Reading Paul Shaffer’s very entertaining memoir got me thinking about Las Vegas. I knew that David Letterman’s bandleader was a Rat-Packy kind of guy, but I always assumed his Fifties-hip stance was dripping with irony, like the rest of Letterman’s show. Not so. Shaffer genuinely loves the Pack, and plotzed, for real, when his friend Richard Belzer introduced him to Jerry Lewis. But Shaffer’s opus managed to make me recall the two most overwhelming live concert performances of my life. Neither was in Vegas, but they were both of Vegas.
In early July 1975, my sainted grandmother called me up in Georgia to say that an uncle couldn’t use his pair of Elvis tickets: would I like to fly back to Norfolk, Virginia and use them with her? Umm, I’d borrow the money! And so it was on July 20, just six years after Neil Armstrong planted feet on the moon, that I was sitting in the Norfolk Scope arena with my gramma, waiting for the King to arrive. Little did I know that fifteen years later, I’d be waiting in Radio City Music Hall for the guy Elvis had supplanted as pop music’s biggest star, but there I was, and coming out on the stage was the Chairman!
In the Scope, we beheld Vegas-style showmanship. The first hour was taken up with minor acts, each one bannered on the PA as “the star of our show!” We caught on after about thirty minutes, and it was still :30 to go before the last comic, or lounge singer, left the stage. An unusually long set-change made the murmurs increase in volume. Then the arena lights went black. The PA blared “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the Strauss piece which had become famous as the theme for “2001.” A sudden pinspot. Without introduction beyond the bombastic theme, Elvis walked onto the stage as it reached its cymbal-crashing climax. And the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, or whatever the hell happens to you when all the oxygen in an arena is instantly sucked toward an idol. Use whatever metaphor you wish: I was bloody riveted.
“Presley” was long behind him. He was just “Elvis” now, dressed in full Vegas garb. He walked from one edge of the stage to the other, then back, and he did this again and again. We were sitting at about his eight o’clock, slightly behind him, so we got a peek at his point of view. What he saw was thousands of flashes from the audience’s cameras, a maniacal fireworks display that never waned during his entire set. The din of whoops and shrieks was the second loudest thing I’ve ever heard. (When Jimi Hendrix, at the end of a 1968 Baton Rouge show, turned his Sunn amps up so far that you could hear air brush against the strings, then threw his guitar up as high as he could and walked offstage while it crashed down again, we were still hearing the resulting thunderous reverb in the car on the way home. That would be the loudest thing I’ve ever heard.)
It took Elvis about ten minutes to soak up the adulation and approach the microphone. I was on my feet and didn’t even remember standing. A roadie handed him an acoustic guitar, which he slung around his neck and used for exactly one tune. Then, in one of those whirligig faux-karate moves, he tossed it behind him without looking – and the roadie was right there to catch it. Now it was just Elvis, his hips, and the mike. Sweaty scarves flew into the audience whenever he got the chance. The crowd was Elvis’s personal possession.
The rest of the show was just as tightly rehearsed and choreographed, but that steely preparation slightly embarrassed the King at one point. In January, he’d released the album PROMISED LAND, featuring an energetic cover of the Chuck Berry title tune. But the single had fallen off the charts months before, and Elvis and his orchestra hadn’t included it in this traveling show. Now, the first line of the song goes: “Left my home in Norfolk, Virginia…” So during the infrequent lulls between songs, the audience kept screaming for “Promised Land.” Cute song, Elvis must have thought, but what’s all this? A little later, his conductor whispered in his ear, and it sunk in. Goodness gracious, we’re in Norfolk, Virginia! In fairness, it’s very easy to forget where you are on these tours, because every day is essentially the same: hotel, sound check, dressing room, show, afterparty, bus or plane to the next town. I traveled with Lynyrd Skynyrd for only a week, and I did it myself once on that short jaunt. But somebody should have caught the omission. Surprise, King! The musicians halfheartedy struck up the unrehearsed tune (it’s not too hard), and Elvis got his loudest roar on that opening line. But it’s a story song with lots of lyrics, most of which did not reside in the royal cerebellum. He started mumbling them with that sheepish smirk, and the crowd didn’t even care. By the time he wound up, “Los Angglis, gimme Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater 4-10-oh-9,” they were floating, and even I thought, you should have rehearsed it, King, but damn if you’re not golden anyhow.
I was slightly too young for the overwhelmingly middle-aged demographic that crammed the arenas and the King’s Vegas shows. I’d grown up in that selfsame Norfolk, Virginia, and although I knew what AMERICAN BANDSTAND was, my friends and I were more interested in following Spin & Marty or the Hardy Boys on THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB when we got home from school. But there was some sense memory involved. About that time, the transistor radio appeared – wireless, no larger than a cigarette pack, perfect for the beach! In Norfolk, a Navy town, there were only two Top Forty radio stations: WGH (the call letters stood for “World’s Greatest Harbor”) and WNOR. So on days at the beach, of which my brothers and I had plenty, you could walk down the shoreline and hear an unending stream of music, like the underscore of AMERICAN GRAFFITI. It didn’t matter which station you were listening to: they were dipping from the same well, and tiny transistor dials would whir en masse whenever a commercial dared to interrupt. So I’m quite familiar with most of the pop records from my single-digit days, because I heard them dozens of times on the beach. It surprised me how much I knew by heart when I started writing about rock music some years later.
So I just missed the effect of Elvis’s startling debut on the pop status quo, though eventually every kid in America could sing “Hound Dog” as the King assumed fame far beyond those who actually listened to his records. But by the time I saw him in person, the legend had enveloped him like a James Brown cape. He was larger than life, yet there he was! A little jewel-spangled white dot, yet we were close enough to see his expressions! How was the show, you ask? Rocking. Cheesy. Slick. Maudlin. You can come as close just guessing as I can describing it. All I know is that I was in the presence of the biggest star there could be, and my astonishment lasted for a full hour. I’d fly to Timbuktu for another chance.
