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Sinatra in Scotland: 1990, The Second Time Around

10 Jul

This post was written and first published in July 2010

Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

Twenty years ago, my hometown of Glasgow celebrated being named a European City of Culture. One of the most eagerly anticipated events in the city’s cultural calendar that memorable year was a concert by the man who was arguably the greatest singer of the 20th century – Frank Sinatra. From the beginning of Glasgow’s year as a City of Culture, a visit by Ol’ Blue Eyes had been dangled tantalisingly before Glaswegians. And when it finally happened, on July 10, 1990, it proved to be a night to remember.

Scots jazz singer Carol Kidd and her London-based trio had been asked to be the support band after Sinatra’s “people” came to a concert and asked for all her CDs to be sent to the man himself. Kidd and her pianist, fellow Glaswegian David Newton, were in Ibrox throughout the day.

“We turned up quite early,” says Newton, “and watched the…

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Sinatra in Scotland: The First Time Around

21 May

Sinatra at Carnoustie, Dundee Courier, July 10He came, he crooned, he conquered. Not once, but twice. Frank Sinatra, whose centenary is being celebrated this year, didn’t just come to Scotland for that iconic Ibrox Stadium concert in 1990; he had already visited the country almost 40 years earlier – when he performed in Glasgow, Ayr and Dundee.

Whereas it was a living legend who held the Ibrox audience in his sway during the 1990 concert, the Sinatra who took to several Scottish stages in 1953 was at something of a low ebb in his career. The terrific popularity he had enjoyed during the 1940s when he was the gangly pin-up of the “bobby-soxers” had waned and his record sales had fallen off; his movie career was no longer anything to write home about and his scandalous affair with Ava Gardner, whom he divorced the mother of his children to marry, had dented his image and alienated many fans.

When Sinatra arrived in Scotland in July 1953, nobody could have anticipated that he was on the brink of the chapter during which his legend would be written. Indeed, 1953 would prove – ultimately – to be a very good year, career-wise, for the future Ol’ Blue Eyes. He arrived here having just joined Capitol Records, where he would go on to record the albums and hits which guaranteed him eternal mega-stardom, and having just filmed From Here to Eternity, the movie which would resurrect his film career, establish his serious acting abilities and earn him an Oscar.

Instead of being greeted by the thousands who had turned out to welcome such Evening Times listing for Sinatra, July 1953previous Empire Theatre headliners as Laurel & Hardy, Danny Kaye and Dorothy Lamour, Sinatra ran the gauntlet of just a small crowd of fans upon his arrival in Glasgow’s city centre just after noon on Monday July 6 1953. Who knows how different it might have been had he arrived by train into Central Station on the Sunday – as was the custom of most stars beginning a two-shows-a-night run at the Empire Theatre on the Monday? Certainly the absence of the scenes of near hysteria which had greeted previous visiting stars added to the impression that Sinatra was a has-been.

The truth is: Sinatra had been unable get to Glasgow sooner as he had been performing at the London Palladium the night before – so he flew up on the day of his first show, leaving Mrs Sinatra filming the MGM costume drama The Knights of the Round Table in the capital. By this point, two years into their ill-fated marriage, the cracks were already beginning to show – and, just three months later they announced their separation.

The subject of Ava Gardner doesn’t appear to have been up for discussion during a relaxed press reception in the lobby of the Central Hotel almost immediately upon Sinatra’s checking-in. Coming over as extremely affable andSinatra in Ayr ad, ET, July 1953 unaffected, the 39-year-old, who was referred to as “The Voice” and “Swoonatra” in the papers, lit his pipe and discussed his love of golf (his handicap was 24) and his plan to support Ben Hogan at the Open Golf Championship which was underway at Carnoustie. (He watched the fourth morning’s play later that week before returning to Glasgow for his early evening performance.)

He raved about some of the BBC television drama he had watched during his British visit thus far – and revealed that he was keen to produce or direct TV shows and movies. And in what now, with the benefit of the hindsight that this was the singer later regarded as the greatest of the 20th Century, sounds like a bombshell, Sinatra told the Evening Times that the “future of Frank”, as he saw it at that point, meant less and less singing and more and more light comedy.

