Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., et al. did not loathe rock & roll just for the sound of the music. At some point, they realized that rock & roll signaled the end of an era when they ruled the charts. Their subsequent attempts to demean, denounce and destroy rock & roll got pretty ugly. The effort peaked, or cratered, in July 1964 when Dean Martin took aim at the Rolling Stones…
In January 1960, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford arrived in Las Vegas to begin filming Ocean’s Eleven. As documented in an excellent new book, Becoming America’s Playground: Las Vegas in the 1950s by Larry Gragg, the stars did not go gently into that good night.
Indeed, after the days’ movie shoots were done, the stars—now known as the Rat Pack—would repair to the Sands Hotel where they had an open-ended invitation to perform in the Copa Room. Night after night, one or the other, or all of them together, along with straight man Joey Bishop, would show up to entertain the capacity crowds with song, dance and comic sabotage of each other’s act.
Typical of the Rat Pack’s banter would find Davis and Lawford affecting a dance routine while Sinatra shouted, “What a great team. One dances and the other applauds!” Dean Martin would generally bring the shows to a close by stumble-bumming to center stage and, in that famed cotton-mouth faux-drunk’s mumble, say thank you “to Srank Finatra.” (They always, ALWAYS, paid homage to “Mr. Sinatra”, the star who made this all possible). Yes, there was a time when such things were considered the highwater mark of pop entertainment in America.
According to a young Shirley MacLaine, who had a bit part in Ocean’s Eleven, “the world came to Vegas” in 1960, just from the word of mouth that spread from these anarchic evenings at the Sands.
Typical footage of the Rat Pack “cutting up” on a Vegas stage, with Johnny Carson joining in. This is the sort of “entertainment” that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones saved us from:
Meanwhile, rock & roll had cornered the Rat Pack, moving in on them individually and collectively like a tidal wave hellbent on washing their entire generation out to sea. The new music was taking over the Billboard charts and playlists of AM radio. It was bye bye Perry Como, hello Chuck Berry, a complete conquest and an unconditional surrender.
The conquest had begun a few years earlier, with the arrival of a thunderbolt out of Memphis called Elvis Presley. And, if you study the Billboard charts, you see the transition occurring right before your eyes. It had already begun by 1955. The number 1 song that year was “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & the Comets; Little Richard had # 7 (“Tutti Frutti”); Chuck Berry had #12 (“Maybellene”), while Sinatra had #8 (“Learnin’ the Blues”) and #11 (“Love and Marriage”). By 1959 and 1960, not a single member of the Rat Pack had a single in the Top 100 but Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker, et al. had multiple hits.
What could the Rat Pack do to stem the tide? Not a damn thing. However, Frank Sinatra tried his best to piss on the passing parade. In 1958, during an appearance before a U.S. House committee investigating juvenile delinquency, Sinatra drew the line in the Sands for what was later be called the Generation Gap:
“Rock ‘n’ roll is the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear. Rock ‘n’ roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons, and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd—in plain fact, dirty—lyrics it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.”
Tank you Srank Finatra!
This insanely stupid utterance came in the wake of Elvis Presley terrifying America’s parents by wiggling his hips on live TV and, thus, shaking, rattling and rolling the collective libidos of anyone under age 18. The irony was, of course, that Elvis would eventually join Sinatra and his Rat Pack in “America’s Playground,” and became as just as instantly irrelevant to young people as they had always been.
The beginning of Elvis’s transformation to schlock entertainer, ala the Rat Pack, began in May 1960, when he appeared in a tuxedo (!) on a show hosted by Sinatra. Sinatra seemed to sense the changing tide and wanted to be part of it.
In they years that followed of the early 1960s, TV was mostly a wasteland. It fell miserably flat except as a medium for ironic entertainment, preferably while stoned or drunk on cheap wine. The few times anyone worth watching was a guest on a variety show, such as the Doors on The Ed Sullivan Show or the Rolling Stones on Hollywood Palace, they were either forced to abridge songs, or lip-synch and pretend to play their instruments. If you were young and into rock music in the ‘60s, you grew accustomed to cringing through an hour of gruesomely unhip entertainment and clueless hosts who often mocked their rock & roll guests.
The final nail in the coffin for the Rat Pack, along these lines, occurred in July 1964 on the TV variety show Hollywood Palace, hosted by Dean Martin. The musical guests that evening were the Rolling Stones. It was the third day of the band’s first U.S. concert tour. Bill Wyman, the Rolling Stones’ bass player noted in his memoir, that “It quickly transpired we’d been set up for ritual slaughter by Dean Martin, who seemed inebriated throughout the show. He persistently insulted us on the air to grab cheap laughs, and between songs and commercial breaks he made such jokes as, ‘Their hair is not long, it’s just smaller foreheads and higher eyebrows’.” Har har. A single exposure to stuff like that was enough to sour an entire generation. The proper icing on the cake would have been if Mick Jagger had walked to center stage and said thank you “to Mean Dartin”. Har har.
Here’s some footage from that debacle:
Needless to say, Sinatra, Martin et al were as ignorant of rock & roll as the rock & rollers were ignorant of them. The key difference was that the rockers never gave the Rat Pack a single thought whereas the Rat Pack and their show biz peers bitterly licked their wounds and cursed the young people. From my side of the Generation Gap, it felt like rock & roll rescued me from the likes of the Rat Pack, Vegas, Lawrence Welk, Mitch Miller, Perry Como and “How much is that Doggie in the Window?”
Not to mention that the Rat Pack, in hindsight and after the myriad tell-all memoirs and exposes of them, were far more degenerate than the average hippie. Swilling hard liquor in cigarette smoke-filled rooms, doing pills to stay awake, sleeping ‘til the crack of noon, fist fights and hanging out with mobsters. How was that something to aspire to for young people? By comparison, dancing in the sunshine at a pop festival seemed like the Fountain of Youth.