Sinatra fans who have never had the opportunity to see Ol’ Blue Eyes on stage need not entirely despair; Frank Sinatra: Best of Vegas, a newly released collection of 14 live performances culled from Reprise Records’ 2006 five-disc box set, Sinatra: Vegas, can at least give you a taste of what his club act was like.
The new release features the singer on the Vegas stages of the Sands, Caesar’s Palace, and the Golden Nugget between 1961 and 1987. Unlike studio recordings, these performances have the kind of electricity that only comes from interaction with an audience. Sinatra was not only a great musician; he was a master showman, and it is his showmanship, his power over his audience that comes across most clearly on this CD. Not only do you get some stellar versions of Sinatra favorites, but you get the artist’s give and take with the audience—the wisecracks, the jokes: speaking or singing, this is a man who knows how to work the crowd.
Still it is the music that is the important thing, and this disc has 14 classics. There isn’t a dud in the bunch. Recently I heard an old interview with Wilfred Sheed in which he said that Sinatra was probably the best band singer ever. Given Sheed’s writing on the singer, I would doubt this is hyperbole. Indeed, the music collected here, with its dynamic blend of singer and big band, is surely convincing evidence for Sheed’s assertion.
The set opens with a swinging version of “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else” followed by some nice lyrical improvisation on the standard, “Moonlight in Vermont.” Rogers and Hart’s “The Lady is A Tramp” shows off the singer’s legendary phrasing as well as his playful handling of lyrics. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Fly Me to the Moon” have Sinatra working with the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Quincy Jones and show the how the singer meshes with the distinctive Basie sound. “I Can’t Get Started,” made famous by Bunny Berigan, has some really nice trumpet shadowing by Charles Turner. Interestingly, Sinatra begins with the rarely heard verse. “Without a Song,” usually treated in an inspirational, almost reverential mode, gets a unique swinging arrangement.
There are interesting new arrangements of “Witchcraft” and one of Sinatra’s earliest recordings, “All or Nothing At All” by Nelson Riddle, as well as a really jumping Quincy Jones arrangement of “Pennies From Heaven.” Less well known songs like “Angel Eyes” and “Street of Dreams” show the master’s prowess with the boozy ballad, and he takes the opportunity to do a little schmaltzy emoting. The set ends with a romp through the “Theme From New York, New York.”
Besides interpolated patter before, after, and even during some of the songs, the CD includes an eight-and-a-half-minute monologue. Truth to tell, while this does give the listener the feel of what Sinatra’s Vegas act was like and the rapport he was able to create with his audience, I don’t know but that I wouldn’t rather have had eight and a half more minutes of music. If I’ve got a choice between monologue and, say, “My Way,” give me “My Way” every time. After all it is not for his comedy that the man is revered.
Come to think of it, since this is a selection from a five-disc collection, there must still be a lot of material left over. Might there not be a Frank Sinatra: Best of Vegas (2) or a Son of Frank Sinatra Best of Vegas in the works? I mean, think of all those live performances waiting in the wings. One look at the playlist from that box set, and you can’t help wishing for at least one more dip into the cache: “Don’t Cry Joe,” “Come Fly With Me,” and “For Once in My Life.” Here’s to hoping.