Frank Sinatra On the Rocky Road To Vegas

By Ian Whitcomb

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to


       In the mid 1940s Frank Sinatra, then enjoying fame as a new star who didn’t need the old Big Band support, and one the regulars on the radio show “Your hit parade”, flatly refused to sing “Pistol Packin’ Mama”, a country song. For him it was Hillbilly rubbish, light years from the world of the refined creators of Broadway show music. Retrograde blather for hicks in overalls with straws in their mouths.

       Musically Educated under the exacting hand of bandleader Tommy Dorsey, the boy singer had learned how to breathe correctly; and from studying the craft of songwriting the way to phrase lyrics, to underline the inner meaning of a song. However Sinatra’s dismissal of the pistol novelty would put him out of step with the changes in post-war pop music. Hillbillies were to be elevated into fans of Country & Western with their very own hit chart. So were those who bought bouncy black dance groups, now neatly coined as “Rhythm & Blues, in a separate chart. A whole new market hitherto not properly serviced by the music business.

       In the early 1950s these two forms would blend into a sound that seemed outrageous to the citizens of the city of well-made song with well-trained band accompaniment. By the mid 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, powered by kids with pocket money, was dominating the hit charts. The old business didn’t like it at all. Those years of growing up and away from the crudities of ragtime and early jazz, into the elegance of Gershwin and Kern, wasted on teenagers who now jigged to “Sixty Minute Man” or else mewed to “Don’t Be Cruel” uttered by twitching Elvis Presley, with his nasty habit of breaking up words and inserting guttural hisses of is own. Like many adults at the time Frank Sinatra, enjoying a comeback after being in the doldrums for a few years, voiced his fury at this turn in popular music trends. In 1957 he told a magazine: “Rock ‘n’ Roll is the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear… produced by cretinous goons… and full of sly, lewd lyrics”.

       He was concerned for the effect on his record sales, but he needn’t have worried: the Voice, unique and much copied, would survive and flourish. There would prove to be a new market for his special care of the great American song. It was in technology, and brilliant arranging wrapped around a special talent. That talent had not fitted into the pop scene of the early 1950s when the airwaves and juke boxes pulsed to streamlined folk song (“Tzena, tzena”), “ How much is that Doggie in the Window?”), and multi-tracking, echo chambers, sound effects and other gimmicks.

       By 1952 Sinatra was at his lowest ebb. He had won the enmity of the press—indeed had a knack for socking columnists whose words offended him. He had shocked decent America with his much-publicized extramarital affair with film lovely Ava Gardner. His voice vanished for a while—nerves, no doubt. And a new generation of record buyers, the women, were now reserving their screams for bulldoggish Frankie Laine on his “Mule train, and the whimperings of the emotional Johnnie Ray, the “CRY” guy. They were tired of Sinatra’s somnolent slow and sappy love songs. He too was in search of more quality songs, like the old show tunes. He almost had had to render “The Woody Woodpecker Song “ on “Your Hit parade” and his boss, Mitch Miller at Columbia Records, had been trying to foist dumb country material on him. All around were fellow vocalists getting million sellers out of hayseed: Patti Page with “The Tennessee Waltz” and Tony Bennett with covers of Hank Williams ballads. They ought know better! But he stood his ground artistically, giving “Tennessee Newsboy” a lackluster reading and ordering Mitch Miller to stop fiddling with the control knobs and get the hell out of the studio. The boss responded by dropping him from the label. The kid who had single-handedly ushered in the era of the star vocalist, putting paid to the hegemony of the Big band, was cast into the wilderness- no label, few bookings, an unhealthy connection with mobsters, plus a female wigmaker he was reputed to be having an affair with.

       1953/4 was a turnaround time for him-he made the greatest comeback since Al Jolson. Firstly he won a plum role in “From Here to Eternity” (which also won him an Academy Award) He was back in the public eye. But secondly, when no other major label wanted him, he was signed to Capitol Records of Hollywood. The contract was standard; many in the company groaned at being saddled with this deadbeat sample of yesterday’s crooning. However, Alan Livingston, the executive who’d signed him told his sales force at their annual meeting: “Look! -- Frank is the best singer in the world. There’s nobody who can touch him”.

