’s mid song fill), and a playful “Fly me to the moon”. There’s the ballads too – a slightly maudlin “One for my baby and one more for the road” and an almost chilling “It was a very good year”. The one track that disappoints is “Where or when”- here it’s a swing throwaway but years before he recorded an almost chilling torch ballad version of this beautiful song.
The thing that surprises here is the banter Sinatra shares with the audience and his mid gig monologue is a real eye opener. It’s a stand up routine that starts off with a series of gags at Count Basie’s expense, and halfway through the routine he trots out some really dodgy lines about Sammy Davis junior. By today’s standards it’s racist and yet, and yet…it’s of a piece with the complexities of this man that Sinatra was the first to insist that black musicians and performers such as Basie and Davis should stay in Las Vegas. The monologue finishes with a hilarious account of Sinatra’s rise in show business and his early days in Hoboken, and the audience are eating out of his hands.
The show finishes with a fantastic version of “My kind of town” – Sinatra has given it everything, he plays with the lyrics, the band kick the hell out of this tune. This is glamorous exciting music. For a few moments it makes you feel like a millionaire, and this is what great pop music can do.
Sinatra has a vast collection of studio and live work on record but if you’re going to buy one album of Sinatra’s, one collection that gives you an insight into this icon’s words, music and character “Sinatra at the sands “ is the one for you.