The Best Bet
Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas
I fell hard for Sinatra and for blackjack...

Las Vegas is Frank Sinatra's town. The rest of us just win or lose there.

Sinatra holds court & deals Baccarat at the Sands
Sinatra holds court & deals Baccarat at the Sands

In addition to all of his other enduring achievements, the Chairman of the Board helped build Sin City not just as it is but, perhaps more importantly, as we wish it to be. In his lifetime, Francis Albert Sinatra helped create Las Vegas not so much as a physical destination in the middle of the Nevada desert, but as an eternally compelling concept in our hearts and minds. This skinny kid from Hoboken, New Jersey, managed to conjure up the endlessly desirable notion of a singular and shining city where on any given night luck could be a lady for any swinger with a big dream and a little disposable income. Others made this strip of land in the middle of nowhere a lovely place to gamble. Sinatra - from his first gig in September 1951 at the Desert Inn until his final show at the MGM Grand in May of 1994 - made Vegas the only place to be, and somehow he did it every time that he took the stage there.

I was not even born when Sinatra first came to Vegas, or when the earliest recordings collected on the Sinatra: Vegas box set were cut at the Sands Hotel and Casino back in November of 1961. Though I was raised in a fine Sinatra-worshipping home only a few miles from the Rustic Cabin where Sinatra played his earliest notable Garden State gigs, it was not until nearly 30 years later that - having now lived a little - I fell hard for Sinatra and Las Vegas, all in one fell swoop. Moving west to Los Angeles in 1991 just as grunge rock was taking hold, I found myself feeling every bit as lonely and pensive as Sinatra looked on the covers of such classic albums as In The Wee Small Hours, Where Are You?, and September Of My Years. So it was that I began filling many of my empty weekends by driving through the desert to see the Man himself sing in Vegas, baby.

On the long, magnificently solitary journey there, I'd often listen to Sinatra At The Sands- arguably the single greatest live recording ever made, featuring Frank in his prime in 1966 backed by Count Basie & The Orchestra, with Quincy Jones arranging and conducting. Then, remarkably to me, I'd arrive and actually get to share in much the same experience - watching the one and only Frank Sinatra work a room as only he could and do it just off a casino floor. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it came to be that I fell hard for Sinatra and for blackjack all at once.

Sinatra and blackjack. For me - and no doubt for many wannabe players like me over the years - the pair would prove a winning combination. These days, with a wife and two young sons, I play only one of two. Here's a clue: it's one where you can never lose. Eventually the Sinatra camp noticed that a scruffy, runaway rock writer was becoming a regular customer in Vegas, which is how I came to write the liner notes for Duets. That gig was a great thrill and honor for me, a half-century after my father became a first-generation Sinatra fan amid the bobby-soxers back in New York at The Voice's famed Paramount Theater shows.

Clearly the histories of Frank Sinatra and Las Vegas are now inextricably tied. Those famed good times shared by Sinatra and Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford - the Rat Pack - at the Copa Room of the Sands, and anywhere else they chose to go, became the stuff of legend both onstage and off. Whether you think of Ocean's Eleven as a movie with the Rat Pack or with George Clooney and his pals, the reality is that it was Sinatra and his legendary Pack who first made Vegas a place for all sorts of lovable rogues to come in search of the time of their lives.

As Mike Weatherford of the Las Vegas Review-Journal has written, the Chairman of the Board was first and foremost an entertainer, not a civic leader, yet "Sinatra was a one-man chamber of commerce who gave Las Vegas something equally important: an image." In 2001 a road in Las Vegas was named Frank Sinatra Drive - a fitting honor since, after all, it was Sinatra who got so many of us on the road to town.

In his 1998 obituary of Sinatra, The New York Times - Stephen Holden called the singer "a pioneer entertainer" in Las Vegas, reporting that, in 1953, Sinatra bought a two-percent interest in the Sands, eventually becoming a corporate vice president as well. Most impressively of all, Sinatra deserves considerable credit for ending segregation in Nevada hotels and casinos. He and his Pack refused to patronize places that refused service to one of their own - Sammy Davis Jr.

For my money, Sinatra remains the most successful high roller in music history - a man who changed forever the way that a singer can connect with a song. To my mind, the contrast is that stark: there is singing before Frank, and there is singing after Frank. As an artist, Sinatra fearlessly upped the ante by investing in great songs in a way that no one had ever dared to do before. For me, he remains the dividing line in music history - the first man who really seemed to mean what he sang. Even before he ever hit Vegas with the full force of his personality, Sinatra was a man who put it all on the line and let it roll.

The recordings that make up the Sinatra: Vegas box start in 1961, and yet in terms of their performance, they define the best of the modern spirit. This is the sound of a man alone - OK, a man alone with an orchestra - baring his soul, throwing himself into a lyric like a great method actor. At his best - which was most of the time - Sinatra could make you believe instinctively because he believed every line. He didn't croon a tune from a safe distance; he put himself inside a song and sang it like his life depended on it.

I saw dozens of Frank's shows in his final years, and even got to share one with my wife and in-laws. Let me say this - I never saw a show where he didn't manage to make that connection. To the end, there were remarkable moments when the master brought new life to these old songs. In so doing, Sinatra brought the best part of his own legend onstage nightly.

The songs showcased in this collection represent many of the finest compositions of the 20th century as performed -or, perhaps more fittingly, as inhabited - by the greatest single interpreter this music would or will ever know. Over the years, he recorded more than 1,200 songs - and so the compositions that appear here represent many of the best of the best, the creme de la creme of the greatest catalog in popular music history. This is music for when you're winning ("I've Got The World On A String" or "Fly Me To The Moon") or losing ("Here's That Rainy Day" or "Send In The Clown"). This is the finest sort of music to live by.

Sinatra may be gone, but his music lives on, and it will live on long after we are all gone. Until then, I can only paraphrase a moving thought that I heard the man himself say many times toward the end of his Vegas shows: May you all live to be 100. And may the last voice you hear be his.

 

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