Jazz Professional               

Composer, bandleader and trombonist
Bobby Lamb

On tour with Frank Sinatra

Lamb/Premru interview
On tour with Frank Sinatra|
Sinatra and Liza Minnelli tour
Bill Miller remembers

Published in the Sunday Independent of April 15th, 2001 and reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.

It was November 3, 1970 when I got the call —asking if I was free to work with Frank Sinatra. I couldn't believe it, a chance to work with the great man on two special concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in London. "Yes, yes!" was my immediate response. I was delighted to accept, and couldn't wait to see the great man himself.

Ten days later, I arrived at the rehearsal ball at 9am, and all of the other guys were there, warming up. This is very, very unnatural for session musicians, who normally arrive 15 to 20 minutes, at most, before the gig starts, the priority even then is a cup of coffee and a chat about last night's game or yesterday's session. So there we were, an hour before the official start of the rehearsal, all warming up and keeping an eye on the door. Just waiting, with a lovely exciting buzz in the air.

Bill Miller, the piano player and musical director, gave the music out, and at 10 o'clock we began to play this amazing music. Music that we had never played before, written by some of the world's greatest arrangers. Billy kicked it off, and off we went with The Lady is a Tramp. All looking at each other, smiling with that smug satisfaction that musicians get when they know that they are in on some secret — the secret being how good this music really was.

After a while we stopped for a coffee break, and I made a beeline for Irv Cottler, the drummer from the Tommy Dorsey days, to check if Sinatra was going to appear that day. Irv informed me that he never turned up to rehearsals, he just let the guys get on with it. The attitude was that he had got the best, so let them do their thing.

We finished the first day's rehearsing still in a very buoyant mood, went home, and much the same thing happened the next morning. We kicked off with, as usual, everything going nicely, when suddenly the atmosphere in the room, this great big rehearsal hall, changed dramatically. Not knowing why, I looked up — and there he was, standing right near the saxophones, the man himself. Everybody just automatically stopped playing and looked at him, and all he said was, "Hi, guys," and turned around and walked out. That was it! "Hi, guys." That was his contribution to the rehearsal. He bad just come in to check out the sound of the band, to see what we looked like, and split.

For the November 16 concert all the film stars were there: Frank’s  friends: Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, Kirk Douglas, you name them, they were all sitting there, row after row. The most outstanding film stars in the world, all keen to partake in this exciting concert. The lights went down, and in walked her serene highness Grace Kelly, the Grace Kelly from High Society and all the great Hitchcock films. She was a very longtime friend of Frank Sinatra. She came on and began to tell the story of the time when Frank Sinatra visited the set of Mogambo, which was being made in West Africa with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. She told the story of how, on Christmas Day, Frank came out of the jungle with a cake and a bottle of champagne, singing White Christmas to cheer the crew up. He had gone to West Africa to be near to Ava Gardner; they were having a big romance at the time.

Grace Kelly finished her story, made the introduction, and there he was. He ran onto the stage pretending to grab Grace Kelly, the band kicked off with You Make Me Feel So Young, and we were away!

The atmosphere was building, the band was building, the excitement that was emanating from the band was just incredible. After all this, he placed a stool in front of the string section. By sitting there, he was creating a focus for the strings, and off they went with I Get Along Without You Very Well. Frank made sure the audience, even if they were tone deaf, could see the rapport develop between himself and the violin soloist in this beautiful Gordon Jenkins arrangement.

As the brass section was not involved in this particular arrangement, it gave me a chance to sit back and take a good long look at what it was that was creating this Sinatra magic — certainly, his presence, his charisma, his sense of time and his understanding and feel for the lyrics.

It was magical — magic of a very high order. After finishing I Get Along Without You Very Well — such a slow, beautiful, sad song — it began to build up again, going into Didn't We and One for my Baby, one of his all–time favourite songs. He referred to it as a saloon song, and he used the props of a cigarette in the right hand and a glass of whiskey in the left. I underline the fact they were props; he might sip the whiskey and light the cigarette, but purely for theatrical effect. I never saw him drink on the stand. Never. After this, straight into How I Drink the Wine. By now, the emotions of the audience, as well as those of the band, were on a roller–coaster ride. Sinatra was bouncing us like a ball. In fact, by now our emotions were completely shattered.

After the first concert, we went to the bar to get ourselves together for the next show. Billy Miller had disappeared into Frank's room to see if there were going to be any changes in the routine for the second concert. I managed to get hold of Irv Cottler. He began to talk about old times. He told me that Billy Miller had joined Frank in 1951, in the middle of what we would call Sinatra’s bad period, and he had been with Frank from the lowest to the highest. They were great friends.

