Vegas Label: Reprise
Frank Sinatra didn’t live his entire life in Vegas, but it’s right up there with Brooklyn and L.A. as one of three cities with which he’s most often associated. (The iconic shot of him and the rest of his Rat Pack standing in front of the marquee at the Sands Hotel alone ensured that.) Ol’ Blue Eyes probably couldn’t have counted the number of shows he performed in Vegas, but Reprise has put together a nice set of five of those performances – four on CD, one on DVD – ranging in date from 1961 to 1987.
As you might expect, Sinatra’s voice is at its smoothest in the ‘60s, which is when the first two discs were recorded; both capture Sinatra at the Sands, first in ’61, then in ’66, with the latter performance finding him backed by Count Basie and his Orchestra. Surprisingly, though, Sinatra sounds really strong on the ’87 performance at the Golden Nugget (though the cover of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” shows the man as woefully un-hip). The same can’t always be said for the ’82 Caesar’s Palace gig, however, though the big fault there is less Frank than it is his daughter, Nancy, who shows up and makes a performance of “Somethin’ Stupid” into an excruciating listening experience; the disc is redeemed, however, by the fact that Dean Martin is in the audience, heckling Frank. “Excuse me, sir, I’m new in town,” interrupts Dino at one point. “Can you give me directions to your house?” The biggest differences between the ‘60s and ‘80s shows are the set lists. It’s obvious that somewhere between those decades, Sinatra shifted from “performer” to “entertainer.” It’s a difference that might not be noted if you took any of the shows independently of each other, but the earlier gigs were clearly much more about Frank singing what Frank wanted to sing; the later shows feel more like he was catering to the Vegas crowd rather than coming onstage and saying, “Okay, pally, this is how it goes: I sing, you listen, and if you’ve got a request, write it on a slip of paper and stick in your ear, because this is my show.”
What’s truly great about this set, though, is the DVD. It’s awesome, baby, if only because you actually get to see Sinatra doing his Vegas schtick. You hear a bit of Borscht Belt comedian Jackie Gayle’s opening routine while watching Sinatra wander around backstage, preparing to go on; you also get to see Sinatra’s point of view as he pokes fun at Gayle from behind the curtain, yelling out comments before the curtain finally opens and the crowd goes wild. Vocally, Sinatra’s not necessarily at the top of his game throughout, but the guy’s enthusiasm while performing is infectious – if he’s not dancing through a song, he’s gesturing like mad as he wanders across the stage – and Lord knows his conversations with the audience are vintage Frank. When he mentions he’s hot and someone in the audience suggests he take his jacket off, he replies, “No, no, I don’t do that kind of act. I ain’t Tom Jones or one of those cats; I leave my clothes on!” Moments later, he claims that he’s drinking a cocktail of bourbon, Spanish fly, and ginger ale (“It was originally made by General Franco before he cashed in”); afterwards, he belches, groans, and declares, “Ugh…drink here, but don’t eat here.” You can’t help but cringe when he refers to Sammy Davis, Jr., as “Ol’ Brown Eye,” but, hey, at least he refers to Dean Martin as “Ol’ Red Eyes” as well. It’s also very cool when he introduces Orson Welles and Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley in the audience; the former leads him into a rant against William Randolph Hearst and his associates, concluding it by looking directly into the camera and saying, “I’ll lay you eleven to one you don’t use this on television!”
All told, Vegas isn’t what you’d call an indispensable part of your Frank Sinatra collection – though the DVD makes it come pretty close – but if you’ve got a song in your heart, a drink in your hand, and a happenin’ party at your pad, you could do a lot worse than having this playing in the background.