It was November 3, 1970 when I got the call —asking
if I was free to work with Frank Sinatra. I couldn't believe it, a chance
to work with the great man on two special concerts at the Royal Festival
Hall in London. "Yes, yes!" was my immediate response. I was
delighted to accept, and couldn't wait to see the great man himself.
Ten days later, I arrived at the rehearsal
ball at 9am, and all of the other guys were there, warming up. This is
very, very unnatural for session musicians, who normally arrive 15 to
20 minutes, at most, before the gig starts, the priority even then is
a cup of coffee and a chat about last night's game or yesterday's session.
So there we were, an hour before the official start of the rehearsal,
all warming up and keeping an eye on the door. Just waiting, with a lovely
exciting buzz in the air.
Bill Miller, the piano player and musical
director, gave the music out, and at 10 o'clock we began to play this
amazing music. Music that we had never played before, written by some
of the world's greatest arrangers. Billy kicked it off, and off we went
with The Lady is a Tramp. All looking at each other, smiling with
that smug satisfaction that musicians get when they know that they are
in on some secret — the secret being how good this music really was.
After a while we stopped for a coffee break,
and I made a beeline for Irv Cottler, the drummer from the Tommy Dorsey
days, to check if Sinatra was going to appear that day. Irv informed me
that he never turned up to rehearsals, he just let the guys get on with
it. The attitude was that he had got the best, so let them do their thing.
We finished the first day's rehearsing still
in a very buoyant mood, went home, and much the same thing happened the
next morning. We kicked off with, as usual, everything going nicely, when
suddenly the atmosphere in the room, this great big rehearsal hall, changed
dramatically. Not knowing why, I looked up — and there he was, standing
right near the saxophones, the man himself. Everybody just automatically
stopped playing and looked at him, and all he said was, "Hi, guys,"
and turned around and walked out. That was it! "Hi, guys." That
was his contribution to the rehearsal. He bad just come in to check out
the sound of the band, to see what we looked like, and split.
For the November 16 concert all the film
stars were there: Frank’s friends: Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, Kirk Douglas,
you name them, they were all sitting there, row after row. The most outstanding
film stars in the world, all keen to partake in this exciting concert.
The lights went down, and in walked her serene highness Grace Kelly, the
Grace Kelly from High Society and all the great Hitchcock films.
She was a very longtime friend of Frank Sinatra. She came on and began
to tell the story of the time when Frank Sinatra visited the set of Mogambo,
which was being made in West Africa with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner.
She told the story of how, on Christmas Day, Frank came out of the jungle
with a cake and a bottle of champagne, singing White Christmas
to cheer the crew up. He had gone to West Africa to be near to Ava Gardner;
they were having a big romance at the time.
Grace Kelly finished her story, made the
introduction, and there he was. He ran onto the stage pretending to grab
Grace Kelly, the band kicked off with You Make Me Feel So Young,
and we were away!
The atmosphere was building, the band was
building, the excitement that was emanating from the band was just incredible.
After all this, he placed a stool in front of the string section. By sitting
there, he was creating a focus for the strings, and off they went with
I Get Along Without You Very Well. Frank made sure the audience,
even if they were tone deaf, could see the rapport develop between himself
and the violin soloist in this beautiful Gordon Jenkins arrangement.
As the brass section was not involved in
this particular arrangement, it gave me a chance to sit back and take
a good long look at what it was that was creating this Sinatra magic —
certainly, his presence, his charisma, his sense of time and his understanding
and feel for the lyrics.
It was magical — magic of a very high order.
After finishing I Get Along Without You Very Well — such
a slow, beautiful, sad song — it began to build up again, going into Didn't
We and One for my Baby, one of his all–time favourite songs.
He referred to it as a saloon song, and he used the props of a cigarette
in the right hand and a glass of whiskey in the left. I underline the
fact they were props; he might sip the whiskey and light the cigarette,
but purely for theatrical effect. I never saw him drink on the stand.
Never. After this, straight into How I Drink the Wine. By now,
the emotions of the audience, as well as those of the band, were on a
roller–coaster ride. Sinatra was bouncing us like a ball. In fact, by
now our emotions were completely shattered.
After the first concert, we went to the
bar to get ourselves together for the next show. Billy Miller had disappeared
into Frank's room to see if there were going to be any changes in the
routine for the second concert. I managed to get hold of Irv Cottler.
