Perfect Sound Forever

Rat Catching: Half a Century On, Still Kicking

Sinatra as Barney Sloan in Young at Heart, 1954.

Sinatra & the Rat Pack
by Van Halen Kurtz
(October 2011)

"I couldn't feel any better or I'd be sick" ~ Sammy Cahn & Jimmy Van Heusen.

Pop music was supposed to be disposable. Someone played a guitar, someone sang, and someone danced to some familiar melody, then the jamboree ended and everyone went home to nurse a hangover. A few centuries later, the guitar got upgraded to a parlor piano. The sheet music might have eternalized the song but the performance was still ephemeral. Another century on, there was the phonograph. Those original discs, the 78RPM, were fragile, and pop music the commodity remained dispensable. Then, something happened. The 33RPM and the 45RPM were made of hardier stuff. And, correspondingly, the recordings printed upon them were made to last. Half a century, and more, have passed, and the music remains potent. Not all of it -- some of it is junk, just as it was intended, but some of it seems to possess a stubborn durability. In this category, Sinatra still holds court.

Sinatra has a certain advantage over many singers of the day. His music got amplified by his movie appearances. And vice versa. Just like Bing Crosby, but there's more. It's like Sinatra got started at a certain point. Somewhere between then and now. Bing was always then, like Fred Astaire was then (even though he sang the first version of "One For My Baby," who do you think owns it?); Sinatra had both his hands on both then and now. And the now part of his career is tied up with something people call the Rat Pack.

There's a resonance that keeps the Rat Pack myth alive (even the name itself, rejected by all the principals, is a myth, a recontextualization of the "real" Rat Pack, an earlier set of reprobates, Humphrey Bogart's group of pals). The retro revision keeps kicking. A lot of its appeal originated with guilty pleasure, Vegas banter that rarely made it to the silver screen, then later found its guilty potency renewed in the 1980's as a reactionary rebuff to both rock's implausible maturity and the cultural narrative derided as "political correctness." No smoking doesn't apply to the Chairman of the Board, dig?

But it's easy to take the dialectical interrupt of the shiny suits with the dirty jokes clean out of context. The essential motif of the Rat Pack, it's very coolness, presupposes earlier contexts. Not only did the Rat Pack coast on earlier triumphs -- like Dino stalling performances of "Everybody Loves Somebody," then quipping, "Buy the record if you want to hear the rest" -- but they coasted on, thumbed their noses at, earlier hardships. When Pete Hamill admires the esteemed presumed authenticity of Sinatra's musical performances because "Sinatra could not laugh off his losses," he misses why he fails to appreciate the aesthetic of the Rat Pack: on top after so many years, they laughed off their losses -- and took their audience along for the laugh.

That's the bit that remains modern.

All of them -- and, by that, I refer to the core of Sinatra, Martin and Davis Jr. -- had endured earlier torments. Nowadays it's all too easy to forget tjat the assimilation of the Italian-American did not come so easy. America was fighting Italy at the time of Sinatra's ascent. All the Mafia imbroglio was just an earlier version of the urban gang stereotype alive today. Sinatra was quick to remember the taunts of "dago" when he arrived. Even Martin, whose professional presentation rarely permitted outbursts of emotion, would sound utterly honest when he said (in Kiss Me, Stupid) "I need another Italian song like a giraffe needs strep throat." If these were guys who felt (in Wil Haygood's words) "the raw punch of misfortune," then, being even lower on the assimilation track, Davis Jr. felt it at its rawest.

Listening today to the Rat Pack performances, never intended for posterity or audiences outside the performance, it's easy to be shocked at the "off-color" role Davis Jr. provided. Evaluating the Rat Pack as an entertainment package tempts the viewer to miss ellipsis vital to getting it. Davis Jr. played the court jester at least in part because Martin's fame, and straight-man schtick, rested on his previous relationship with Jerry Lewis. Davis Jr. said as much, to Hugh Hefner on the December '68 Playboy After Dark program: "I've been doing Jerry for years" (Lewis, in addition to being a master comic impersonator and occasional hit singer, was a very snappy dancer). Lewis, a peripheral presence in the Rat Pack legacy, supplies yet another (ultimately victorious) American tale of ethnic assimilation, which may partially explain Davis Jr.'s unusual decision to convert to Judaism.

