A friend sent me a YouTube link that features Frank Sinatra; Dean Martin; Sammy Davis Jr.; and Johnny Carson in concert, in front of a packed house, singing "The Start of the Blues." Yes, Johnny Carson does sing!
All four are wearing tuxedos, appearing in what appears to be a New York Broadway Theater.
What can you tell me about this event? Perhaps your friend Deana Martin knows how this came about.
- Mike Bell, Philadelphia
No need to drag Deana in on this, though there is a connection not widely known in the U.S. She recently headlined "Deana Martin and the Rat Pack," a successful stage show in London that may soon play other European cities.
Still, I did call her just to say she's being mentioned in my column again.
Originally titled "Frank Sinatra Spectacular," four famous Rat Packers - Frank, Dean, Sammy, and Joey Bishop (with the Count Basie and Quincy Jones bands) - gave a benefit concert at the Keil Opera House in downtown St. Louis, the proceeds of which supported the local Dismas House.
Founded in 1959 by Jesuit Father Charles "Dismas" Clark, the halfway houses that bear his name provide a place where men recently released from prison live rent free until they can manage on their own. Most guests stay for a few days, weeks, or months, depending on their needs as well as input from the referring authorities.
It all came together in 1965, on June 20th - both Father's Day and Christina Sinatra's birthday. Frank even introduced "Tina," his youngest daughter, and everyone in the building sang "Happy Birthday."
That any video exists of this concert is thanks to it being a closed-circuit broadcast, meaning simultaneously aired by affiliate stations. From that small network, one black-and-white print survived, though not discovered until 1995. For the 32nd anniversary of the Spectacular (1997), the video finally became commercially available, thanks to the Museum of Television & Radio.
Until a few hours before the show, Johnny Carson could not have imagined himself spending Father's Day in St. Louis, on stage as a replacement Rat. Yet, when regular rodent Joey Bishop injured his back, and could not perform, Frank asked Johnny to fly in and fill in... as emcee and comedian.
Some memorable moments include:
Tongue-in-cheek, Carson opens with a news flash: "I read that the birth rate has dropped appreciably in the United States, and I'd like to feel that my show ["Tonight Show"] is partly responsible for this decline."
Referring to Dean, Johnny says: "The only reason he's got a good tan is he found a bar with a skylight."
In "Everybody Loves Somebody," Dino replaces "if I had it in my power" with "if I had you in my shower."
Sammy credits Sinatra's persuasive method for putting on such a substantial event: "He just picks up the phone and says be there!" Davis adds "My mother, Alvera Sanchez, is a Puerto Rican, which means I'm Colored, Jewish and Puerto Rican. When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out! There ain't nobody left."
Frankie thrills the hometown crowd with "My Kind of Town," predictably making the lyrics about St. Louis instead of Chicago.
The unplanned, and somewhat unrehearsed, gathering of this legendary foursome is made even more special with their finale, "Birth of the Blues," sung individually and collectively.
A jazz and big band standard, "Birth of the Blues" (not "Start of," though that line is in the lyrics) became a Top 20 hit for Paul Whiteman (1926); Harry Richman (1926); Revelers (1926); and Frank Sinatra (1952).
Not released as a single but equally noteworthy is Dinah Washington's marvelous "Birth of the Blues," which she commingles with "I Don't Hurt Anymore" crafting an outstanding medley.
IZ ZAT SO?
The Museum of Television & Radio's video release of this show, now titled "The Rat Pack Live in Saint Louis 1965 (With the Count Basie Band)," provides "the only recorded complete performance of the legendary Rat Pack."
Despite their countless live appearances in the '60s, that June night in St. Louis stands as the Pack's only televised concert together.