Frank Sinatra Down Under see Sydney Morning Herald 5 Dec 2015
The centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth on December 12 is a time of recollection of his Australian connection: seven tours across 36 years, and enough broads, brawling and brilliance to guarantee posterity. Neil McMahon traces the history of Sinatra Down Under through the eyes of those who were there.
“We’ve been having a marvellous time being chased around the country for three days. I don’t care what you think about anybody, any press in the world – I say they’re bums … every one of them.” – Frank Sinatra, July 1974.
All or nothing at all. There was rarely any in-between with Frank Sinatra and it was all there on stage that night in Melbourne, being perhaps the most Sinatra-like he would ever be, anywhere. Charming and churlish, scandalous in the moment and triumphant in the musical memory: knocking heads, calling journos hookers and bums, singing like a dream. It started something – our greatest showbiz scandal, no less – and looked like the end of something, too: the end of the road for Sinatra and Australia.
The fans were aghast. Ken Wolfe, a Frank loyalist since age 15 in 1943 when he first heard him on the radio, was in the audience. “After that,” says Wolfe, now 87, “I didn’t think we’d ever see him again.” A young Tom Burlinson, later to find post-Man from Snowy River success as a Frank-approved Sinatra vocal clone, was at the follow-up show in Sydney. “Well, what a lovely bunch of coconuts we have this week,” Sinatra said, a very Sinatra way of describing the ballyhoo that followed his “hookers” and “bums” remarks. The unions grounded him – in his hotel, at the airport – until he apologised. He refused, but a peace brokered by Bob Hawke allowed him to get home. “He swore he’d never come back,” Burlinson recalls.
Frank Sinatra. Photo: Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection
But he did, eventually. That famous fight was not the furious last goodbye. Indeed, it marked only the mid-point of an affair that had almost 20 years to run before it ended – in tears, of course. This was in keeping with the man. His love life was often impetuous, his furies impulsive, his messy adventures incongruous for a man emblematic of musical elegance. He made a career and a legend of it. So it was with Sinatra and Australia.
Local Sinatra oracle Paul Jennings, the comedian who in his spare time travelled the world watching Sinatra sing – 21 shows in all – says: “He just loved Australia, and the people, because they come out of themselves: ‘Good on you, Frank.’ ‘Hey Frankie, how ’bout singing Chicago?’ He loved the Australian people.”
The people loved him back.
- Frank Sinatra arrives in Sydney with his daughter Nancy in January 1955. Photo: K. Redshaw
Ken Wolfe was an Australian rules umpire when he first saw Sinatra sing in 1955: “I can remember this bloke with a funny name, and when he sings all the girls go crazy.” Promoter Michael Chugg fell under his spell as a tyke in Tasmania, “when I was a couple of years old, I reckon”. Forty years later, Chugg would bring his hero out on his penultimate tour.
For Tom Burlinson, it began as a child, enchanted by the fellow pictured on his mother’s albums: “The man in the hat.” Decades later, Burlinson wrote a song called just that, a fan’s tribute that revealed a singing voice so eerie in its echo of the Sinatra tone that a teary Tina Sinatra hired Burlinson to re-create her father’s early hits for a TV mini-series.
The common thread: Sinatra is for life. Another common refrain: to note the influence he had beyond the affection he inspired. We can safely take musician Paul Kelly’s word for it as he waxes lyrical about the intensity of the connection. “His singing,” Kelly tells Good Weekend, “is still a deep mystery to me.”
- At Melbourne airport, 1955. Photo: George Lipman
A deep mystery. With that, Kelly perhaps explains the loyalty of the bond and the endurance of our fascination – that even after all these years, we’re still trying to work Sinatra out. God knows, we spent enough time trying.
01|55: THE FIRST DATE
“Hello, and welcome to Melbourne, Frank Sinatra.”
In the limo in Sydney, 1961.
“Thank you, and I’m very happy to be here.”
Bob Horsfall can add this to the many feathers in his cap: the media man who did the first and possibly last relaxed and civil interview with Frank Sinatra in Australia. His first question: “Were your parents musical?” Sinatra: “Actually, no.” A pioneering showbiz reporter for Melbourne radio, Horsfall cottoned on quickly: if you asked Sinatra about the work rather than, say, the wives, he was putty in your hands. “He was bloody great. He was like we are now, just chatting. But keep away from asking a question about himself, he didn’t like it. But we talked about music all the time.”
For Horsfall, and many others, it was thrilling. This was Robert Menzies’ Australia: dull, isolated, insecure. Ken Wolfe recalls, “It was incredible just that he was here. In those days, nobody like that came.”
- Ava Gardner in On the Beach.
