Frank Sinatra called his 1966 show at the Sands Hotel in Vegas the best performance of his life. He debuted the town at the Painted Desert Showroom of the Desert Inn in 1951 when there were seven hotels on the strip and all were owned by the mob. Nevertheless, the postwar building boom was underway; casinos towered where the motor lodges once garnered dust and dissipation (the unfashionable kind) thanks to Mafia ties in the only state where casino gambling was—in a bid to lift Nevada from the Great Depression—legal.
Sinatra knew the town well. As a 25-year-old singer, he was paid $15 a day to appear with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra in Ralph Murphy’s comedy film, Las Vegas Nights (1941). His fame had faltered since the late ’40s; it definitively soured after he divorced his wife Nancy, eloped with Ava Gardner, and left his children with her in 1951. When he won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his performance in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), he became a Sands regular. His one-man act practically bootstrapped Vegas from a two-horse town to a boozer’s playground. Billy Wilder claimed that when Sinatra was in Vegas there was “a certain electricity permeating the air. It’s like Mack the Knife is in town, and the action is starting.”
October 1953 saw his first show at the Copa Room, a wood-paneled, white-gloved showroom at the Sands opened by Texas oilman Jake Freeman after the hotel fell in his hands that year. (Online records do not betray a where or when; as it turns out, nothing better suits the passive tense than a property exchange where the Mafia is concerned.) Howard Hughes sold the Sands in 1988. It fell in the hands of Sheldon Anderson, who blew it up in 1996.
He built the 7,000-room Venetian in its place. The high-roller gutter glamor that still cleaves to the Sands name like last night’s cloying and questionable stain owes to the genius of publicist Al Freeman. He schmoozed Golden Age television and film producers until they were more or less convinced that there was no better backdrop or casting pool than that offered by this mega-motel advertised by a rust-pink sign proclaiming “A Place in the Sun”.
He convinced Rita Hayworth to marry her fourth husband there and curated the guest list. He staged postcard-perfect stunts (most iconically, a craps table in the hotel pool surrounded by scanty bathers rolling dice in view of the Sands sign). By the decade’s end, the place saw the likes of Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, Mia Farrow, James Stewart, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Rosemary Clooney. In 1957, when the boom slowed, the New York Times still reported that “For every one of its 50,000 inhabitants, 160 tourists are said to have visited Las Vegas last year, spending over $160,000,000.”
In early 1960 the Rat Pack came to town, newly cast for Lewis Milestone’s Ocean’s Eleven (1960). The 212-room Sands refused 18,000 lodgers. After Humphrey Bogart’s fatal stroke in 1957, the Hollywood drinking club fizzled and Sinatra coaxed the core—Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Dean Martin—to Vegas. After their one-man contracts expired— Sinatra at the Desert Inn, Sammy Davis at the Last Frontier, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the Flamingo—they recouped at the Sands.
Admission was $5.95, enough for dinner and a two-drink minimum. JFK sat ringside on at least one occasion. Sinatra recorded “High Hopes” for his campaign that year and fell out of favor the next when he asked Attorney General Bobby Kennedy nicely to leave his friend, mob boss Sam Giancana, alone.
The Rat Pack’s sharkskin-suited, slim-tied, sybaritic spree in the city swelled its name from the gambling to the entertainment capital of the world. They leveraged their fame to integrate the town, wresting equal treatment of black entertainers with more ultimata than you could shake a dice at. On one occasion Sinatra—who now held a 2% interest in the Sands—threatened to fire the wait staff entire if Nat King Cole could not join him in the dining room, where black people were prohibited from eating. On another, Sinatra threatened to pull the Rat Pack’s “Summit at the Sands” show unless Sammy Davis Jr. could live at the hotel like the others; he received a suite.
By 1966, the Rat Pack had faded and Sinatra was north of 50. He’d celebrated by recording the Grammy-winning September of My Years, a record which met Blonde on Blonde (1966), Pet Sounds (1966), Aftermath (1966), and Revolver (1966) with the racking baritone of “It Was a Very Good Year” and “It Gets Lonely Early” and won a Grammy to show for it. The Space Race, Cold War, Vietnam War, and race riots reached a fever pitch, and Sinatra still had Vegas on a string, shooting craps on bottomless credit, holding court with honeymooners from Peoria, and toasting a world that teenyboppers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot joss stick.
After a late-’50s career slump, he left Capitol Records and glutted the market with lukewarm releases through his own label, Reprise. He rode a commercial resurgence. His career anthology, A Man and His Music (1965) won a Grammy. An eponymous television special won an Emmy and Peabody (and featured some of the most genius small-screen set design that I have ever seen to this day). Gay Talese profiled the singer’s congested preparation for it in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”; it remains one of the finest pieces of journalism ever written. In short, the crooner was never more comfortable with his reign. A federal judge witnessed Sinatra order a screwdriver, poolside; when the 18-year-old lifeguard served him the tool instead of the drink, the blue-eyed Sicilian proceeded to submerge every chaise lounge in sight.