Irv proceeded to tell me about an accident that Billy and his wife had been in. There had been a horrendous mudslide in Los Angeles. Billy's wife had died, and Billy himself had been very badly injured and was in hospital for months. During this period Sinatra would go and visit him quite a lot, and whilst he was there would also discreetly pick up the medication and hospitalisation bills for Billy, so that there was no problem. This was astounding to me, and I had certainly not read it anywhere — another aspect of this already astonishing man was being revealed to me.

Irv continued, telling me that he had joined Frank in 1955 from the Tommy Dorsey Band. When Irv had joined the Dorsey band, he had taken over from the great Buddy Rich. Irv had the opportunity to chat to Buddy about the band, and Buddy had recalled the time when Frank was, a young singer with the band, and how they used to wind each other up and have a go at each other. Buddy couldn't understand why Frank was such an attraction to the female members of the audience, and he had also thought that he was just as good a singer as Frank. His way of getting back at Frank was that every time Frank had a song to sing. Buddy would play his drums very loud. The upshot of that was that on every break Sinatra and Buddy would be backstage, belting the hell out of each other.

The interesting thing about this was that when Buddy, after forming his own band, hit hard times, the first guy to his rescue was Frank Sinatra. Any time that Buddy got into trouble, Frank was there for him. Years later, when Buddy had had his big heart attack and was very low and depressed, convinced that he would never play again, Sinatra was the guy who turned up at me house and stayed for several days. He bullied Buddy and made him walk and exercise, not listening to his depression, literally nagging him back to health. This kind of warmth and sensitivity, care and love that he would extend to his friends was something I had never heard of. I became very curious but there was no more time for talking as we were on for the second show.

We started the second concert without any introduction, which was his usual way of starting. Nobody to introduce him; instead he was just there. People chatting away waiting for the start of the concert glanced up, and the shock of seeing him mere was always a tremendous effect that he worked very well.

We finished the second show around 2am and went back into the band room, totally drained, emotionally exhausted. All because of this one man had on everyone in the orchestra. We had been through a spectacular experience and it would take us a long time to get over it!

In 1975, I got a call to perform again with Sinatra. What a call that was! It was to consist of two days rehearsing in London, then a flight to Monte Carlo for a charity bash for the Red Cross. Princess Grace was hosting that. Then on to Paris for three nights, Vienna, Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, and then back to London for a series of concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, then straight over to Brussels and Amsterdam. This tour gave me the opportunity to get to know Irv and Billy.

One of the remarkable things about this tour was the quality of the support we got. You arrived at the airport at the start of the tour with your instrument and your case, you put in on the floor and never touched it, apart from concerts, until you came home. When we arrived at me hotels our bags would be already on the beds — and in single rooms. Your instrument was on your chair at the concert hall, waiting for you, and when you were finished, you put it back in its case and a crew member took it for you. On checking out of the hotels, the suitcases would be left outside the rooms and a crew member would sort them out and they would be delivered in another city. This made for a very classy experience which created so much enjoyment and fun within the band that working and touring with Sinatra was a ball! I'm sure the reason for this was that if Sinatra had found  out that anyone was unhappy, he was a big enough man to call the whole thing off. So promoters and impresarios were constantly on edge to keep everyone happy and to make sure there was no skimming off the cream anywhere. This created a very healthy atmosphere.

Another thing that the members of the band noticed during the tour was the respect that Sinatra had for musicians. There was one peculiar little idiosyncrasy he had. When he would sit at the bar for a drink he would always keep the chair or stool on his right vacant, the reason being that his respect for composers or arrangers was so high that he permanently reserved this space for them. If you were an impresario and wanted to talk business, then you approached from the left.

He also made a point, in fact it became an issue, of naming the composer and arranger on stage when introducing a song. I have never seen this with any other artist and I have worked with them all.

Sinatra, unlike normal singers, was very involved in the process of creating a song. He would choose the arranger. Guys such as Alex Storville, whom he grew up with in the Dorsey band, did all his early string arrangements. Then came Gordon Jenkins, Don Costa, Nelson Riddle, Quincy Jones — few of the finest arrangers who ever lived. Nelson Riddle once told me that when he was arranging for one of the Sinatra albums, he would get phone calls from Sinatra at two or three in the morning with some brilliant idea for an introduction. He was totally involved all the way along!