He began to talk about old times. He told me that Billy Miller had joined
Frank in 1951, in the middle of what we would call Sinatra’s bad period,
and he had been with Frank from the lowest to the highest. They were great
Irv proceeded to tell me about an accident
that Billy and his wife had been in. There had been a horrendous mudslide
in Los Angeles. Billy's wife had died, and Billy himself had been very
badly injured and was in hospital for months. During this period Sinatra
would go and visit him quite a lot, and whilst he was there would also
discreetly pick up the medication and hospitalisation bills for Billy,
so that there was no problem. This was astounding to me, and I had certainly
not read it anywhere — another aspect of this already astonishing man
was being revealed to me.
Irv continued, telling me that he had joined
Frank in 1955 from the Tommy Dorsey Band. When Irv had joined the Dorsey
band, he had taken over from the great Buddy Rich. Irv had the opportunity
to chat to Buddy about the band, and Buddy had recalled the time when
Frank was, a young singer with the band, and how they used to wind each
other up and have a go at each other. Buddy couldn't understand why Frank
was such an attraction to the female members of the audience, and he had
also thought that he was just as good a singer as Frank. His way of getting
back at Frank was that every time Frank had a song to sing. Buddy would
play his drums very loud. The upshot of that was that on every break Sinatra
and Buddy would be backstage, belting the hell out of each other.
The interesting thing about this was that
when Buddy, after forming his own band, hit hard times, the first guy
to his rescue was Frank Sinatra. Any time that Buddy got into trouble,
Frank was there for him. Years later, when Buddy had had his big heart
attack and was very low and depressed, convinced that he would never play
again, Sinatra was the guy who turned up at me house and stayed for several
days. He bullied Buddy and made him walk and exercise, not listening to
his depression, literally nagging him back to health. This kind of warmth
and sensitivity, care and love that he would extend to his friends was
something I had never heard of. I became very curious but there was no
more time for talking as we were on for the second show.
We started the second concert without any
introduction, which was his usual way of starting. Nobody to introduce
him; instead he was just there. People chatting away waiting for
the start of the concert glanced up, and the shock of seeing him mere
was always a tremendous effect that he worked very well.
We finished the second show around 2am and
went back into the band room, totally drained, emotionally exhausted.
All because of this one man had on everyone in the orchestra. We had been
through a spectacular experience and it would take us a long time to get
In 1975, I got a call to perform again with
Sinatra. What a call that was! It was to consist of two days rehearsing
in London, then a flight to Monte Carlo for a charity bash for the Red
Cross. Princess Grace was hosting that. Then on to Paris for three nights,
Vienna, Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, and then back to London for a series
of concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, then straight over to Brussels and
Amsterdam. This tour gave me the opportunity to get to know Irv and Billy.
One of the remarkable things about this
tour was the quality of the support we got. You arrived at the airport
at the start of the tour with your instrument and your case, you put in
on the floor and never touched it, apart from concerts, until you came
home. When we arrived at me hotels our bags would be already on the beds
— and in single rooms. Your instrument was on your chair at the concert
hall, waiting for you, and when you were finished, you put it back in
its case and a crew member took it for you. On checking out of the hotels,
the suitcases would be left outside the rooms and a crew member would
sort them out and they would be delivered in another city. This made for
a very classy experience which created so much enjoyment and fun within
the band that working and touring with Sinatra was a ball! I'm sure the
reason for this was that if Sinatra had found out that anyone was unhappy,
he was a big enough man to call the whole thing off. So promoters and
impresarios were constantly on edge to keep everyone happy and to make
sure there was no skimming off the cream anywhere. This created a very
Another thing that the members of the band
noticed during the tour was the respect that Sinatra had for musicians.
There was one peculiar little idiosyncrasy he had. When he would sit at
the bar for a drink he would always keep the chair or stool on his right
vacant, the reason being that his respect for composers or arrangers was
so high that he permanently reserved this space for them. If you were
an impresario and wanted to talk business, then you approached from the
He also made a point, in fact it became
an issue, of naming the composer and arranger on stage when introducing
a song. I have never seen this with any other artist and I have worked
with them all.
Sinatra, unlike normal singers, was very
involved in the process of creating a song. He would choose the arranger.
Guys such as Alex Storville, whom he grew up with in the Dorsey band,
did all his early string arrangements. Then came Gordon Jenkins, Don Costa,
Nelson Riddle, Quincy Jones — few of the finest arrangers who ever lived.
Nelson Riddle once told me that when he was arranging for one of the Sinatra
albums, he would get phone calls from Sinatra at two or three in the morning
with some brilliant idea for an introduction. He was totally involved
all the way along!
On November 20, we were back in the London
Palladium. This was to be followed by a trip to Iran to play for the Shah
at his palace, and one other concert that we didn't know about.
