by , For the Inquirer
May 3, 2018
No, Frank Sinatra never commissioned Kander and Ebb to “start spreading the news” or paid Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen to write a musical homage to our kind of ring-a-ding rocking town.
But listening to the first authorized concert recording of Sinatra captured locally at the Spectrum — part of the three-show package dubbed Standing Room Only (Universal Music www.sinatra.com) — it’s clear that Philadelphians held a special place in the pop icon’s heart. Back atcha, fella. On Oct. 7, 1974, the collective South Philly crowd cheered for his overtured entry so intensely, “we physically felt it, the sonic pressure pushing us back like a strong headwind,” remembers Sid Mark, the veteran — 61 years! — host of Sinatra radio shows (now Sunday morning/mid-day on WPHT 1210-AM), who walked Frank up the ramp to the Spectrum stage that evening.
And that roar wouldn’t quit. You’ll then hear Frank’s lavish 40-piece orchestra — Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd — vamping through the opening intro to “Tramp” (a.k.a. “The Lady is a Tramp”) a crazy six times over. Finally, the singer finds an opening to jump in with his swinging homage to that free-spirited scamp who never “dishes the dirt” or “bothers with people she hates.”
That was just for starters. The level of excitement and fevered response is equally palpable and unprecedented around Sinatra performances of the jazzy, finger-snapping “My Kind of Town” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Even more so when he takes on grand ballads that show off his pop-operatic flair. Like on the “not heard much” anymore “Ol’ Man River” and almost as demanding “Send in the Clowns.” It all underscored that the artist, then 58, hadn’t lost of speck of his skill set or his empathy for the downtrodden and brokenhearted.
Several times over, Sinatra pauses to remark about “the great love in the room” and declares, “This is the most fantastic welcome. We’ve been playing other towns and I can tell you, with all due respect, they’re marvelous in other towns, but they’re like a cookie sale. When you holler, you really holler here. I’m telling you something … [they’re] nothing like this.” And while Sinatra is often exuding the brash and mercurial playboy persona who has all the answers — slamming the press “bums” (Rex Reed, Rona Barrett) and comically squelching a chatterbox — there’s one moment during the Philly date where the veneer breaks, emotion gets the better of him. The man’s on the verge of verklempt.
A fitting tribute timed to the 20th anniversary of his passing at age 82, the Spectrum show release is bookended in this career-arcing package with a swinging, “I’ve just turned 50” 1966 show from Sinatra’s stronghold at the Sands Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas, backed by the walloping Count Basie Big Band, and conducted by Quincy Jones. On the other side, there’s a performance from Dallas in 1987, where The Voice shows weathering but the spirit remains strong. Even ragged notes are turned to dramatic advantage. The only technical/theatrical aids he’s needing are those still dazzling band charts, a serious sound system, and a low-slung teleprompter screen keeping song lyrics in his sights. Yeah, the man was slammed for bringing that cheatin’ TV tool to the stage. Today, virtually every arena artist uses a teleprompter as a security blanket.
But that middle-of-the-package Philly show is really one for the books — for reasons mostly, although not totally, grand. The recording captures Sinatra on the comeback trail with the Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back album and tour, marking his return after a cut-short retirement “to spend time with the family and paint” that “quickly drove the guy nuts,” mused Mark. “He missed the excitement, missed the music.”
And the fan base was now extra hot to fox-trot with the legend in concert. A marketing strategy milked by his national tour producer Jerry Weintraub and manager/attorney Mickey Rudin with a total of three ’74 shows in Philly. The first two in April (21-22) were part of a tour ostensibly benefiting Variety International, an entertainers-founded charity for children (known locally for its summer camp) that had honored Sinatra as its Man of the Year. Then came the Oct. 7 show that was a warm-up (and backup recording date) for “The Main Event,” a televised Madison Square Garden concert that took place six nights later, famously pumped like a championship prize fight by show announcer Howard Cosell.
