“Sinatra gets harder to appreciate the more you know about him,” says Philip Collins in today’s Times [£]. He tells an old Vegas story about the comedian Jackie Mason, who, back in the 1960s, was reckless enough to treat his audiences to a joke about the singer’s marriage t0 the much younger Mia Farrow:
Mason received a threatening call and three shots through the door of his Vegas hotel. Undeterred, Mason fearlessly said on stage that he had no idea who fired the shots. All he had heard was someone in the background singing “Doobie, doobie do”. A few weeks later, Mason was attacked and left with a broken cheekbone.
I heard Mason recount that story on-stage not long after Sinatra’s death. He wasn’t exactly grief-stricken – in fact, he ended the segment tap-dancing, metaphorically speaking, on his old enemy’s grave, It wasn’t a particularly edifying moment: a brilliant stand-up, Mason is never quite as funny when he lets things, including his politics, get too personal. But it was eloquent all the same.
Although I’m a fan, I belong to the generation that never saw Frank Sinatra at his peak. I think I heard him perform four times in all. The last occasion, late in 1994, was easily the most interesting. Along with a Frankophile friend, I’d driven from Manhattan to Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut so that I could add some colour to a piece about the “Duets II” album (which I enjoyed more than almost everyone else, as far as I remember. It’s certainly better than the first volume.) Professional curmudgeon Don Rickles was the support act, ritually insulting the Japanese businessmen who made up a fair proportion of the audience. Some of his routines were witty; others, the racial riffs mainly, just made me cringe. When it was his turn to perform, Sinatra wandered on with the minimum of fuss. His voice, inevitably, wasn’t in the best shape, but there was still authority to spare on the likes of “At Long Last Love.”
Still, a strange thing kept happening. Even though he had a couple of autocues at the edge of the stage, he forgot the lyrics on two or three songs. The band came to an embarrassing halt each time, then automatically moved on to the next number. At one point, in a mixture of confusion and embarrassment, Sinatra began snarling at the conductor, his son, Frank Jr. It was an horrendous moment. Yet because we were so grateful to see him in such an intimate setting (Foxwoods was an enormous, soulless cavern of a casino, yet the theatre itself seemed tiny compared with, say, the Albert Hall) everyone in the room pretended it wasn’t happening. And once he’d recovered his composure, the old man went through the rest of the evening without another hitch.
A memorable night, all in all. But how I wish I could have seen him at the Festival Hall in 1962. The concert footage from that evening – previously unreleased – makes up the essential portion of the new box set “Sinatra: London“, which I recently reviewed in the Sunday Times. Most of the material on the CDs – including the studio sessions from the LP “Great Songs From Great Britain” – is really for completists only. The RFH show, on the other hand, is mesmerising. Sinatra was supposed to be in poor vocal form on that particular world tour, yet he sounds completely at ease. And to hear him with just a jazzy sextet for company is a revelation.
As hardcore admirers will know, there’s a fine Paris recording from the same trip. Unfortunately, it contains an awful lot of Sinatra being a sour wiseguy, muttering about the effects of the onion soup he had just eaten and inserting lame jokes into the songs. “That’s French,” he snarls after that famous line in “I Get A Kick Out Of You” about “fighting vainly the old ennui”. Worse still, after flooring his audience with a heart-stopping version of “Ol’ Man River”, he quips something along the lines of “That’s one for Sammy Davis’s people.” Real Jekyll-and-Hyde stuff, in short. How can an artist who sings with such sensitivity be so boorish? In London, by contrast, apart from a throwaway line about dropping cigarette ash on the stage, he’s pretty much on his best behaviour. Was that because Princess Margaret was in the audience? Maybe. Whatever the reason, you can only envy the people who got to hear him that night.