Working with Frank Sinatra
Talking to Jimmy Staples in 1971
Working with Frank Sinatra was one of my greatest pleasures. I must say he looked tremendously fit, and throughout the rehearsals and both of the shows he struck me as being very, very alert.With it, indeed! He was the height of efficiency—he knew exactly what he wanted. With regard to light and shade, in fact, he took tremendous pains. Tempos, things like that, he was very, very keen to get absolutely right.
He was very charming. Not gushing—he didn’t say it was the best band he’d ever had and he wanted to take us all to America—nothing like that, but he was very gentlemanly. All the boys were knocked out; in fact there were a lot of people—particularly some of the guys who can be a bit blasé, such as some of the fiddle players, who are doing this sort of stuff all the time—who were evidently moved by him, by something he has. I’d never seen them react like that before. On some numbers, those he wants to make more sure of, he sings all the time and full voice. On things he’s not so concerned about, he sort of lets go, having made certain that the feel is all right. Some of the time, he sang absolutely as in actual performance.
He’s a very quick worker. When he tries an arrangement, if it’s going all right for playing and he’s happy about it he’ll go through it very quickly; probably not returning to it. If there’s any trouble with anything, if he’s not very sure about something himself, if the band is not just as he wants it, he’ll spend time. He is definitely not a timewaster, though, and I noticed he would spend time on some things which did need a little more interpretation by the band. Where he had phrases on which he wasn’t satisfied with his singing, he’d go over that, maybe, several times. He would sing by himself, also. I saw him singing one or two nasty intervals where it dropped right down, and he was working on it just as a musician would play it.
He also conducted quite a bit on the first rehearsal he came to. We had, in fact, already had a previous rehearsal, where we’d gone through the parts. He wasn’t even in the country then. His MD, Bill Miller, had taken us through the entire programme in a three hour rehearsal, and we’d finished about twenty minutes early. There’d been no problems; things had been cleaned up. Bill Miller is excellent; he knows exactly what he wants. He doesn’t waste any words going over unnecessary things. Everything seems to be relaxed, clear–cut and with the minimum amount of effort.
By the end of the first rehearsal, I think he was well satisfied with the band. This was on the Friday afternoon On the Sunday we were scheduled to rehearse morning and afternoon,. but he said to Harold Davison: “I think we can skip the call on Sunday morning completely.” Which we did. In the afternoon we had to rehearse upstairs in the Festival Hall, because there was a concert already going on.
We’d been doing some other things there with Bob Hope for half–an–hour, when I suddenly saw Sinatra talking to Ronnie Chamberlain in the saxophone section By this time all the arrangements were being played okay. So he started his rehearsal, and we’d only been playing for a little while when he stopped things with some “Let’s do this” and “Let’s do that”, waving his hands here and there. But this was not done obtrusively in front of Bill Miller.
There’s a good rapport between Frank and Bill Miller; a know–how between them.
It was a funny thing. The band was playing fine, but suddenly the whole thing came to life, and there was a magic about it. Then he started conducting on the first ballad, after about four or five beaty things As soon as it started, he sort of stepped in and took over with this conducting business. And he is tremendous; he’s a fine conductor.
Things like tenutos—milking them. Waiting to come in again and holding the band on. He’s absolute perfection. He made the orchestra sound like a different ensemble. This really is something magical.
One thing that struck a lot of us was: here is a man who has served a complete apprenticeship as a band singer; he has that tremendous know–how. I can give you a little instance. We started one ballad with just a normal four–bar intro, all quite nice, and immediately he stopped the band ‘and said: “Fellows, there’s no musical sound. Come on—it’s just a sound. Let’s made it musical”. To Arthur Watts on bass: “Will you vibrate a little more on that note”, and boom—it was a different sound from the bass.
How do you do that? Conductors and musicians with a lot of knowledge could tell you how. But after these few words from him, when we did it again it sounded differently. I’m not the only one that thought this, I can assure you. Some of the guys who don’t usually say very much about anything were absolutely knocked out.