Sinatra was then 39, in fine form on stage and friendly form off it. “We were great mates from the start,” says Horsfall, whose musical rapport had roots in his own talents as founder of the band the Tune Twisters, who would tour and play with Sinatra on his third tour, six years later. But in 1955, it was enough to meet and greet and see the man live. Ken Wolfe was at the first concert, too: West Melbourne Stadium, January 17, 1955. “Amazing. Frank Sinatra, here. He was like a god appearing before us. Just magnificent.”
04|59: AVA GARDNER AND THE GREATEST SHOW OF ALL
“He walked me to the door and he kissed me on the cheek and when the press asked … I answered truthfully: that he kissed me goodnight. Boy, that was a mistake. It was, ‘Sinatra loves an Australian girl better than he loves Ava Gardner.’ I was 18. I was like, ‘What?’ Knocked off my feet.” – Diana Trask
- Frank Sinatra with Bob Horsfall in 1955. Photo: Courtesy of Bob Horsfall
Trask was the world’s least likely Sinatra siren.
A Melbourne-raised, convent-educated 18-year-old trying to launch a singing career, she was hired as a support act for Sinatra’s 1959 tour. And what a tour it was. For Trask, it was the turning point that set her on the path to international fame. For Sinatra, it was the best of times, and sometimes the worst. The purists reckon his April 1 show in Melbourne was perhaps the best he did – anywhere, ever. But the papers were concerned only about Ava.
Frank’s former wife but renewed paramour, screen goddess Gardner was filming On the Beach in Melbourne. It was no coincidence Sinatra was in Australia, too. He had booked dates for his second tour to keep her company off set.
The many legends attached to that visit could fill a book – and indeed have. The one that will never die: that Gardner called Melbourne a perfect place to make a film about the end of the world. She never said it (years later, film critic Neil Jillett confessed he’d made it up, though he insisted she surely felt something like it.) To many, and to the media, there were signs all was not well with the lovers. Bob Horsfall, by then a budding actor, was an On the Beach extra. “I think she was pissed a lot,” he says.
Diana Trask tells Good Weekend she sensed the demons that haunted Sinatra all his life were very present on that tour. “I know he was very depressed and he and Mr Jack Daniels knew each other quite well at that time. For me, it seemed he just wanted to submerge himself in his work. I dunno what pain he’d been through – but it helped the songs.”
In her memoirs, Gardner denied they were at war in Melbourne, but her front-row presence at his first concert seemed to fuel both sides of the story. He certainly didn’t sound low, romping through the show that has become part of Sinatra lore. Among the classics: The Lady Is a Tramp. Did he look Ava in the eye and sing a stinging version straight to her? Paul Jennings, at his first Sinatra show, says: “There’s a lot of stories that she got up and walked out. That’s wrong. I waited outside the front door to greet him on the way out. I said, ‘Good on you, Frank.’ He said, ‘Thank you’. At least I could always say that I talked with Frank Sinatra.”
Jennings watched as he got into the car for the short drive to Brunswick. Ava had gone ahead and was waiting for him at Mario’s restaurant. It was a Sinatra tour tradition – after good shows and bad, broken heart or no, a plate of spaghetti.
Frank Sinatra wouldn’t set foot in Melbourne again for 15 years.
12|61: CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD
“I got the world on a string. Sitting on a rainbow. Got the string around my finger.” – Frank Sinatra, Sydney Stadium.
- Frank Sinatra arrives in Sydney for his 1961 tour.
If ever there was a time to kick off with I’ve Got the World on a String, it was at the end of 1961 – a very good year indeed for Frank Sinatra, who arrived in Sydney in the final week of Robert Menzies’ fight to retain the Lodge. Menzies won by a single seat, entering his 13th year as prime minister, but it was a close call deciding who was the most powerful man in Australia that December. This was the Sinatra of political as well as musical history books.
He’d begun the year on a far more glamorous stage, taking his place at the seat of world power as organiser of JFK’s inauguration gala in January. No surprise, then, that when Sinatra founded his own record label, Reprise, a month later, the “Chairman of the Board” nickname stuck – for good.
But in Sydney there were no Chairman of the Board antics, just four stellar shows and the thrill of a lifetime for the young players in Bob Horsfall’s Tune Twisters. To this day, Horsfall struggles to reconcile the temper-prone Sinatra of legend with the man who took “the kids” under his wing.
“He was extremely good with the kids – he always called us the kids because we started so bloody young,” Horsfall recalls. “He said, ‘What are the kids doing after the show?’ And I said, ‘Back to the hotel, I s’pose.’ He said, ‘No you won’t. There’s a party back in Double Bay.’ So we went. He walks across the dance floor, sits down with us and stays with us all night.”