Indeed, that night, in front of a packed first house at the Empire, the star – whose looks were described as “lean and Sinatra arrival, ET, July 6hungry” – revealed his comedy skills. He wisecracked about everyone from Ben Hogan to – intriguingly – Willie Waddell, the Rangers and Scotland footballer, whose inclusion in the act was probably a first-night exercise in Sinatra testing the waters about which subjects went down well in Glasgow.

The crowd howled with laughter in response to his “Old Man [Bing] Crosby” parody of Old Man River and his ad-libbing skills. Having sung the All of Me line “Take my arms”, he paused, and asked increduously: “Arms?!”

Of course it was his singing which drew squeals, yelps, whistles and roars from the full house. He brought gasps from the women in the audience with his prolonged notes, and the last few bars of every number were drowned in applause. And it wasn’t only the women who were dazzled by “The Voice”. Hugh Napier of Helensburgh recalls “the magic” of Sinatra at the Empire. He says: “We knew we were experiencing greatness. It was wonderful. His phrasing was immaculate and the way he put over the number in sympathy with the words was spell-binding.”

Concentrating on songs from earlier in his career (“There have been no songs written in the past six months which are conducive to me,” he explained), Sinatra sang for an hour, accompanied onstage by his pianist Bill Miller, and with Billy Ternent’s Orchestra in the pit. Among the numbers were a show-stopping version of Old Man River, September Song, Nancy With the Laughing Face, Birth of the Blues and Embraceable You.

And, taking a page out of Danny Kaye’s book, he endeared himself to the crowd by taking a tea-break, just behind the footlights. “It gives me a rest,” the down-to-earth crooner explained.

Indeed, being down-to-earth was one of the most striking characteristics of the Frank Sinatra who came to Glasgow that summer. So unaffected was he that he didn’t wear any stage make-up and strolled onstage wearing the suit he had left his hotel room in.

Writing in 1990 about his 1953 encounters with Sinatra, the Glasgow Herald’s entertainments editor Andy Young said: “He never used his dressing room at all at the Empire. The same towel hung unused all week. A limo would drop him at the theatre a few minutes before each show. He would walk straight in off the street onto the stage, without a sign of the screaming, hysterical, fainting bobby-soxers who had mobbed him everywhere he went” just a few years before.

The 1953 Sinatra was also extremely approachable; he even did the approaching in one notable instance cited by Andy Young. “One night I was standing at the Empire stage door when a woman, unused to the theatre, was trying to buy tickets there. Suddenly, this quiet, friendly American voice came from over her shoulder. ‘I’ll show where to get them,Sinatra at Caird Hall advert ma’m.’ Yes, it was Sinatra and he took her out onto the pavement in West Nile Street and directed her round the corner to Sauchiehall Street, where the box-office was located.”

It wasn’t full houses throughout the week, unfortunately, and the audience numbers worsened dramatically when Sinatra gave concerts (as opposed to appearing as the headliner on a variety bill as he had done at the Empire) in Ayr and Dundee for Glasgow impresario Chalmers Wood. At Green’s Playhouse in Ayr on Sunday 12, the 3pm show only attracted 500 audience members, but the 3000-seater hall looked to be well-filled in the evening. At Dundee’s cavernous Caird Hall, on Monday 13, it was a similar story, with 586 seats – out of over 3000 – taken in the first house, and 1200 in the second.

At the Caird Hall – where the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Kurt Elling bring their Sinatra celebration this month –  he made a virtue of the compact size of the audience which was scattered throughout the stalls and gallery during the first show, and invited punters to move down to the expensive seats. “Don’t worry about the fellow who runs this place,” he said. Let’s be one big, happy family.” And once the musical chairs round was over, he added: “There now, that’s cosier.”

Stories of Sinatra being pelted with coins during his Scottish tour are as fanciful as the urban myth that Ava Gardner

Sinatra signed the Caird Hall visitors' book on the 1933 page!

