Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.
Eee-O 11: the Best of the Rat PackThe Rat Pack Live at the Sands

What is it about the romance of Las Vegas in the late 1950s that still has America waxing nostalgic over 50 years later? Spurred on by movies like Swingers and the retread pseudo-swing of the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the neo-swinger movement of the mid-’90s had Generation X scrambling to take dance lessons and decorate their kitchens with avocado green appliances. A cultural movement, by definition, has to have something to move against, and revivals often find a tenor that reflects the circumstances that gave rise to the original.

In its heyday, the excesses of Sin City served as a counterpoint to the culturally conservative tone of the day. Las Vegas was an oasis of hipness in the desert sands of America’s drab Cold War climate, a tropical isle of all things cool in an ocean of dreary conformity. It was Vegas, baby. And at the center of it all was a group of five playboys bent on doing things their way. While they preferred to call themselves — a motley collection of comedians, singers and actors — “the Summit”, everyone else would come to know them by a much more descriptive moniker: the Rat Pack.

Their gathering in January of 1960 at the Sands Hotel was a whim, the idea of their self-appointed leader as an opportunity to perform and maybe make a movie or two. For Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, it turned out to be a movable feast of drinking, gambling, carousing and late night parties. They didn’t need a presentation by the mayor to give them the keys to Las Vegas; they owned Vegas in all of its bohemian glory. While not to diminish the contribution of Joey Bishop (the comedic brain behind some of the group’s best material, such as his backstage suggestion one night to Martin to pick up Davis and declare “I’d like to thank the NAACP for this wonderful trophy”) and Peter Lawford (whose brother-in-law was elected President of the United States in 1960), the true heart of the Rat Pack resided in a triple threat of talent: Sinatra, Martin and Davis.

Riding on the coattails of the recent renewed interest in the Rat Pack as a result of the 2001 remake of Oceans 11, Capitol Records is offering up a pair of diamonds. Eee-O: The Best of the Rat Pack showcases the talented trio’s vocal charm on a loose collection of their best-loved tunes. Meanwhile, The Rat Pack Live at the Sands — culled from Sinatra’s shelved recordings of their 1963 return to the Vegas stage — is a solid stab at trying to reconstruct the frenetic energy of their live antics. Eee-O opens with one of Sinatra’s signatures, “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die”. Clocking in at just under two minutes, this barn burner is the closest thing his “Clan” had to resembling a credo. Sinatra exudes his characteristic cool with each line, laying down a sense of determined arrogance that earned him the respect he deserved as the Chairman of the Board — while at the same time making him ripe for impersonators and poseurs later.

Contrasting Sinatra’s brashness is Dean Martin’s unmistakably smooth rendition of the Sammy Cahn classic “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”. Engaging and playful, it evokes the image of Martin standing center stage, bow tie casually undone, a cocktail in one hand, a cigarette in the other. A crooner by trade, Martin built his career on an easygoing style and a healthy dash of boyish Italian charm.

While Sinatra and Martin may have had the bigger audience (they certainly had their share of hits, as heard with “Volare”, “You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You”, “Chicago” and “The Lady is a Tramp” in this collection), Sammy Davis Jr. was obviously the most versatile of the three. With the ability to phrase like a trumpet player and blessed with the rhythmic tenacity of a drummer (of course, he was also a player of both instruments), Davis has the tastiest cuts on this disc with “Too Close for Comfort”, “The Birth of the Blues”, and “Eee-O Eleven”, the bluesy ode to the original Oceans 11. Unfortunately the ensemble pieces on this disc, the Sinatra/Davis duet “Me and My Shadow” and the Davis/Martin vaudeville number “Sam’s Song”, are sadly stilted studio takes of two of their old crowd-pleasing standbys.

Thankfully the companion to this release, Live at the Sands, catches the boys in all of their live glory. The hotel’s glittering marquee simply read “Dean Martin…Maybe Frank – Maybe Sammy”, but if you were one of the fortunate few to get a table you could be sure where there was one then all three of the merry musketeers would be present. Selected from a run of shows in September of 1963, a three-night stand that was an attempt to capture the raw spirit of those first seven months of 1960, the disc closely follows the well-rehearsed outline of their live act.

By this time, the routine had become, well, routine: always starting with Dean Martin “straight from the bar”. Playing his part of the tipsy hipster to the hilt, Martin set the tone for the evening. With Live at the Sands, he gives it a healthy but comical effort, offering some of his best know numbers including “Via Veneto” and “Volare”. Then came Sinatra, the straight man to Martin’s inebriated clowning, offering the epitome of lounge cool with tunes like “I Only Have Eyes for You” and his voracious version of “Luck Be A Lady”. Later, Martin and Sinatra would have their turns onstage together, riffing off each other and improvising impossible medleys that would include everything from racy lyrical twists on songs like “Maria” and “Try a Little Tenderness” to more serious plays at selections from the musical Guys and Dolls. Davis would have a tune or two here and there and eventually things would wrap up in typical high style with all three belting out a reprise of “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York)”.

Beyond the music, what really resonates on this disc is the attitude of the times, reflected in the off-color humor of their monologues and skits, when the term “politically correct” meant nothing. They all joked and jabbed at each other, with gentle derogatory plays at race and religion as common themes. Davis was often the easy target of many of Martin and Sinatra’s jokes. Yet proving that he could give as good as he got, Davis was always ready with a comeback and at the end of the night everyone was always “baby” or “pally”.

Just a little over two months later, though, the man the Rat Pack helped to get elected would be gunned down in his presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Three months after that, a fresh-faced folkie named Bob Dylan would declare that “the times they are a-changin'”. He was right. The Civil Rights Movement would ignite in full force and the specter of a foreign war in the jungles of Southeast Asia would begin to loom larger and larger. Soon after, the boyish playfulness of the Rat Pack seemed out of place and perhaps even inappropriate. The party was over.

But for a brief moment the desert Babylon of Las Vegas was the center of American style, capturing the imagination of a public searching for the height of hip, as defined by the Rat Pack from the comforts of their sequined nest. As artifacts of that era, these discs both fall short of successfully recreating even just a fraction of the same magic these artists could offer in the flesh. However, they do succeed in serving as a memento, a faded and yellowed photograph of an unforgettable, rollicking party that no one quite remembers.