The arrangements as you will know, were a lot of Nelson Riddle’s, quite a lot of Gordon Jenkins’, some by Bill Byers. We had a stomper, an arrangement of “Foggy Day”, which was done by Bill Byers. I always remember this, because as soon as it was counted in by Bill Miller the thing played itself. You could not put a foot wrong in that arrangement. And every time we played it, it just went like that. Everything on this chart was marked exactly how it was; you only had to do as you were told and you couldn’t go wrong.
As I said before, Sinatra didn’t say anything about how wonderful the band was; he didn’t say anything at all. But on the show, as maybe some of you saw on television, he turned round and applauded the band. It was a real joy to play.
He showed great interest in anyone who had a solo passage. I had a bit in an old arrangement of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, and Roy Willox played some beautiful flute in the intro of one of these things. Frank Sinatra on the rehearsal was sort of milking this and he wouldn’t come in until Roy had really finished. I think I’m right in saying that Roy played the same sort of phrase in the coda and I remember distinctly that on the show Sinatra looked right at him, and drew everybody’s attention off himself and on to Roy. He had a knack of doing this.
Someone who completely knocked him out, apparently, was the lead fiddle, Henry Daytner. By the way, all the parts were beautifully copied, with just a few pencil marks on them, done when they’d been recorded. Even they were neat.
This is why it didn’t take long to rehearse. They’re not terribly hard arrangements to play, but they do need quite a lot of concentration. But if you do just as the part says you can’t go wrong.
The lack of amount of notes strikes you. The parts are not cluttered up with unnecessary material.
Irv Cottler was excellent on drums, with Kenny Clare standing in the wings biting his fingers. He had to be there, you see; he played the first half of the show. But they got on very well.
Frank was also very keen on phrasing and dynamics. Sometimes he wanted it loud. He got on to the trombones in a couple of things; he couldn’t get it loud enough. He wanted it louder and louder and louder! Many times he’d want things in an absolute whisper. He was very keen on intros setting the mood.
Whatever mood it was going to be in, he wanted it set in the intro. He spent a lot of time doing this. Painting the picture before he came in.
He had flown, I believe, straight to the hall by helicopter. He arrived with an entourage of four or five other people; he immediately leaves them, takes his coat off and goes with the musicians. At coffee break he chats with the musicians.
He seems very much at home with musicians. He wasn’t the life and soul of the party—“ I’m Frank Sinatra”—it wasn’t that at all. He was just another guy there doing a job.
To me he seems an extremely human guy. During the rehearsals you’d find yourself looking at him; on two or three occasions he looks at a guy and he smiles, and the whole world opens up. He’s got such a tremendous smile.
He definitely has a jazz feel. Very inclined towards jazz things. We were playing one thing and he turned round and said: “A tin mute trumpet would fill in there”. It wasn’t cued or anything; he pointed there, and there again. And that was in on the show. It wanted just that little something there. The same with the tempos, particularly anything beaty. There’s a jazz feel with it.
The televised concert was the second; there was a tremendous atmosphere. But the atmosphere in the first concert—where the more ordinary people, shall we say, were—was the atmosphere. When we went on the stand for his spot the atmosphere was absolutely electrifying. I saw guys so nervous it wasn’t true—it was tremendous. The whole place was sort of bristling.
By the second show, some of that had gone; it was all a little bit more free and easy. On the second show, as far as we could look out into the stalls, there was a sea of famous faces, all sorts of people in every well–known walk of life. In the first show, the audience were ordinary people, and I venture to say that he went down better in the first show than in the second. As good as the televised show was, the atmosphere was never fully captured.
Princess Grace was very nice too—a charming person. When she made the speech about Frank Sinatra, Kenny Clare was in the wings beside Frank. Sinatra didn’t know what she was going to say in the first show, and he got really choked at the nice things she was saying about him. Kenny said he was getting all choked up.
Frank didn’t say the band was tremendous; he just made this little speech on the second show. For my money that was enough because I think it was sincere.
Incidentally, on his first string number, a beautiful arrangement by Nelson Riddle he captivated everybody in the band. I remember Bobby Lamb saying to me, “Every time he does it, he chokes me—I can’t see the part for tears.” I don’t know how Frank Sinatra does that, but to me it’s just magical.