Sinatra signed the Caird Hall visitors’ book on the 1933 page!

was waiting for him in his Dundee hotel after the Caird Hall concert. (In fact, he was driven back to Glasgow from where he flew to London the next morning.) Audiences gave him warm welcomes, and he sang their praises afterwards – though who knows what was said in private?

The only public indication he gave of disappointment in audience numbers was his cutting short the afternoon show in Ayr. A letter to the Dundee Courier a few days after his Dundee debacle sheds some light on why the concerts weren’t better attended.

“Whoever arranged Frank Sinatra’s concert must have been optimistic regarding his fans’ finances,” wrote Catriona of Dundee. “Teenagers form the largest part of his following, with the result that they just couldn’t afford the Caird Hall prices. A popular all-over price would have filled the hall easily with young people.”

Of course, ticket sales wouldn’t have been an issue had he returned to Scotland at any point in the four decades before he finally did .. But maybe there just wasn’t a golf tournament he wanted to attend …

* Sinatra’s centenary is being celebrated in Scotland throughout the summer, starting with a  tour by Kurt Elling and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra ( from May 21; Frank Sinatra Jr plays the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on June 28; Todd Gordon/Sinatra:100 Years is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh from August 6-30 (, and the BBC Big Band Sinatra Centenary Concert (with Curtis Stigers, Jacqui Dankworth & Todd Gordon) at the Festival Theatre on July 17 as part of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival.

* First published in The Herald on Saturday, May 9th

Liberace, Glasgow, 1960

4 Mar


There was little danger of the American entertainer Liberace slipping quietly into his hotel when he arrived in Glasgow to take up a three-week residency at the Empire Theatre on a sunny Sunday in 1960. The 41-year-old known as Mr Showmanship went walkabout among fans of all ages, many of whom would have just recently seen him headlining the inaugural Royal Variety Show on TV – and would have read in the morning papers that he was due to arrive at the Central Hotel at 3pm.

Much of the coverage of the OTT pianist and vocalist’s visit centred on his lavish props and bling-tastic wardrobe.Before he arrived in town, the press was rife with stories about his signature candelabra and piano which had been shipped over from the States for his British tour. The piano, with its inch-thick glass top, was said to be guarded so preciously that it had to be locked between performances.

Over breakfast at noon the day after his arrival (that meal would last him until after his opening show), he told reporters that he had brought 40 suits for “walking out” purposes; the reason he had brought so many being that his 22-week season in Britain took in three seasons of cold, mild and hot weather.

Offstage, Liberace – or “Lee” as he said friends called him – was conservatively dressed in a blue suit and tie. Onstage, however, it was a different matter. On the first night at the Empire his black sequin jacket proved to be just a warm-up for a series of ever more outlandish outfits, culminating in a glittering, beaded tail suit with diamond buttons down the front that spelled out his name. Each costume change was preceded by a droll comment. “I hope you folks will excuse me while I slip into something more spectacular,” he said at one point, adding: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

And just in case anyone couldn’t spot such details as his diamond rings – one in the shape of a grand piano; the other in the form of a candelabra – he descended into the stalls to show them off to individual audience members.

His music – a tribute to Gershwin and a highly personal take on Tchaikovsky were the only musical aspects mentioned in reviews – went down well. However, it was his wry patter – not at all, said the critics, as gushing and “sugary-voiced” as it had been during his old TV series – which most endeared him to the first-night crowd.

Apparently overwhelmed by the applause, he said: “I am going to have so much fun in Glasgow that I’m ashamed to take your money. But I will!” It was a different story by the end of his three-week run, however. Speaking of his disappointment with box office figures in Glasgow – the result, it was speculated, of the fine weather and the steep ticket prices in particular – he told the press that he was unlikely to return to Scotland unless it was for a series of one-nighters.

Text (c) Alison Kerr (2013)

To order a copy of the photo from the Herald Scotland’ s photo sales website, click here


Marlene Dietrich, Glasgow, 1966

4 Apr
City of Stars 1 - Marlene Dietrich with child

Marlene Dietrich, Glasgow Airport, Monday November 7 1966 (c) Herald & Times Group

Little did Marlene Dietrich know, when she stepped off the plane for her first visit to the city of stars, that by the end of her stay she would be stepping on to the top of her limo and proclaiming “I belong to Glasgow!”.