There was no Ava this time, just the most powerful entertainer in the world swapping the White House for the back booth at a Sydney nightclub. “He was killing them that tour. They were calling out, ‘Encore, encore’. He walks past me, and he says, ‘Bobby, it’s sure great when you win.’ ”
07|74: THE SIEGE OF SINATRA
“The car was new, it was Italian, it was a super car. I had special plates made: FS. Mr Sinatra saw the car and he and Barbara got in the back seat and I drove off to Festival Hall. That’s when the fun started.” – Frank Sinatra’s Melbourne driver, Tony Stephens.
- Sinatra on his way to rehearsal at Melbourne’s Festival Hall on the ill-fated 1974 tour. Photo: Geoff Ampt
Stephens is rolling his eyes when he calls it fun. “The disaster” is his preferred way to describe the storm the morning after Sinatra’s on-stage attack on the press, including the most notorious line: “The women who work in the press are the hookers of the press. I might offer them a buck and a half, I’m not sure.”
BOOM. Well, boom went the Biros of the reporters covering the concert, anyway. They’d been literally on his heels all afternoon, with raw TV footage, since salvaged and posted on YouTube, showing obnoxious harassment. Stephens, driving the car being chased in that vision, was appalled – and the first witness to Sinatra’s simmering anger. “What the hell is going on here?” the singer barked from the back seat. Stephens planted his foot, surviving the dicey drive to Festival Hall only to find there was no plan to get Sinatra safely inside.
“The press scrum was there big time and there was absolutely no security, not one person – no wonder the man was frustrated,” Stephens recalls. Cameras captured the agitated superstar scurrying to find a stage door, a TV reporter in pursuit: “Can we speak to you, Mr Sinatra.”
Sinatra: “No, ma’am.”
If only he’d left it at “No, ma’am”. Instead, still furious on stage that night, he used “hookers”. In the crowd, reporter Rex Lopez got it all down and filed for The Sun News-Pictorial. “SINATRA ON THE ATTACK,” the paper declared. Everyone was stunned – even people who’d been right there on stage the night before. Sinatra’s Australian trombonist Ed Wilson heard Sinatra say it, but as he tells Good Weekend: “We never went, ‘Aw, gee, what’s he done?’ It was just a throwaway line. We never thought anything of it till the next day, when the shit hit the fan.”
Paul Jennings was in the audience. “Everyone laughed. Then all hell broke loose.”
There is much to savour in all that happened next: union leaders primly demanding an apology to “Australian womanhood”; Bob Hawke, at that time the head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, urging another of history’s greatest egos that humility was in order; Sinatra managing to escape Melbourne, only to find the siege had moved to Sydney, where his concerts were cancelled; John Pond, the marketing boss at Sydney’s Boulevard Hotel, going to the very top for help to get his guest out of the country. But Gough Whitlam didn’t want a bar of it. “Gough said, ‘John, there’s not much I can do. There’s really only one man who can help you and that’s Bob Hawke.'”
So Hawke came, cajoled and emerged the conciliating hero. Sinatra didn’t actually say sorry; “regret” was as much as his lawyer would allow. As a gesture, however, he did a Sydney concert for those fans who’d missed out. And then he was gone.
“A funny thing happened in Australia,” he later told an audience in New York. “I made a mistake and got off the plane.”
That, it appeared, was that.
01|88: THE WHITE-SHOE SHOW, GOLD COAST
“I had been Sinatra’s No. 1 fan almost my entire life. If he actually turned up, and the press was already predicting that he wouldn’t, I might get a few words out of him. He hadn’t said anything to anybody for so long that if he told me to go away it would count as a scoop.” – Clive James.
James got his scoop, and Australia got Frank back. And my, how we carried on. The media, on Sinatra Watch before he arrived, fed the theory that after his last disgrace, he might not show. And if he did, why was he coming like this: paid $1 million by controversial property developer Mike Gore, he of the white-shoe brigade and much else that was tacky about the 1980s, to sing at the opening of Sanctuary Cove? The media fretted over an apology for 1974. They didn’t get it. He flew in, sang for an hour, and left again, though he did spare five minutes for James, who wrote in his memoirs, “It would have been easier to approach Colonel Gaddafi.”
The two men sat cheek-by-jowl in the dressing room, and James opened by dissing the local press on Frank’s behalf. “I don’t see why you should forgive and forget,” James advised. Sinatra: “Oh, I don’t know. I think, 24 hours later it’s all over. It’s just gone in 24 hours.” Wisely, James left it at that and moved on to music: “Do you still love to sing?” Sinatra was happily off and running. As Bob Horsfall had learnt 30 years earlier, that was the way to get Frank talking: stick to the work and he was a pussycat.
