The Rat Pack – at Villa Venice

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Hour long commutes can make mush of my brain. Sports radio helps… if it’s football season. But music often works for me – the tried and true as well as whatever new that I’ve acquired.  But the particular commute I had for several years regularly pushed me to an aggravated, frustrated and tense frame of mind that are the breeding ground for rage.    

Enter Frank Sinatra for a soothing ride.At Villa Venice, Chicago, Live 1962, Vol. 1

Having listened now to much of his recorded output, I find his live recordings to be as entertaining as his studio work, for different reasons.  His studio work was usually splendid (particularly in the Capitol years).  But the live concerts (at least in the 50’s and 60’s when he was at the peak of his celebrity) invoke a nostalgia for an era that I, as a late-era boomer, missed.  His solo concerts include often humorous (if sometimes ill-advised) monologues, usually with a fairly serious interpretation of his music.  However, on stage with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., the live performances take on another tact.  Of these, the “at Villa Venice, Chicago” recording is by far my favorite.

If it stood today, the Villa Venice would likely have pilgrimage value to the Sinatra faithful, just as would the now demolished Sands Hotel in Las Vegas (it’s space now occupied by The Venetian).  In late 1962, the Villa Venice Supper Club had newly reopened after renovations with canals, high trees, a ballroom, fountains, terraces where people could dine and dance, gondolas, a casino, and a revenue stream for Chicago mobster Sam Giancana, a personal friend of Sinatra.  Amongst accounts of difficult finances and/or Sinatra being in Giancana’s debt for working the union vote in favor of JFK, Sinatra was asked to play at the club.  He then invited Martin and Davis, Jr. to appear,  seemingly an offer they couldn’t refuse.  The venue mysteriously burned several years later.  The mafia tones are there if one listens, from Sinatra thanking his “partners” in his new record label (Reprise), Deano singing about singing for free, and Davis, Jr. placating those at a table at whom he poked fun. 

There are a variety of recordings of The Rat Pack, most of which are very similar in content though they vary by location and the members present.  These are best captured on various bootlegs, despite often disappointing audio quality.   The officially released materials tend to cut from just several recordings that were of reasonable quality, this one included. 

While the Villa Venice performance sounds fresh and spontaneous, it remains very similar to other Rat Pack performances.  While the humor plays off a very involved audience, it’s a practiced performance as evidenced by the ability of the orchestra to chime in during and after comedy bits speaks.  Whereas the audience detracts from many rock recordings, they’re part of intimacy here.

Dean Martin is introduced “direct from the bar,” with swoozy interpretations (or hysterical rewrites) to songs for which he was known.  Sinatra then appears and offers an uninspired performance of a disappointing sampling of songs from his catalogue.  Only “When Your Lover Has Gone” getting a fairly serious treatment.  Then, Sammy Davis, Jr. steps in with voice ready to outperform those before him, but the focus on comedy won’t allow for it as the others heckle him from microphones off stage.  Then the three appear together for a very loose comedic blend of insults and severely paraphrased songs.  Amongst all the on-stage drinking and boozy attitudes, Sinatra’s standout performance of “Nancy,” responding to an audience request during the encore, provides ample evidence that it’s all an act.

So, while the music isn’t necessarily compelling artistically, this recording remains fantastic entertainment, in large part due to the unedited entrance to the evening. These two CDs were released unofficially in 1994, and capitalism being what it is, were later released formally but without the majority of the banter.  Whether the artists’ estates are trying to reshape the image of the performers can be debated, as there are ample comments made that might prove somewhat embarrassing in the modern age.  These CDs, illegitimate though they may be, preserve a historical treasure.  

We’re talking about political correctness, folks.  I’m of the generation where this term was first coined and ultimately has come to reign supreme over the conduct of all societal dialogues.  I’m certainly not saying that this is wrong, but it is refreshing to hear two Italians and an African-American Jew offer humor that today would be shunned, even if much of it is at their own expense.

Some of the vernacular of the day just whet the appetite, such as “baby,” “boy,” “broads,” and “Good-o.”

Terms or phrases frequently used include “the boat that brought you over” (at only 1:30 into the set), Dago, Wop (Without a Permit), Jew, “your people” (referring to African Americans – Sinatra was actually instrumental in helping push forward Davis’ ability to perform and stay overnight in “whites only” venues.  Perhaps in respect of their friendship and in keeping with the only redeeming value (anti-racism) Sinatra had revealed to this date, the “N” word is never used). 

Sinatra was known for lashing back at gossip columnists and their photographers, who periodically vilified his public behavior, for which he provided ample opportunities.  Regardless of their immigrant humor or other targets (a fleeting comment by Dean of Cary Grant being gay, for one), only Sinatra’s insults of columnist/"What’s My Line” panelist Dorothy Kilgallen come across as being intentionally mean.

Contrarily, Sinatra raises cautions on two of today’s cultural no-no’s.  The first is introducing a new cigarette, called LM, which he jokingly terms a “long mother.”  The double length filter is noted to help avoid cancer, well before the Surgeon General dictated warnings (1970).  Secondly, he advises everyone to be certain to drive home safely, making that known before everyone would get drunk as the evening progressed.  Go Frank.

I’m sure some would be offended by these CDs, or perhaps entertained by other aspects.  But throughout, I think it’s great entertainment.

The performance is recorded on separate CDs, sold as Vol 1 and Vol 2.  They're out of print, but they can occasionally be found for sale on eBay or from resellers at rather inexpensively.

5 of 5 STARS

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