He's the gold standard among vocalists, the elusive artistic label for someone who sings the songs of others without creating their own individual material. Back when being a tunesmith was viable creative career path, stylists - often called "crooners" - would dress up the musically mundane with their expert phrasing and perfect pitch. Bing Crosby, Nate King Cole, Dean Martin, and Frankie Lane all made the most of the Great American Songbook, but none could compare to the incomparable Francis Albert "Frank" Sinatra. From his big band days with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey to a formidable '50s and '60s as part of the ballyhooed Vegas Rat Pack, no one could command a composition better than the so-called Chairman of the Board. Beyond his acclaimed acting. Beyond his prickly private persona. Beyond the latter years of hit or miss musicianship, Sinatra was and remains a shiny superstar. Proof of his power exits in a recently released set of concerts from his "comeback" of the '70s and '80s. Really nothing more than TV specials showcasing the man and his music, Frank Sinatra: Around the World may not be the best primer for the unknowing novice. For the true connoisseur, however, there is a lot to love.
Ol' Blue Eyes is Back (1973) - Sinatra "retired" from music in 1971, citing a desire to spend more time with family and favorite leisure pursuits. Less than two years later, his comeback special, similar to the one staged by Elvis in 1968, marked his return. Accompanied by friend and former MGM co-star Gene Kelly, Sinatra sings the standards, introduces a new song from his latest release, and reminisces about his past (and current) career.
Sinatra: The Main Event (1974) - now officially back and bigger than ever, Sinatra goes for full blown showboating with this intriguing "live" event from the fabled Madison Square Garden arena. Infamous sports caster Howard Cosell introduces the concert, even pointing out several celebrities in the audience. Then Sinatra takes the stage and wows the crowd with interesting contemporary choices ("Bad, Bad Leroy Brown"???) as well as signature selections like "My Way."
Sinatra In Concert at Royal Festival Hall (1970) - Before heading off to a temporary retirement, Sinatra performed for an appreciative London audience. Billed has his "final UK concert," he is introduced by Princess Grace of Monaco (another former film co-star) and then moves into a quasi-greatest hits overview, hitting on all the highpoints while reserving some surprises (The Beatles' "Something," a cut from the King and I, "I Have Dreamed") for this proposed last hurrah.
Sinatra in Japan: Live at the Budokan Hall, Tokyo (1985) - by the time of this rare appearance in the famed Japanese arena, Sinatra was fully back as a behemoth box office draw. He literally defined the 'event' tour - the regularly scheduled concert stop over where everything and everyone focused on the icon arriving in their town. It's no different in Tokyo, where the singer brings the house down with his near definitive performance. Not bad for a near 70 year old.
As a result, the concert stage is both the best and worst place to see Sinatra in action. He caters and kowtows to the crowd as much as he plays them like a skilled showman. He panders as he pretends to care - and then he breaks into "One for My Baby" or a stellar reading of "Come Rain or Come Shine" and you don't really care about the smarm. This is the king in his element, exciting and exasperating all at once. Of the four shows presented, Budokan is actually the best. It has the best selection of songs, the best presentation of same, and the best performance by Sinatra. As the liner notes included argue, the singer was particularly keen on delivering a boffo concert for the Japanese listeners and he doesn't disappoint. Again, there are rasps and melodic grasps, but he's one point everywhere else. Similarly, the show in England is another excellent argument for his late '60s sustainability. Sure, the Summer of Love and the whole hippy movement had passed him by - Sinatra was not a fan or fixture of the counterculture - and his retirement seemed like a surrender to a pop chart that had long ago passed him by.
Oddly enough, the two American network shows are the most problematic. Kelly enlivens the Blue Eyes benefit, but Sinatra himself seems tentative and tired. It's almost as if he put so much effort into preparing and rehearsing the show that he forgot to save something for the actual broadcast. He's good - but we expect great. Similarly, the whole Madison Square Garden glorification is a joke. You can almost hear Cosell choking on his words as he tries to turn Sinatra into something akin to a musical Mohammad Ali. With the star-studded crowd (which the cameras just can't stop focusing on) and the desire to the audience to "participate" in the show - check out those old crones dancing like its uptown Saturday night - you get the impression of an insular love it that you, as the lowly viewer, should feel darn lucky to be invited to. Again, the way in which Sinatra shines above all this preposterous pomp and circumstance is amazing. His voice is a bit wonky, but works wonderfully through the material he's selected. If you want a completeist view of his career, get his albums. Frank Sinatra: Around the World is a concert experience for the converted, not the confused.