On 9 January 1966, he began a four-week stint at the Copa Room with the 20-member Count Basie Orchestra, conducted and arranged by Quincy Jones, who later produced Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982), and Bad (1987). They recorded seven shows in the last week for a double album. It was released in July. Surprisingly for a man who had sung professionally since 1935, it was Sinatra’s first live record. It comprises 16 predictably chosen and shatteringly sung numbers, two Basie instrumentals to allow for ample bourbon-swilling reprieve, a 12-minute Elk’s Club variety show filibuster of a monologue, and a reprise.
The first thing that leaves his mouth after a brassy-glitz introduction is “How did all these people get into my room?” He proceeds to make it his. He careens from the breathy, jet-fuel edge of “Come Fly With Me” (in keeping with the times, the “lovely day”, weather-wise, becomes a “groovy” one) to the measured treacle of “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, swinging punchily on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Street of Dreams” and preciously on “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “One For My Baby”. After a righteous and soaring “Fly Me to the Moon”, he disappears wordlessly. The band leaps up the beat with a 12-bar juggernaut “One O’Clock Jump” before the ear stops reeling. Basie first named it “Blue Ball” when he wrote it in 1937, and he’d been touring it ever since. The liner notes (they won a Grammy) aver that the sheet music for it resembles “a hunk of Kleenex after a flu epidemic”.
Frank returns onstage for the “Tea Break” soliloquy with the air of a man freshly returned from a dip in the pool. He rattles off on a bad-luck streak (“Sunday we went up to the Grand Canyon and it was closed”), wisecracks about Dean Martin’s alcoholism (“I would say roughly that Dean Martin has been stoned more often than the United States embassies”), bills Sammy Davis on his next club stint as the janitor, and attributes rumors of his 50th birthday to “a dirty Communist lie direct from Hanoi”. It smacks of decades that have more carefully preserved his heart than his glands, lost love, and lost cash. He delivers it no differently than the songs, with every note timed and every note meant. He reminisces getting a hernia from lifting crates in Hoboken for $62.50 a week, catching rivets on a ship thrown by a cockeye who “couldn’t hit a bull in the fanny with a bag of rice”, returning his union button and bumming a ride on the New York ferry seeking fame. He sums up his life as “a marvelous time”. He doesn’t plan to stop.
The tight climactic swing of “You Make Me Feel so Young” unfurls the percussive jump of “All of Me” as he leaves again. He follows the beguiling drawl of “The September of My Years” with the Tin Pan Alley zip of “Get Me to the Church on Time”. The blare, the snap, and (one can almost hear it) the lights fall to a naked, sweet and clear “It Was a Very Good Year”. I’ve never met a man over 50 who didn’t cite this as their favorite Sinatra song. Listening for the first time to this rendition of a life seen through the smoke, din, and the midnight urges of a stud gone sore in the head and long in the teeth, I understood why.
From there he goes to the only place you can go, a brash bar ballad called “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me”. The horns lift the aching phrasing from bleak to brassy and keep it there with a (symbolically enough) muted trumpet lead on “Makin’ Whoopee”, obbligato courtesy of Harry Edison. The jaunt holds sway in “Where or When”. The orchestra abandons Frank and pianist Bill Miller to murmur “Angel Eyes” as only a lucked-out dandy can. The liner notes describe Miller, who accompanied Sinatra (and, later, Sinatra Jr.) for over 50 years, as a man “who looks as if he hides under mushrooms to avoid the sun’s rays”. The closer and reprise is “My Kind of Town”. It may seem an incongruous affront to leave the Copa crowd with a chuffed ode to Chicago—Sinatra even alters the lyrics to include landmarks like the Pump Room—but it’s perfect. He’s penned in the ring, and he knows every corner.
It’s what he’s been doing for the past 76 minutes and the past 30 years, warbling with bobbysoxer brio from stockyards to speakeasies with a heart that aged like wine and hedonism that aged like paint thinner. It’s difficult not to use alliterative clichés while describing a man who rendered a life from alliterative clichés, who brought this painful jingle-jangle to such presence that the very power of the songs was their ineluctable hold over any room and every ear they filled. The music critic Robert Christgau deemed him the greatest singer of the 20th century. His biographer Arnold Shaw maintained that if Vegas hadn’t existed, Sinatra would have invented it.
