Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Frank Sinatra's Welcome Home Party for Elvis Presley (Quantum Leap, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One was Frank Sinatra’s Welcome Home Party for Elvis Presley, a fascinating 1960 ABC-TV special sponsored by the Timex watch company (their commercials, featuring John Cameron Swayze, are blessedly included in the Quantum Leap DVD of this show) that works mostly as a period piece, an example of the sort of thing that in 1960 was considered state-of-the-art entertainment. Four of the Rat Packers — Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop — are here (Dean Martin is the only one missing), and Sammy Davis, Jr. sings “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” in a highly mannered style that made me wonder if he was this bad in the 1959 Sam Goldwyn film of Porgy and Bess. (I’m not likely to find out; I saw the movie on black-and-white TV in 1973, shortly before the rights reverted to the Gershwin estate — which, on Ira Gershwin’s say-so, pulled them and therefore the film has no longer been available for legal public showing to this day.)

On the other hand, he does a marvelous series of vocal impersonations on the song “All the Way,” first doing Nat “King” Cole, then Tony Bennett, then Louis Armstrong (whom Davis had impersonated back in 1932 as a boy in the Warners short Rufus Jones for President) and finally Dean Martin (so he got in there by proxy at least!). The other performers were Sinatra’s daughter Nancy (the youngest I’d ever seen her, and she’s not really showcased well — she certainly doesn’t get much of a chance to sing!), the Tommy Hansen Dancers (who do a dreadful routine on a South Seas island set to a song with speeded-up voices in blatant imitation of Alvin and the Chipmunks — one of the males in this troupe looked so much like Bob Denver when he emerged from the prop “beach” that I joked, “It’s Gilligan’s Island — The Musical!”), Leona Irwin and Nelson Riddle’s orchestra — though Riddle isn’t shown on screen (as he was in some of the Nat “King” Cole TV shows he also provided the music for).

I was fascinated by the comments on this film on, mainly because at least two of them were from the Elvis fan brigade, proclaiming how much better looking he was than Sinatra and how much better he sang and what a much greater entertainer he was — and I posted a comment in the other direction saying that Sinatra had more talent in his toenail than Elvis had in his entire body. On the show, Sinatra comes off as a consummate performer, a professional’s professional — he’s in full command of his voice, his gestures and his movements, and on material like his single “Witchcraft” (which he sings towards the beginning of the show and Elvis sings towards the end, in counterpoint with Sinatra’s version of “Love Me Tender”) and especially the ballad “Gone With the Wind” from his album Only the Lonely, Sinatra phrases in a finely honed, musicianly manner that digs into the marrow of the songs’ emotional content. (That’s the main lesson he learned from Billie Holiday even though the two really didn’t sound like each other — and not just because Billie was a woman and Sinatra a man.) By contrast, Elvis comes across as a dorky amateur, barely in control of his body — he wasn’t even aware of how he moved on stage until, on one of his early package tours, one of the other performers told him — and, despite the screaming-teen fans with which Col. Tom Parker packed the live audience for the show at Miami’s Fontainebleau hotel (much to Sinatra’s irritation), Elvis is visibly nervous at performing live whereas Sinatra is fully in control of himself and his audience.

Elvis begins his 10-minute segment (for which Col. Parker wangled him the unprecedented sum of $125,000!) with a singularly inept reading of the ballad “Fame and Fortune” — it’s hardly a great song but one still wonders what Sinatra could have done with it — and then goes into the rocker “Stuck on You,” which is his best song of the night but still, even with his great original band from the Sun days (Scotty Moore, electric guitar; Bill Black, acoustic bass; D. J. Fontana, drums), the reading is limp, a far cry from the rockin’ studio version. Then comes time for the big event everyone was waiting for, the Presley-Sinatra duet — which the people in charge of this show decided to do by having each singer perform a song associated with the other, with Sinatra doing “Love Me Tender” (and making the ill-advised decision to swing it — as he’d do with another classic rock ballad, Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” on his Main Event telecast 14 years later — when if he’d sung it as a ballad he could have easily outsung Elvis on his own hit!) and Elvis doing “Witchcraft” in a stiff, unrhythmic style that shows him totally clueless as to what to do with a song like that.

Albert Goldman’s controversial Elvis biography described his joint appearance with Sinatra here in openly homoerotic terms — “With his preposterous Little Richard conk, his limp wrist, girlish grin and wobbly knees, which now turn out instead of in, he looks outrageously Gay. When he confronts the much smaller but more masculine Sinatra, Elvis’s body language flashes, ‘I surrender, dear’” — which I’d thought exaggerated until I finally saw this number in context, with its rarely shown postlude showing the two singers, arms around each other, crooning “Love Me Tender” in ballad tempo — and damned if they don’t look like a Gay couple, with Sinatra the butch one and Elvis the femme!