In addition to overcoming ethnic typecasting, Sinatra, Martin and Davis Jr. all had careers which hit bottom. Sinatra bombed out with Columbia, Martin faltered without Lewis, and Davis Jr. lost an eye right at the moment his star was rising. They all came back, triumphantly tested and, as the legend has it, deepened by their individual hardships. Sinatra won the Oscar (From Here To Eternity), Martin "proved" he could act (Rio Bravo) and Davis Jr. conquered Broadway (Mr. Wonderful). Macho to the last, Sinatra and Martin were beyond on top of the world; Davis Jr., despite being a stage vet since childhood, was (like Lewis) the kid. Just plopping down the needle on a Rat Pack compilation misses a mine of context.

To appreciate Sinatra's place in the Fifties, start with the movie Young At Heart. For the first thirty minutes, it's another creamy upbeat tale of post-war prosperity, complete with tuneful yet forgettable Doris Day ditties. Then Sinatra enters, rummaging through an ashtray, and the story darkens. Here he sings definite versions of "Just One Of Those Things" and "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)." His rumpled suit is incredible. Then move on to another of his screen masterpieces, Pal Joey. His insouciant moves, his ring-a-ding lingo, and, above all, his after-hours version of "The Lady Is A Tramp" provide a fast wise-up in why Sinatra was a delightfully troubling icon of the era. To get Martin at his peak during the same timeline, check out Artists and Models, the first Frank Tashlin-directed Martin & Lewis film (including Shirley MacLaine) -- especially the serendipitously staged "Lucky Song." For Davis Jr., watch him steal the show as Sportin' Life (previously played on stage by Cab Calloway) in the big, clumsy Hollywood version of Porgy and Bess. Next stop is another key movie, Some Come Running -- Sinatra and Martin's first screen outing (plus MacLaine) -- and now the booze starts flowing.

Martin as Bama Dillert in Some Came Running, 1958.

Then, there's the records. Sinatra's Rat Pack persona shows up long before the Rat Pack in individual performance -- usually penned by the songwriting team of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen: "The Tender Trap," "Love And Marriage," "Same Old Song and Dance" and "Come Fly With Me" all combine a world-weariness with a sexual exuberance that spells out swinging. These are boundary-pushing anthems of male independence: men out to savor the delights of the world, in flight from female commitments. The inevitable happy ending always ensues -- ever notice how most novels conclude with someone either getting married or getting dead? -- but Sinatra was a master of conveying a wink with each performance. The first LP he did in this dissolute ecstatic style is 1959's Come Dance With Me, with the Billy May band, all brass and beat, with shimmering, loose readings of "Something's Gotta Give," "Too Close For Comfort," "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" plus the knockout Cahn & Van Heusen title track.

Martin's career is far more erratic. His first big hit was 1953's "That's Amore" and he detested doing more of the same, although he did a lot more of the same. His first break of enthusiasm came as late as 1960, when he finally got a Nelson Riddle session with the aptly-titled This Time I'm Swingin'. Pure gold, every track -- especially Martin's cold-blooded crooning on "Someday (You'll Want Me To Want You)" -- and dig the tipsy tempos provided by drummer Alvin Stoller. The date also produced a leering Cahn & Van Heusen single for Dino, "Ain't That A Kick In The Head," which, in a more intimate arrangement, Martin performed in the movie Ocean's 11. Martin teamed up with Riddle again for Cha Cha de Amor. "Cha Cha Cha D'Amour" is a carousing classic and the seductive ballad "A Hundred Years from Today" is devilish; the LP, overall, is mighty agreeable. Alas, these are the only two albums by Martin that can be considered consistently high-class.

When Sinatra started Reprise in 1960, he truly owned an empire. Martin and Davis, Jr. soon joined him there, with a bundled Warner Brothers distribution deal that also permitted them (well, Sinatra) autonomy in films. Although holding a privileged position in Rat Pack movies, musically the move wasn't so propitious for Martin who, once again (as he had at Capitol Records), received Sinatra's songwriting and arrangement leftovers (such as the vapid "Baby-O"), settling for the ethnic bag (like the lamentable "Tik-a-Tee, Tik-a-Tay"). Martin's first Reprise LP, French Style, under the baton of Neal Hefti, yielded only two gems, "C'est Si Bon" and "The Poor People of Paris," which shine thanks to Martin's whimsical asides and comic timing. His second LP, Dino Latino, arranged by Don Costa, is equally kitschy, but peppier: the uptempo first side, including chorus-cooing, bongo-snapping takes on "South of the Border," and "Manana (Is Soon Enough for Me)," tingles with undeniable, lazy optimism. Still... considering the irrepressibly rogueish theme song to (and single from) Who's Got The Action?, it's easy to wish Dino got more tip-top material.