On November 20, we were back in the London Palladium. This was to be followed by a trip to Iran to play for the Shah at his palace, and one other concert that we didn't know about. By now, Sinatra was using mostly American musicians apart from British musician Vic Ash and myself. A message had been sent to the Iran authorities that visas were required for 56 Americans but it forgot to mention one Irishman—me!  We arrived at the airport after our fantastic flight and we were going through immigration and passport control. When they saw my Irish passport they yanked me into a small room. It was very dingy, and bad a bare electric light bulb, a table and chair. Heavy policemen were shouting at me in a language I couldn't understand. Meanwhile the coach, with the orchestra, was waiting outside and couldn't leave with out me. The policemen wouldn't let me go; they thought I was an Irish terrorist looking for arms! Eventually, my road manager, who was a big black guy about 6 foot 6 inches tall, burst into the room and started to pull me out. They screamed and pointed at me and he started screaming and pointing at them. The Shah and the palace were mentioned, and we got on the coach with my passport stamped. Phew!

The gig at the palace was amazing; the room was all set in deep blue and gold, with stars on the ceiling. It was the most sumptuous place I have ever seen. We had a small audience including the Shah and his wife. It was very charming and elegant. The next day was for the second gig which we didn't know much about. We got in the coach and drove for about 20 miles out into the middle of the desert where there was. a huge sports building, with indoor race track and all mod cons, seating about 24,000. A huge stage was built in the middle so that Frank could move around and work all four sides of the hall. The orchestra was in the centre like a boxing ring. It was strange to see such a different culture going wild and showing so much appreciation for the music, and what we were doing.

In Jerusalem, I joined Irv Cottler in the bar. I asked him about the tour. Where was the rock 'n' roll ' life style? The drugs, drink and broads? I had seen nothing outrageous, nothing untoward. Irv told me that Frank was totally against that kind of thing. He told me a story of a close friend of' Sinatra who was experimenting with drugs. Sinatra had sent one of his closest friends, Jilly Rizzo, to deliver a message saying unless he stopped taking cocaine he could no longer call Frank Sinatra his friend. Sure enough, his friend stopped his flirtation with cocaine because his friendship with Sinatra meant so much.

I spoke a lot to Irv about the stories in the papers about the Mafia and gangster connections that Sinatra had. Irv told me these were quite untrue. However, all the rumours created a mystique which helped build the image. Sinatra was intelligent, and quite capable of using this to his advantage. In a 20 year span of working with him, I never saw anything untoward.

An amusing incident occurred in Israel. Some of the guys were in the bar having a drink. We had all just got up to go to bed when the waiter asked who was signing the tab. One of the guys. Butch, said he would.  He signed it 'Frank Sinatra'. The next day the cashier picked up the tab and began to add it up. The story got around as to what an incredible man Frank Sinatra was, as in the space of one night he had managed to drink 12 double whiskeys, six large vodkas, bottles of wine, three martinis and 28 bottles of beer. To the relief and pleasure of the band, he found the whole thing very funny and coughed up.

Not long after, we heard he had got married again, to Barbara Marx, the ex-wife of Groucho Marx. The next time we were to see him was in 1977, on February 28, at the Albert Hall, fast becoming known as me Francis Albert Sinatra Hall!

In September 1979, we went to Cairo, and a fantastic concert was held on the sands for President and Madame Sadat. We had some concerts over the next few years, then he was scheduled to appear in 1988 in a concert entitled The Summit with Sammy Davis Junior and Dean Martin. In the end. Dean Martin was replaced by. Liza Minnelli. Sinatra came again to Europe to do a tour in 1989. In the meantime, I was in Monte Carlo with a anger called Pia Zadora, a young girl who had married a billionaire. He paid for myself, and Jack Parnell on drums, to augment the Nice Symphony Orchestra. I finished the rehearsal and went backstage and who did I find there but Jilly Rizzo, Frank's closest friend. It was the perfect opportunity to talk to him and ask questions about the Mafia rumours and Frank.

I also asked Jilly about the charities Sinatra supported. Apart from the thousands of benefits he supported, there were lots of unknown acts of kindness. In the early days he had a passion to go to rundown towns like Hoboken (his place of birth) and listen to the stories of the poor people. He gave them envelopes of money to help pay the bills. He also was kind to colleagues who had hit bad times, like the earlier story of Buddy Rich. This was a human part of his life that people didn't know about.

There will never be another one like him. I don't care what modern artists bring to their art — he was a one–off, just like Louis Armstrong, but that's another story! 

Copyright © 2001 Bobby Lamb