       Now a new sound and fresh songs had to be settled upon. Sinatra was used to being generalissimo in the studio; Livingston snuck a new arranger on him: Nelson riddle, a quiet ex-big-band trombonist with a musical palette colored by Ravel and Debussy on the heart side and Duke Ellington and Count Basie on the hopping beatsy side. Also, and more to the present point, he knew his straight ahead pop. In 1950 he’d set the smoky voice of Nat King Cole amid a feather-light setting for the million-selling “Mona Lisa”. Riddle could soak in strings without disturbing the jazzy blat of brass and the strut of drums. And all for $150 a pop—such was the lowly position of arranger in those days.

        Sinatra soon realized the treasure he had been handed. Always controlling his sessions with a few initial notes and ideas, he then left Riddle to work the number into a gem. Everyone commented how the voice, once syrupy and almost namby-pamby, had changed for the better; deeper, with a touch of velvet darkness; when needed some swagger and bravado; a self-assured voice, but capable of reflection, even introspection, on a ballad.

After a few stabs the team score a number one hit with “Young at Heart’ in 1954. Riddle had set the new voice in a bed a comforting strings topped with flutes and ending with a celesta; romantic but dashing too. The song spoke of renewed strength, of starting again with the right attitude.

The triumphant march continued with the turning of a newish technology--the long playing record album-- into not merely a collection of songs but an art object— an hour’s mood, a concept, be the theme the conjuring of love mood feelings, unrequited love, or the call to get up and out of the bachelor pad and dance.

       The string of themed albums created by the terrific two are crowned by “Songs For Swingin’ Lovers and “In the Wee Small Hours”, a deep valley between exuberance and romantic reflection. “Swingin’” is mostly tried and true standards from the 1920s and 30s---the American Song book revivified. Riddle had him swing gently with muted horns, punctuated by the odd jazz moment. On “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” he starts quietly, liltingly, but then, typically, in the second chorus, after a mighty crazed daze of trombone, he dives back with an aggressively sexual style to round off the night. Its writer Cole Porter was not amused by the addition of several “Gots” not in the original. However Sinatra had great respect for lyrics; like an actor he treated his songs as playlets, putting himself into the lover role: “I’ve always believed that the written word is first. Not belittling the music behind me, it’s really only a curtain… the words actually dictate to you in a song—it really tells you what it needs.’’

On “In the Wee Small Hours”, the distaff side of the “Swingin’” LP, he offers a plate of regrets edged with blues, of the downs of love (although Nelson Riddle reckoned the chief concern was simply sex). Be that as it may the physical drive is cloaked in a tough tenderness, a yearning for a past idyll that cannot be retrieved: “Last night when were young”, or he has forgotten her and gets along very well “except to hear your name, or someone’s laugh that is the same” -- a masterwork by quality writer Hoagy Carmichael.

How awful for the nattily dressed and cigaretted self-described “saloon singer” to have to emerge from his heavenly darkness into the garish fairground of rock ‘n’ roll racket celebrating “Peggy Sue” and  “Bebop a Lula”!

       But emerge he did—to give as good and dynamically as the noisy rockers. His concerts were visually and emotionally exciting; entering unannounced, he would take stock of his audience before taking charge of the band. He was the Chairman of the board, as the saying had it. Later, around 1960, His board members on stage were Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jnr --“The Rat Pack”. The roisterous boisterous guys were a tight clan at the Sands in Las Vegas, singing and dancing, flaunting their drinks and playing pranks: one night Sammy Davis was plonked into the lap of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. They sang the pre-rock standards, sometimes having fun with the words: In the mulled voice of Dean Martin, “When You’re Smiling” became “When you’re drinking’. But there was breathless respect when the Chairman slid into a ballad like “The Nearness of You”.

The Vegas shows were sellouts. Behind the booze was a solid wall consisting of time-tested standards. Rock had had a run for its money.

       There was really no need for concern; the heroes of Rock ‘n’ roll embraced the old songs. Elvis recorded many, including “Blue Moon” and “Are You Lonesome tonight?” The early Beatles were not far behind with “ Till there was You”. And in 1970 I, as a one-time British Invader, attended a Sinatra concert at the Royal Albert hall in London sitting near Paul McCartney and Elton John. I watched carefully as the Chairman fixed them with a flinty eye and swung into  “I’ve Got the World on a String”. He had us all in the thrall of his universal old black magic. We surrendered happily.      


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to