03|89: FRANK, LIZA AND SAMMY
“Who knows what Frank liked in the end. But you don’t come back that many times if you don’t like the place” – concert promoter Michael Chugg.
- Sinatra on stage in Sydney with Sammy Davis jnr and Liza Minnelli. Photo: Getty Images
Modesty was pointless by this time in Sinatra’s life, and with Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis jnr on the same bill, the name of this tour – The Ultimate Event – was not entirely out of place. The highest-priced tickets in Australian concert history added lustre to the occasion; Chugg realised he could have charged $1000 for front-row seats and still sold out. So far, so good. And Chugg was determined to have a scandal-free tour, code for “Remember 1974”. “A C-grade promoter f…ed that up,” says Chugg.
That 1989 was going to be very different was clear on the night Sinatra landed in Sydney, when – as with a visiting monarch – traffic had been stopped and the lights cleared for a non-stop drive to the InterContinental Hotel, accompanied by two police outriders. “I’d never seen that before,” says Chugg.
Australia was a more worldly place. We’d grown up. And Sinatra? He was, effortlessly, still Sinatra. “Grumpy old prick,” was Chugg’s assessment in his memoirs, but he is kinder today. “Sure he was grumpy, but he delivered – that’s for sure.” The one near-disaster was a Sinatra explosion over a review handing stage honours to Davis: “Sammy steals the show”. Miffed, Frank threatened to quit the tour. Chugg told Sinatra to go to bed – there were no planes at that late hour anyway. It had blown over by morning, and the tour continued.
Other Chugg memories are sweeter. When Barbara, Sinatra’s fourth wife, wanted to see a kangaroo, she didn’t go to the zoo; the kangaroo came to the hotel. Zoos were for mortals and Sinatra lived on some other plane by then – except on stage, where he sometimes looked all too human, with both his voice and memory showing wear.
On stage, Minnelli and Davis treated him with a blend of deference and hints of concern. If he lost his way, they were going to save him. You felt they, like the crowd, were willing him to keep the fire burning just a little longer. He did. Chugg had his triumph, courtesy of his childhood musical hero. Nothing before or since compares. “It was once in a lifetime,” he says. “The only other performers who would mean as much would be Elvis and the Beatles.”
It’s a handy comparison. Elvis never set foot here, the Beatles just once. As he approached 74, Sinatra had done it six times, a remarkable Australian record for a singer of his stature and era. But was it the end?
No, but it was near. He came back for one final curtain.
“Sinatra came along as I became more aware of my singing, trying to get better at it. It struck me that anyone wanting to get serious about their singing needs to study him.” – Paul Kelly.
- The final concert at Melbourne’s National Tennis Centre. Photo: Neil Newitt
The final Australian show was in Melbourne on March 6, 1991. It was declared an occasion, his band joined by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with his son, Frank jnr, conducting. The ABC broadcast it as The Final Concert. The performance only confirmed that this was wise.
Trevor Jones was playing in the MSO that night. A fan, he was awestruck. “You could tell he was ailing. But the artistry was there – all his classic phrasing and breath control and all of those amazing skills. There was an aura about him that was quite overpowering.”
He opened with I’ve Got the World on a String and closed, inevitably, with My Way: “Regrets, I’ve had a few.” He sure had, some of them right here, but none of it mattered by then. The fans – by now spanning three or four generations – had come for the moment. Sinatra could have come out and read the phone book. He did his best with what he had, basked in the applause, and took his leave. Strolling off, no need for encores, he was gone, an old master departing stage right, fading from sight like a dimming light.
And that was definitely that. He died seven years later, at 82, as mysterious and confounding in death as he was in life. To repeat Paul Kelly: “His singing is still a deep mystery to me.” Kelly has listened to a lot of Sinatra, trying to work it out. “He sings with a beautiful, long, relaxed breath, influenced by what instruments – strings and horns – do. But at the same time he manages to sound like he’s talking to you. Though every word is precisely articulated, he still sounds conversational. As if it’s only you he’s talking to. It’s this combination of great technical artistry with plain speaking that’s so powerful. His singing sounds so effortless. But try singing like him and you realise how hard it is.”
Hard it is, turning storytelling into an art form. And hard it is, making art from your life to tell your own story, but Sinatra did that, too, taking the world along for the ride. In Australia, we were luckier than most. We saw him turning the pages right in front of our eyes, had an ear to the tale until the very last chapter.
On his 100th birthday on December 12, many will raise a glass to those memories. A toast: thanks for coming, Chairman, and cheers on the ton.