In 1967, Howard Hughes went on a Vegas buying spree and bought the Sands for $14.6 million. The new management confronted Sinatra on the gambling debt that the old had ignored; in return, he climbed onto a table, screamed, attempted arson, hurled a chair at the casino boss Carl Cohen (who promptly slugged him in the teeth), and announced his abscondment by driving a golf cart through the window. He told The New York Times that he “regret[ted] the termination.” He continued an uncontested rule of Vegas from his aptly named new base, Caesars Palace, until and after his first “retirement”, triggered by the flop of his spoken-word concept album Watertown (1970). Even as Elvis edged him off the Strip, he remained its face.
Sinatra at The Sands is my favorite Sinatra performance, and my favorite concert album of all time: he’s assured but never cocky, charming but never oily, warm but never soppy. Each listen lays bare the sheer (to use a Frankism) cuckoo calculation of it all. He’d rehearse at two in the morning, after another act closed, to gel the material in the same room he’d deliver it. If a musician didn’t click, he’d fire them. When he heard that the band had a few days before they were scheduled at the Sands, he flew them from Chicago on his dollar.
The regular set with Basie’s band, which Frank declared “the greatest orchestra at any time in the history of the world”, was a long-dreamt wish-fulfillment on his part, though they had played before on Sinatra-Basie: An Historical First (1962) and It Might As Well Be Swing (1964). The two shared a preternatural ability to swing a song as it begged to be swung, to bring the heart and teeth of it to bear on every soul in the room.
In the liner notes to the box set Sinatra: Vegas (2006), Quincy Jones recalls planning the Sands show on a flight. Sinatra asked: “Q, wouldn’t it be kooky if we added Johnny Mandel’s new song, ‘The Shadow of Your Smile,’ to the show?” Jones asked him if he could learn the lyrics by tomorrow. Sinatra gave him a look and wrote them on a pad, over and over. Jones dozed off at 18 pages. When he woke Frank was still writing, “force-feeding the subconscious.” Dean Martin would say “It’s Frank’s world. We’re just lucky to be living in it”; after all the grinding and pruning, one would be surprised if he lived in it himself.
The Sands proved a swan song. That year he released Strangers in the Night and That’s Life, with bleeding paeans to the old world (“Summer Wind”, “I Will Wait for You”) and tepid cracks at the new one (“Downtown”, “Winchester Cathedral”). “Strangers in the Night” won four Grammys and he loathed its guts. It and, later, “My Way”, violated his oath in the mid-fifties “not to sing any songs that do not possess musical and lyrical merit.” His marriage to the 21-year-old Mia Farrow that year met with global indictments of cradle robbery. This hokey crusade to get with the times culminated in the unbelievably assiduous and mildly groovy audiovisual fruit salad, the TV special Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing (1968).
It begins with Frank finger-snapping to “Hello, Young Lovers” in a penguin tux and bowtie, apprising us of just how baubles, bangles, and beads “jing-jing-a-ling-a”; it ends with the man arm in arm with Diahann Carroll and the soul quintet The 5th Dimension, replete with a blue-sequined, ruffle-breasted Nehru jacket and love beads (he informs the ladies that “the ensemble is English modern, the ruffle is French traditional, and the face is Italian provincial”). From then on it was unknown just what Frank’s “thing” was, only that it could be done. He divorced Farrow that year after she refused to drop Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby three-quarters of the way into filming to co-star with him in Gordon Douglas’ hip and forgettable neo-noir The Detective (1968).
In the Sinatra: Vegas, Charles Champlin recalls surmising backstage, after one show closed with Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You”, that “‘it must be really something to sing a great song like that and know that nobody in the world could do it better.” Frank replied: “That’s all there is. There’s nothing else.” The best testament to this that I’ve ever read is “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”. He’s angry, weak, and afraid, and all for a sniffle. It spooks the room, it spooks the whole industry, just as a president’s cold would spook the economy. It’s a study of a man robbed of “that uninsurable jewel, his voice”, and a man aware, after fifty years, that there’s nothing else. Anyway, he sure had a way of making you hear it.
Barendregt, Erwin. “Sinatra at The Sands”. A Pop Life. 31 July 2021.
Deal, David. “‘Sinatra at the Sands’: When Frank Sinatra Ruled Las Vegas”. Festival Peak. 28 March 2021.
de Urbina, Fernando Ortiz. “Sinatra at the Sands, at 50”. Easy Does It. 1 February 2016.
Manning, Mary. “Rat Pack reveled in Vegas; revered by the world”. Las Vegas Sun. 15 May 2008.
Schwartz, David G. “Venomous in the Extreme: Understanding Frank Sinatra’s Acrionious 1963 Exit from Nevada Gaming”. Gaming Law Review 24, no 7, 440-455. 2020.
“Sinatra Joins Rival of the Sands Hotel In Las Vegas Rift”. New York Times. 12 September 11967.
Talese, Gay. “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold“. Esquire. April 1966.