But I was born way too late for the other legend. It was my parents’ generation who swooned over Frank Sinatra when he emerged from the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey orchestras as one of the first solo-singer “brands.” Plus, he could act! He was the Elvis of the Forties and the head Vegas lounge-rat of the Fifties and Sixties — not the King, but the envy of swizzle-stickers and Hefner readers everywhere: the Chairman of the Board.
As a card-carrying representative of my generation, I found Sinatra quaint and unhip, especially in his public old-fogylike disdain for the emerging sound of rock & roll, a disingenuous stance from a guy who helped rip down the influence of bandleaders in his own time – not exactly a worshipful attitude toward tradition. Even when he welcomed Elvis back from the Army on a TV special, you could tell he’d have rather been anywhere else. But time went by, and one lamentable development became responsible for more odorous music than any other:
Recording artists started writing their own material. Behold the “singer-songwriter.”
Many talented songwriters also perform(ed). Paul Anka. Paul Simon. Bob Dylan. The Fabs. Carole King. Laura Nyro. Smokey Robinson. Etc. But most other singer-songwriters (for some nitwitted reason, it became incumbent on a musical act to write its own stuff for street cred; the Monkees, for example, were castigated for singing great songs just because they didn’t write ‘em!) give us maybe one really memorable song out of ten, and it’s always been that way; too much thin material can’t help but lower the bar. To hear truly brilliant songs, you have to count on truly brilliant songwriters, like the aforementioned and like the people who specialized in that aspect because the songs were all they had to sell. Irving Berlin. Sammy Cahn. Cole Porter. Harry Ruby. Johnny Mercer. The Gershwins. Etc. We call their best songs, written long before the rock era, “standards,” not just because they have stood the test of time but also because – well, just listen to them. Whether they’re being crooned by Bing Crosby or Rod Stewart, these mini-movies place notes and syllables so artfully that the current performance is informed by any one you’ve ever heard before. Everybody from Boz Scaggs to Linda Ronstadt has picked up on this; the “pop-star-sings-standards” album is so common these days that it’s not even special any more.
But it was plenty special in 1973, when Harry Nilsson’s innovative A LITTLE TOUCH OF SCHMILSSON IN THE NIGHT got me interested in standards once again. I was a rock critic back then, and let me assure you, most of us thought the album was a joke. Deadpan versions of classic standards in lush arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, longtime arranger for none other than – Sinatra! But most people who paid attention reasoned, yes, Harry did have the best pure chops of all the rock vocalists. Then we noticed two things: (1) the effect this album had on women, even young women; and (2) the effect it had on us! These songs were gorgeous! I sought out Sinatra’s classic Capitol recordings, and the newer comeback stuff that was just starting to appear on Reprise, the label he personally founded: OL’ BLUE EYES IS BACK, for example. I determined that this man was an uncannily gifted actor who happened to use song lyrics for scripts. I have been an earnest fan ever since, though I do tend to prefer the Reprise material to the earlier Capitol stuff, and my opinion is in the minority. But Nilsson had still led me to Sinatra.
So the Chairman was going to play Radio City Music Hall – what venue could be better? His comeback had been supreme. He owned two giant new instant standards: “My Way” (Elvis had tried it, but it still belonged to the Chairman) and “New York, New York.” A massive auditorium, but not as ridiculous as a football field. We clutched our tickets and waited for the date: May 16, 1990. But the night before, Sammy Davis Jr. finally passed away after a long struggle. The Chairman headed West with apologies and promised makeup dates (he’d sold out Radio City several times over). We understood. And one month later, he was back.
I believe the opening act may have been Al Hirt and his group, but the vibe was very unlike the Elvis show fifteen years earlier: the audience filed in, sat down, and “dug” the music, as Sammy might have said, because there would be only one opener. They cleared Hirt’s gear very quickly to reveal a full orchestra, and Frank Sinatra Jr. walked out to conduct. Then, lights down to a pinspot – I had an instant to think, just like Elvis – and the Chairman of the Board took the stage without any introduction. Tux, drink in hand, it was Blue Eyes himself! Once again, a huge roar, and once again the oxygen seemed to be sucked toward the spotlight, because big as Radio City was, we were still in the same room with the Chairman!
They started with “Come Fly With Me.” Amazing. We will! The Sinatra intonation, what had made him famous, was still there in full force. He may have punted on a couple of high notes during his 19-song set – he was 75 years old, after all – but the phrasing, the way he romanced a lyric, was pouring out, and Harry Nilsson had nothing on him! Between songs, the guy behind me kept screaming out “Summa Wind!” in the kind of Jersey accent the Chairman had heard all his life, and damn if they didn’t strike it up – and perform it perfectly! A little joking, the refilling of his drink (tea, right?), and the old “saloon singer” had the gargantuan Music Hall in his hands like it was a dinky lounge at the Desert Inn. Name me another singer who could perform “New York, New York,” at Radio City, with blinding lights spelling out the city’s name behind him, and dare to come back for encores? Once again, I was thrilled beyond reason, and I remember thinking as we walked out, I haven’t been this drained since I saw Elvis.
You don’t really think about the passing of a musical torch, because it wasn’t passed at all: Elvis wrested his moment from Sinatra’s unwilling hands. But there’s something strangely comforting about the fact that before he died at 42, Elvis was already crooning “standards” for rapt Vegas audiences, while the best of them all lived nearly twice as long and never lost his love for the guys who made him sound good: the songwriters. I’ll never forget how they both knocked me out — each on his own terms, like nobody else before or since.