By now, Sinatra was using mostly American musicians apart from British
musician Vic Ash and myself. A message had been sent to the Iran authorities
that visas were required for 56 Americans but it forgot to mention one
Irishman—me! We arrived at the airport after our fantastic flight and
we were going through immigration and passport control. When they saw
my Irish passport they yanked me into a small room. It was very dingy,
and bad a bare electric light bulb, a table and chair. Heavy policemen
were shouting at me in a language I couldn't understand. Meanwhile the
coach, with the orchestra, was waiting outside and couldn't leave with
out me. The policemen wouldn't let me go; they thought I was an Irish
terrorist looking for arms! Eventually, my road manager, who was a big
black guy about 6 foot 6 inches tall, burst into the room and started
to pull me out. They screamed and pointed at me and he started screaming
and pointing at them. The Shah and the palace were mentioned, and we got
on the coach with my passport stamped. Phew!
The gig at the palace was amazing; the room
was all set in deep blue and gold, with stars on the ceiling. It was the
most sumptuous place I have ever seen. We had a small audience including
the Shah and his wife. It was very charming and elegant. The next day
was for the second gig which we didn't know much about. We got in the
coach and drove for about 20 miles out into the middle of the desert where
there was. a huge sports building, with indoor race track and all mod
cons, seating about 24,000. A huge stage was built in the middle so that
Frank could move around and work all four sides of the hall. The orchestra
was in the centre like a boxing ring. It was strange to see such a different
culture going wild and showing so much appreciation for the music, and
what we were doing.
In Jerusalem, I joined Irv Cottler in the
bar. I asked him about the tour. Where was the rock 'n' roll ' life style?
The drugs, drink and broads? I had seen nothing outrageous, nothing untoward.
Irv told me that Frank was totally against that kind of thing. He told
me a story of a close friend of' Sinatra who was experimenting with drugs.
Sinatra had sent one of his closest friends, Jilly Rizzo, to deliver a
message saying unless he stopped taking cocaine he could no longer call
Frank Sinatra his friend. Sure enough, his friend stopped his flirtation
with cocaine because his friendship with Sinatra meant so much.
I spoke a lot to Irv about the stories in
the papers about the Mafia and gangster connections that Sinatra had.
Irv told me these were quite untrue. However, all the rumours created
a mystique which helped build the image. Sinatra was intelligent, and
quite capable of using this to his advantage. In a 20 year span of working
with him, I never saw anything untoward.
An amusing incident occurred in Israel.
Some of the guys were in the bar having a drink. We had all just got up
to go to bed when the waiter asked who was signing the tab. One of the
guys. Butch, said he would. He signed it 'Frank Sinatra'. The next day
the cashier picked up the tab and began to add it up. The story got around
as to what an incredible man Frank Sinatra was, as in the space of one
night he had managed to drink 12 double whiskeys, six large vodkas, bottles
of wine, three martinis and 28 bottles of beer. To the relief and pleasure
of the band, he found the whole thing very funny and coughed up.
Not long after, we heard he had got married
again, to Barbara Marx, the ex-wife of Groucho Marx. The next time we
were to see him was in 1977, on February 28, at the Albert Hall, fast
becoming known as me Francis Albert Sinatra Hall!
In September 1979, we went to Cairo, and
a fantastic concert was held on the sands for President and Madame Sadat.
We had some concerts over the next few years, then he was scheduled to
appear in 1988 in a concert entitled The Summit with Sammy Davis
Junior and Dean Martin. In the end. Dean Martin was replaced by. Liza
Minnelli. Sinatra came again to Europe to do a tour in 1989. In the meantime,
I was in Monte Carlo with a anger called Pia Zadora, a young girl who
had married a billionaire. He paid for myself, and Jack Parnell on drums,
to augment the Nice Symphony Orchestra. I finished the rehearsal and went
backstage and who did I find there but Jilly Rizzo, Frank's closest friend.
It was the perfect opportunity to talk to him and ask questions about
the Mafia rumours and Frank.
I also asked Jilly about the charities Sinatra
supported. Apart from the thousands of benefits he supported, there were
lots of unknown acts of kindness. In the early days he had a passion to
go to rundown towns like Hoboken (his place of birth) and listen to the
stories of the poor people. He gave them envelopes of money to help pay
the bills. He also was kind to colleagues who had hit bad times, like
the earlier story of Buddy Rich. This was a human part of his life that
people didn't know about.
There will never be another one like him.
I don't care what modern artists bring to their art — he was a one–off,
just like Louis Armstrong, but that's another story!
Copyright © 2001 Bobby Lamb