Composer, bandleader and trombonist Bobby Lamb remembers touring with Sinatra
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.