“I can’t believe we’re back here so soon, but here we are,” Sinatra told the crowd surrounding him with love at that October Spectrum show. That’s the utterance wherein he’s almost losing it. “Frank liked a center stage to get him closer to the crowd,” recalls another longtime local DJ pal, Jerry Blavat. “Plus, in the round, he could pack in more people and sell more ringside seats.”
At the time, this fledgling music critic/reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News believed there was another reason Frank Sinatra had returned here so quickly. Namely, as an apologetic “make-good” date for the devotees who had been first in line to buy tickets to the April shows but oddly wound up with distant seat locations. So maybe that’s why we hear the fans yelling so aggressively on this October night?
First whispered in my ear way back when by agitated principals in the Spectrum organization, the story was that self-proclaimed “friends” of Sinatra — classic tough guys — had shown up at the South Philly arena’s offices and forcefully demanded preferred status to buy the best seats in the house, weeks before the tickets were offered to the public. Not a few dozen ducats, not a few hundred, but several thousand, which they would then resell on the street and through ticket brokers at greatly marked-up prices.
My informants were reluctant to go on the record and name names or affiliations, fearing for their “health.” But their concerns were later verified when tickets went on sale and first-in-line-buyers called me to complain how they’d been stiffed, sold seats 20 rows back. Or worse.
Ever protective of the Sinatra legacy, Mark, 84, still says “I don’t believe that happened.” Blavat, 77, acknowledges “Mickey Rudin held back tickets for Frank’s friends to buy, but 50 or a hundred per show, at the most 500.” As for the thought that Mafia mobsters might have engaged in a major ticket heist, the Geator scoffs, “That’s BS. It was always rumored, but I was with him close to 30 years, and traveled with Junior [now deceased Frank Sinatra Jr.] for much of his life. There were no such people around.”
So then we got in touch with Larry Magid, the seasoned Philly promoter whose Electric Factory Concerts aligned with Weintraub to produce the local Sinatra dates. And he finally spilled the complete story, guarded for 44 years.
“Frankie Flowers [D’Alfonso] — a big-time bookmaker and florist who I casually knew — called and asked for tickets for ‘friends of Frank,’” Magid related. “I said I was willing to sell him four. I think the top price was $12.50. Maybe $15. Then that Saturday he came to my office with this other beefy guy who said he was with the Teamsters. ‘Four tickets won’t do, we want to buy 2,500,’ Frankie told me in a soft ‘good cop’ voice. I told him we couldn’t do this, that it would look bad to the public. And over the years we’d learned that if you say ‘no’ to mobsters when they try to shake you down, they usually back off.”
Not this day. “Suddenly, the other guy threw himself across my desk, grabbed me by the throat, and started squeezing, choking, yelling he’s going to kill me if they don’t get the tickets,” Magid remembers with a bitter laugh. “So now I’m starting to figure out what ‘friends of Frank’ really means. Still, I told them that it wasn’t in my control to sell them that many tickets, as the distribution was under the Spectrum’s control, which is why they then went and paid a ‘social call’ to the Spectrum people and put the scare on them.“
But before blood was spilt, Sinatra’s consigliere Rudin got in on the act. He phoned Magid and repeated the mantra – “‘They’re Frank’s friends, just sell ’em the tickets to the April shows. Whatever they want, he wants.’ So finally, reluctantly, we did,” acknowledges the promoter. “And then, of course, took heat for it from the press and even on radio, surprisingly, from [WFIL DJ] Long John Wade.”
As for the wild exuberance of the crowd at that Oct. 7, 1974, Standing Room Only show, Mark has an alternative and equally plausible explanation. “The day before the concert, on my ‘Sunday with Sinatra’ radio show, I told listeners ‘If you’re going, I want you to be on your feet when the orchestra starts playing. Then I want to hear the loudest ovation ever, even before he sings the first note. Bless ’em, they all came through.”