Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Rat Pack

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, December 09, 2007)

Okay, I know I said I was going to tell you about my adventures in Spain with the Graves Brothers Deluxe. I even started writing it. But then something happened that distracted my attention and now I've decided to write about something totally different. My apologies to Stoo and his band, as well as all of you who looking forward to tales of eating, drinking, driving, snoring, and very little sex. I'll get to those stories soon.

So, what happened to me that would distract my attention from something so obviously entertaining? Well, first let me tell one of my favorite jokes:

Q: What has eight arms and kills its girlfriend?

A: Squid Vicious.

I thought of that joke while watching a stageshow called "The Rat Pack: Live At The Sands" (http://www.theratpackliveatthesands.com/) at the Wilshire Theatre. It came back to me right at the end, when Stephen Triffitt, playing Frank Sinatra, burst into the song "My Way". I love Frank's version, but I still think the definitive version belongs to Sid Vicious and I can't hear the song without immediately thinking about him and his tragic death.

But anyways, last Tuesday I was sitting here at my computer doing whatever it is I do on this thing and suddenly an email arrived from Ticketmaster. Opening that email, I saw it was an offer for FREE tickets to see "The Rat Pack: Live At The Sands"! Now, I'm used to getting ripped off by Ticketmaster, not getting offers to save cash from them, so how could I resist. There's also the little fact that I'm fairly obsessed with Frank, Sammy, Dean and old Las Vegas. So I filled out the form and sent it off through the ether of the Internet and lo-and-behold, I found myself to be the proud owner of two tickets to the show that very evening.

"The Rat Pack" is a recreation of what could have been a single show put on at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in the 70s. It borrows from several shows I've seen on video. The production features a 15-piece band, three women playing the girl group/backup singers, The Burelli Sisters, as well as the three actors playing Frank, Sammy and Dean. The show opened seven years ago in England and was a huge hit there. Now it's finally making the rounds throughout America and while its created quite a stir with the media here in LA, the show was only about half full, so the public isn't reacting quite as they did in Merry Ol'.

Part of the problem, I think, is that this type of glitzy recreation of Sinatra and his pals is something that Americans see all the time. We see Rat Pack recreations on TV, on records and even in the movies, such as Stephen Soderbergh's "Ocean's" series of films.

And to tell you the truth, while I really enjoyed this production and thought it was a fun night out, I'm glad I didn't pay the price they're charging for tickets. I think I would have felt ripped off if I would have actually paid, with what with Ticketmaster charges for their cut, runs around $80-$90 bucks a ticket! That's a lot to pay for something that isn't that much of a novelty for American audiences.

But like I said, it was actually a very well done and entertaining show. Triffitt did a great Sinatra. He had the look and the sound down very well. Of course, none of these guys are actually as talented as the originals and I wouldn't expect them to be. If they were, they wouldn't be playing a re-creation show. But Triffitt had it down and I was impressed by how well he did Frank. Nigel Casey as Dean Martin wasn't quite as good. He sang about an octave higher than Dean actually did. He had the talking voice down well, but just couldn't get the singing voice quite right. He also didn't have the look quite right either, looking more like a refugee from "Grease" instead of the stylish Dean Martin. David Hayes as Sammy Davis Jr. was better. He had the Sammy stance down well and had a great singing voice, although his voice did crack every now and then on notes Sammy would have had no problem with. He also couldn't dance very well, and Sammy could hoof it up like almost no other.

So I enjoyed the show, but if I would have paid, I would have been tremendously disappointed. But I was glad I saw it, especially since I saw the real Sammy Davis Jr. on that same stage a couple of decades ago.

And that's why I really wanted to write this thing. Seeing this show brought back the memories of that show and I wanted to talk about it all.

When I was growing up, my father was really into classical music and jazz vocals. I was an uppity young creep and as kids tend to do, I rejected this "parental" music as terribly square and boring. As I grew up and got into punk rock, the whole Las Vegas singer thing became quite the joke for my friends and I. Sammy Davis Jr. was the one I really focused as he had a talk show on TV that I wouldn't miss and every time he called someone his "good friend" or laughed his forced laugh, I would crack up and think to myself how corny and fake he was. I didn't see how anyone could take him or any other singer like him seriously.

I the early 80s, Sammy announced a show at the Wilshire Theatre and Skip and I, along with our friend Jeff, jumped at the chance to see him. We thought it would be one of the funniest things we had ever seen and totally prepared ourselves for a night of glitz, fake glamour and hilarity.

What we got was something totally different though. Sammy kicked our collective asses. Sure, he sometimes went over the edge with his emoting, but he was the ultimate entertainer. He sang like an angel and held the audience in the palm of his hand. There was only one time when I can remember actually laughing at him. He introduced Rick James in the audience and claimed that he was one of his oldest and best friends before breaking into a version of "Super Freak". This just cracked us up, but in the middle of a loud guffaw, I felt something hit me on the back of my head. I turned around and there sitting right behind me was Jimmy Stewart. He had hit me with a rolled up program. "Will you guys be quite", he said in his hesitant, Jimmy Stewart-kind-of-way. "I'm trying to watch the show". I almost died! I LOVE Jimmy Stewart and will always remember this incident as one of the greatest in my life.

But he was right. Sammy was a true talent and he didn't deserve our laughter, even at that moment. We left that show with a newfound respect. I started thinking about this vocal music more, but I didn't really know where to start.

It was around this time that Linda Ronstadt released the first of her three collaborations with Nelson Riddle, singing old standards in front of an orchestra. Riddle was an orchestral genius. His arrangements for Frank Sinatra are legendary. I bought the album and Skip and I went to the Greek Theatre to see her perform live. Let me tell you, I was surprised as anyone that I went to see a Linda Ronstadt show and that I actually enjoyed it. But I sure loved the songs that were on that album.

Then someone, probably my friend Kevin, pointed out to me that her versions of those songs were okay, but if I really wanted to experience the songs the way they were meant to be experienced, I should find the originals. And that sent me on a quest. Before I knew it, I had almost all of Frank Sinatra's Capitol albums (a good many arranged and produced by Nelson Riddle). I had several by Dean Martin, including his great country album. I had a dozen or so by Sammy. And I started listening to some of the singers my Dad listened to that I had rejected so long ago, like Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson.

That led to me discovering a lot of the old jazz standards, from Charlie Byrd to Miles Davis. And that led to the blues, which led to country, which led to…

These days I realize that all genres of music are great. That doesn't mean that everything made within those genres is good, but I won't reject anything any more just because it's country or just because it's "mellow". In fact, when I hear people say that, I just want to scream in frustration. There is so much out there that is good and deserves to be listened to. I just wish that people could get over their misconceptions and realize that.

Because I did and I'm happier for it.

And that's what seeing "The Rat Pack" led me back to. My discovery of a whole slew of great music I might have ignored if I wouldn't have opened up my mind.

I realize how lucky I was to have been able to see Sammy Davis Jr. perform before he died. I wish I could say the same about Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and so many others that are lost to us except through that marvelous music they recorded. At least I have those records to listen to.

And now I think I'll go throw on "Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely", which is one of the most melancholy, beautiful, romantic albums I've ever heard. It's music fit for any modern Goth.

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