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Frank Sinatra: The Las Vegas Story, Part I

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Frank Sinatra
Courtesy Wikipedia

Let’s play word association. If I said entertainers and Las Vegas, what combinations come to mind? A lot of them, I’m sure. Liberace, certainly. Siegfried and Roy, of course. Wayne Newton? Sure. You might think of other entertainers, or symbols like the showgirl, the production show, or the Cirque show. But you can’t talk about entertainment in Las Vegas without talking about the Rat Pack. And you can’t talk about the Rat Pack without talking about its leader, Frank Sinatra. December 12th marked the centennial of the birth of the chairman of the board.

He was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. As a little boy, he sang in a tavern for spare change; thus did a career begin. He first had success with a group called the Hoboken Four, which appeared on national radio. He got a job singing with a band led by trumpeter Harry James, later a Las Vegas performer and resident. Then, in 1940, Sinatra joined another big band led by Tommy Dorsey and began having hit records. When Sinatra decided to go solo, he and Dorsey had a big fight, culminating in a lawsuit. The rumor was that mobster Willie Moretti, who was said to be close to Sinatra, convinced Dorsey that he should let the singer go out on his own. The convincing allegedly involved a gun.

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But Sinatra was rocketing to superstardom. His records sold big. He appeared in successful movies, mostly musicals. And then … disaster. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he had vocal trouble. His movies stopped doing well. His records weren’t selling. And his image took a hit when he left his wife, the mother of his three children, for actress Ava Gardner.

But did his career ever come back. He revived his movie career in From Here to Eternity. He campaigned for the role of Maggio and won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. After that, he made several popular films, from the dramatic, like The Manchurian Candidate, to musicals like Guys and Dolls. Columbia Records no longer wanted him, but Capitol Records did. As for his first album, well, a story. The night Sinatra died, the great Dodger broadcaster, Vin Scully, said on the air, you young people may think you know romance. But you don’t know romance until you’ve heard Songs for Young Lovers by Frank Sinatra, with Nelson Riddle conducting. Scully was right, and the combination was a commercial and financial success. There would be many more recordings. By the time he died in 1998, he had recorded sixty-nine albums and had nearly 300 singles, including duets and collaborations with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and several where he conducted the music. He appeared in more than fifty films.

He was a success, but he also was a complicated man. He was controversial. He got into public fights, verbal and physical. He had mood swings, and could also be generous to a fault. He was politically active, first as a Democrat and eventually as a Republican. He believed in civil rights and claimed on a live album to have helped desegregate Las Vegas by helping African American entertainers to stay at the hotels where they performed. Whether he was important on that issue is debatable. What is not debatable is this: he had important connections to Nevada, and played an important role in the state, especially in Las Vegas. We’ll get to that ring-a-ding-ding subject next time.

Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities

KNPR's State of Nevada
Jan 29, 2015

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