There’s Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles, and nobody else comes close—the holy trinity of 20th century music performers. Bing Crosby was an early pacesetter, but Crosby’s influence scarcely crossed over into the second half of the century. Louis Armstrong transcended race and revolutionized a specific genre, but his overall impact is too local to join the triumvirate. Then there’s Michael Jackson. Jackson may have formidable record sales, but his impact on the culture at large has been negligible. Even among his peers, it is difficult to trace a distinct line of heirs to his music legacy. Sure, they exist, but they follow a considerably narrower path than those who followed The Big Three.
Presley’s arrival remains the single most significant jolt in the history of popular music. In a certain sense the Beatles were a seismic after-shock to Presley, albeit one whose impact produced arguably more wide-ranging long-term affects. Perhaps the most staggering fact of Sinatra and Presley’s omnipotence is that both were interpretive artists relying on others to supply their means of expression. Neither one wrote their own songs, while the Beatles, of course, were a group, a collective of individuals who conspired to author change in popular culture.
If The Beatles were an add-on to Presley’s revolution, Presley himself first arrived with the threat of wholesale replacement for Sinatra, and for all that he represented to two previous generations. Alone among his contemporaries, Sinatra managed to survive the tidal-wave of rock ‘n’ roll, occasionally as if clinging to a piece of driftwood in a sea of obsolescence. Certainly there’s been no shift in music like it before or since—and little wonder that at the time that Sinatra was, frankly, more than a little pissed.
Defending his turf, Sinatra was one of the more vociferous critics of early rock ‘n’ roll, and of Presley. Presley’s televised appearance on The Frank Sinatra Show in May 1960 was therefore a major concession for the old-style crooner, even acknowledging as it did that the two might yet co-exist. In retrospect, the meeting was a momentous co-joining of cultural icons, bigger than might possibly have been imagined at the time. The resulting show, recorded at the Fontainbleu Hotel in Miami has just been released on DVD by Music Video Distribution.
Reality TV, it ain’t. The Frank Sinatra Show—Welcome Home Elvis offers a slick variety hour of Sinatra surrounded by the usual suspects—Sammy Davis Junior, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and his own daughter Nancy. The term “cronyism” might have been coined to define the “Rat Pack”. Dean Martin may be absent here, but Bishop, and particularly Lawford, contribute nothing beyond cause for embarrassment. The occasion of the show, as the title suggests, was Presley’s return from two years in the army, and the framing device is a series of skits intended to show Elvis what he’d missed while away. It doesn’t amount to much.
Presley was paid a whopping $125,000 for 10 minutes of air time, and it’s interesting to watch Sinatra’s deference to the newer star. Referring to Presley’s hit “Love Me Tender”, Sinatra wonders aloud what might have happened had he recorded the song instead—“It would have sold about two million less,” Pal Joey Bishop chimes in. In physical stature, Presley dwarfs the King of Swoon, though Presley was hardly large himself.
Before Presley is introduced, Sinatra, backed by Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra, offers a wonderful version of “Gone with the Wind”, from his 1958 classic Frank Sinatra Sings… For Only the Lonely. There’s no doubting that it’s performed live, not like in this day and age, with Sinatra audibly coughing between verses while chugging on a cigarette. When Elvis finally arrives, he performs the bland “Fame and Fortune” and a somewhat more ribald “Stuck on You”, during which the audience screams predictably and wildly. For his part, Presley seems to already recognize that his famed gyrations are on their way to self-parody, and even the merest roll of his eyes elicits frenzy from the audience.
Naturally, a duet between the two stars is contrived, with Sinatra taking on “Love Me Tender” and Presley grappling with “Witchcraft”. It’s fairly mild stuff, with both men making a show of careful respect to the other. Sinatra ages Presley’s song 15 years in two verses, while Presley briefly manages to inject his own brand of sexual magic into the old Sinatra hit… and then the duet is quickly brought to a close.
And that’s about it. Sammy Davis Junior is revealed as a wildly energized and versatile performer over the course of the show, but there are no history-altering moments between the two real stars—nothing beyond the momentous history of the occasion itself, and that lent by retrospect. Sinatra sailed along from here outside of offering any huge influence on youth culture, while Elvis lost his way, found it briefly again, then lost it forever.
If nothing else, the show suggests evidence contrary to John Lennon’s famous claim: Elvis didn’t really die in the army—it was simply the first, youthful days of rock ‘n’ roll that did.