Davis Jr. as Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess, 1959.

Davis Jr. had more to gain. His last Decca album, 1960's I Gotta Right To Swing (what a title!) featured the Count Basie band backing him on a jazzed-up "Lady Is A Tramp" and other ebullient tunes but, like earlier sessions, the production is dreary. His Reprise debut, The Wham of Sam, roared out of the gate, thanks to manic charts by Morty Stevens (on side one); every tune is socko, hip and with-it -- but "I'm Gonna Live 'Til I Die" deserves special mention as Davis Jr.,'s single swingingest performance. Not that there isn't lots of pizzazz on side two of Davis Jr.'s All-Star Spectacular, also (primarily) arranged by Stevens, including a joyously debauched take on the Cahn & Van Heusen throw-away "You Can't Love Them All" (which, sung by an African-American in 1962, had its own acute irony). Then there's his two silly duets, released as 45's: Davis Jr. laying down a wailing harmony over Sinatra on the close of "Me and My Shadow," and Davis Jr. "doing Jerry" with Martin on "Sam's Song." Better (and much obscurer) are the two cuts Davis Jr. did with Billy May for the Johnny Cool soundtrack.

Entering the Sixties, the Chairman was hell-bent on brilliance. Leaving Capitol in a flourish of cool (Sinatra's Swingin' Session, his last perfect LP with Nelson Riddle [who departed Capitol with a quintessential bachelor-pad album, Love Is A Game of Poker] and a bare-knuckles "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues"), he kicked off his own swinging affair with Reprise 1001, Ring A Ding Ding, working with a new arranger Johnny Mandel, and a hot new number (the title track) by Cahn & Van Heusen. The whole album sparks, especially "In The Still of the Night," which continued a Sinatra tradition of updating Cole Porter standards with high-stakes bravado. Just as satisfying is Swing Along with Me (dig the saloon doors on the cover), another Sinatra-May collaboration, containing diabolical takes on "Curse of an Aching Heart," "Don't Cry Joe" and, too much, a showstopping version of "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You." This '61 album might be Sinatra's summit but isolated tracks of ring-a-ding irascibility (such as "Don'cha Go 'Way Mad" from Sinatra and Swingin' Brass and the "Tender Trap" update on Sinatra-Basie) surface all the way to "Luck Be A Lady Tonight" in '65.

And, sure enough, there are the movies. While Ocean's 11 is deservedly famous as a chronicle of male hierarchy, the successor Sergeants 3, at least in its first hour, is a superior chronicle of the Rat Pack: the Camelot jokes are wittier, the race element is sharper, and the drinking is more illicit -- plus there's action (the threads ain't Sy Devore, though). The "last" Rat Pack movie, Robin & the 7 Hoods seems to sense the end of the party, Sinatra appearing creaky in spots, but there's a rally by Cahn & Van Huesen tunes, especially Martin's pool hustler sequence and Davis Jr.'s legendary machine-gun tap-dance routine. Worthy footnotes include Martin's wry placement in Billy Wilder's deliciously cynical Kiss Me, Stupid -- not to mention, in a parallel part of Hollywood, Jerry Lewis's swinging spoof on substance abuse in The Nutty Professor. Next stop, the encroachments of the generation gap in Sinatra and Martin's final vehicle, Marriage On The Rocks; Martin's ridiculous Matt Helm movies (the last one, surprisingly, is the cutest); and, closing out the decade, Davis, Jr. reunited with Peter Lawford in the amusingly inane Salt and Pepper.

All said, the ring-a-ding dialectic is fragile. Eternally cool to be sure, but loose and fleeting. There's a thin line between brash and glib, casual and careless. Part of the delicate balance was the hierarchy: Sinatra wanted his pallies around to ease the work but everyone else was careful not to upstage the boss. It deserves mention, apparent boozing and joshing aside, these cats pumped out some three LP's, two movies and a hundred live dates annually, so the core characteristic of the Rat Pack is actually workaholism. Still, it's the absence of polish, the lapse of decorum that appeals most to modern sensibilities, and that is most often in the eye of the beholder. Like a decent Bloody Mary, Rat Pack compilations are best enjoyed when individually prepared. I'm no expert; all this article attempts to do is put a little order to a disorderly catalog. Do the ribald Vegas performances, released decades after the fact, the honor of knowing the chronology and context. And, please remember, they rarely drank martinis -- it was usually Jack, with about three cubes of water, tops. Skol!

Also see our 1997 Sinatra article

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