Frank Sinatra's Big Apple Box Set Tastes Sweet, Despite a Few Worms

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tony Sachs Drinker of Spirits, Listener of Music, Watcher of Baseball, Writer of Words

No Frank Sinatra box set should contain two versions of him singing "Bad Bad Leroy Brown."

I needed to get that out of the way before addressing the rest of this profoundly flawed but worthwhile new 4 CD/1 DVD collection. Sinatra: New York consists entirely of unreleased live performances from Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall and other venues in the Big Apple, recorded over a 35-year span. It's a follow-up of sorts to Sinatra's 2006 Vegas box, which followed essentially the same pattern with his Las Vegas performances.

New York City looms large in Sinatra's legend, perhaps as much so as Las Vegas. He cut his musical teeth as the "boy singer" in Harry James' band at the Roseland Ballroom on 52nd St. and then in Tommy Dorsey's band at the Paramount Theater on West 43rd. In 1942, he exploded into stardom with a series of solo shows at the Paramount that made him a teen idol almost overnight.

Frankie played all over the city, from a benefit concert in Central Park to the swanky Copacabana nightclub to the high-end Wedgewood Room in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel -- and later, of course, to bigger rooms like The Garden and Radio City. He moved to the West Coast in the '40s, but kept an apartment in Manhattan, and whenever he was recording or performing in town, he'd make the scene at nightspots like PJ Clarke's and Patsy's Italian Restaurant right up until the last few years of his life.

Sadly, few if any of Sinatra's history-making '40s concerts seem to have been recorded, so New York kicks off in 1955, with a short three-song reunion with Tommy Dorsey at the Manhattan Center. It's followed by a 1963 performance at the United Nations offices to commemorate U.N. Staff Day. Accompanied only by the piano of the great Skitch Henderson, Sinatra's in fine form, and it's especially nice to hear bare-bones versions of "I Have Dreamed" and "My Heart Stood Still," from the richly orchestrated album The Concert Sinatra, his current LP at the time. These two sets take up the first disc, which runs a skimpy 34 minutes and change. But hey, at least it's Sinatra in his prime and in unusual settings.

Disc 2 is a Carnegie Hall performance from April, 1974 that was recorded for a planned live album. Why it never came out is obvious from the first three songs. He blows lyrics on "Come Fly With Me," gets completely lost on "I Get A Kick Out Of You" (at one point he even says "Where the hell am I?"), and then croaks and wheezes his way through a miserable "Don't Worry 'Bout Me." Sinatra had recently come off a 2 1/2-year layoff, and the rust in his pipes is all too evident.

Ol' Blue Eyes still sounds creaky on an ambitious 11-minute "saloon song" medley, but he recovers somewhat as the show progresses, especially on a killer version of the lesser-known "There Used To Be A Ballpark." Sadly, we also have to contend with covers of Bread's soft-rock hit "If" and, yes, "Bad Bad Leroy Brown." The '70s were a weird time for the old stalwarts who were trying to stay with-it, and not even Sinatra escaped completely.

With the kibosh placed on the Carnegie Hall set, Frankie planned big, scheduling a live TV broadcast of an October concert from Madison Square Garden, with an accompanying LP of the show in stores in time for Christmas '74. Disc 3 of the box set is the "dress rehearsal" for what would be known as Sinatra: The Main Event.

Recorded the day before the broadcast, the Chairman Of The Board is in much better voice than at Carnegie Hall -- I particularly like a rare live performance of the gorgeous ballad "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?" -- and in high spirits between songs. In fact, according to legend, this show went so well that he celebrated into the wee hours, which is why he sounded so much worse on the show that was broadcast the next night. Savvy engineers wound up having to splice in a bunch of segments from other concerts just to salvage the Main Event live album. This document is far superior.

Sinatra could still make magic onstage even at the end of his career, and New York City, particularly Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, seemed to inspire him. Which is why it drives me batty that Disc 4 presents severely truncated snippets from two great concerts, one at Carnegie Hall in June 1984 and the other from Radio City in June 1990. These are some of the finest performances on the box -- check out his high-octane "Mack The Knife" from '90, or what may be the greatest "Luck Be A Lady" I've ever heard, from '84.

Why these two stellar concerts are allotted less than 54 minutes between them is a mystery. And to make matters worse, one of the highlights of the 1990 shows, the very rarely performed "How About You" (which opens with the line "I like New York in June, how about you?") isn't included. Rumor has it that it was excised because Sinatra altered a line to mention his wife, Barbara -- who's despised by the Sinatra daughters, Nancy and Tina. I have the performance on a bootleg tape, and I can tell you that it wasn't excluded for lack of kicking ass.

And then there's the DVD, the unquestioned highlight of the whole box. Sinatra did multi-night stands at Carnegie Hall every year for much of the '80s, and among fans they're the most legendary concerts of his career. Whether it was the acoustics, the adoring crowds, or the ghosts of performers past that inspired him, he always seemed to have a little extra something every time he played the place.

The Carnegie Hall DVD was recorded on June 25, 1980. Sinatra was on the charts with a hit single ("New York, New York") and album (Trilogy) for the first time in years, and his confident, loose demeanor reflects it. His pipes are in tremendous shape, and the band, led by conductor Vincent Falcone, is cookin', especially on a jazzy, small-group take on "I Can't Get Started" and a stunning medley of "The Gal That Got Away" and "It Never Entered My Mind," which he laid down in the studio the following year for his album She Shot Me Down. If you're a fan, you'll have to pick your jaw up off the floor after checking out this stellar performance. If you're not a fan, you may very well be converted by the time it's done. The DVD alone is worth the price of admission and then some.

Alas, the "powers that be" couldn't resist tampering even with this glorious set. A couple of instrumental tunes, including one which Sinatra himself conducts, were removed for no good reason. And while the audio is brilliantly remixed and remastered, the video isn't much improved from the bootleg that's been floating around the collector's market for years.

And while I'm kvetching, I should mention that the handsome booklet goes on for several pages about how Sinatra loved Patsy's Italian Restaurant on West 56th St., while mentioning virtually nothing about the circumstances surrounding any of the music on the set. Why was Sinatra singing with Tommy Dorsey 13 years after he'd left to go solo? What on earth was Frank doing at the United Nations? Promoting "Peace Through Ring-A-Ding Ding"? You won't find out here.

In the end, Sinatra: New York is worth your time and your money. Even with the savagely edited later performances. Even though it has two concerts from 1974 instead of, say, the Uris Theatre '75 with Ella and Basie, or Radio City '78 where he premiered "New York, New York," or the Sloan-Kettering benefit concert from '82, to name just a few. Despite leaving empty space on CDs that could have been filled with tracks from Carnegie Hall '63 or the Italian-American benefit concert at Madison Square Garden in '69 or some of his wonderful Jerry Lewis telethon performances from '75.

Despite all the missteps and bad choices that went into making it, you should buy this box. Why? Because Frank Sinatra was the greatest singer of the 20th century, and he could also teach the singers of the 21st century a thing or two. Because you've never heard these performances before. Because they're all touched with the magic that only Frank Sinatra could bring to a song. Even when the song is "Bad Bad Leroy Brown." That's why.