She was met at Glasgow Airport by dozens of reporters who tried to solve the mystery of her age. Asked why she looked so terribly young, the witty 65-year-old superstar simply said: “But I’m not so terribly old.”

Also waiting for Dietrich on the tarmac was seven-year-old Iain Robertson, the son of John Robertson, assistant manager at the Alhambra Theatre where the star was appearing in her one-woman show that night. She was delighted with the tartan doll given to her by the youngster, but dismissed the suggestion that she might include some Scots songs in her programme. “The Scots sing their own songs much better than I,” she smiled.

Dietrich clearly didn’t need to resort to trading on the tartan in order to win over her audience that night. She swept onstage in white fur and simply seduced the 2000-strong Alhambra crowd with her charisma and presence – and the beguiling way she sang the 22 songs that made up the 90-minute show.

The Evening Times reviewer said: “She needs no props, no artifice. She looks round the theatre with almost savage disdain as if to say ‘I’m Dietrich, who are you?’.” Accompanied by a 20-piece London orchestra, she sang many familiar, signature, songs from her long career – among them Lili Marlene, See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have and Falling in Love Again. Her performance of the folk song Where Have All the Flowers Gone hushed the spellbound audience.

By the end, she had earned a standing ovation and the stage was strewn with red roses thrown from the audience. At the stage door, more than 100 people waited in pouring rain to catch a glimpse of the star, and she made a point of signing autographs before climbing on top of the car and declaring her love for Glasgow – and Scotland. Cops tried to break up the ever-growing crowd, but Dietrich refused to budge and chatted on to her fans, triggering cheers from Post Office workers assembled on the roof of their building.

(c) Alison Kerr, 2012. To purchase this photo, visit


Sammy Davis Jr, Glasgow, 1963

27 Mar
City of Stars 1 - Sammy Davis Jr

Sammy Davis Jr, Central Hotel, Glasgow, Wednesday May 15, 1963 (c) Herald & Times Group

Relaxing with a drink after two sensational shows earlier in the evening at the Odeon, a euphoric Sammy Davis Jr held court in the Central Hotel into the wee small hours of the morning. He had earned his bourbon and coke on the rocks, having missed his train from Leeds earlier in the day – which meant that he only arrived at his own gig 20 minutes after the first house had started.

The main subject of his late-night, post-show discussion was the wildly enthusiastic reaction he had just received for his Glasgow debut. “Quite frankly,” he said, “and it’s not show biz hogwash, I’ve never seen such a warm audience.”

Davis had delighted the capacity Odeon crowd with a mixture of singing, dancing, gags and impersonations (notably one, using a white handkerchief, of Louis Armstrong). Hailed as more than a mere showman in the next day’s papers, he had brought the house down with his performance of I Belong to Glasgow – complete with a tartan tammy. He told reporters he had learned the song three years earlier from the British actor Al Burnett (with whom he had appeared in the Royal Variety Show). “I sing it sometimes over in the States and they sure love it,” he said.

He also had plenty to say about the Civil Rights movement – Martin Luther King had recently been arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama. “The negro is on the move. He is tired of putting up a submissive attitude. Martin Luther King is one of my dearest friends. I am not down there in Alabama being beaten or jailed but just as it is his fate, so it is my fate. It’s time for the negro to receive human dignity. And it will be won some day. We cannot exist any other way.”

(c) Alison Kerr, 2012.

To purchase this photograph, visit


Sir Harry Lauder, Mary Gordon & Irving Berlin, Glasgow, 1946

12 Mar
City of Stars - Irving Berlin etc

Sir Harry Lauder, Mary Gordon & Irving Berlin, Green’s Playhouse, 126 Renfield Street, Monday September 9, 1946 (c) Herald & Times Group

Irving Berlin, arguably the popular – and certainly the most prolific – of all the American songwriters, came to Glasgow in September 1946 to attend the “trade show” of Blue Skies, a lavish musical featuring a string of his songs and starring Fred Astaire.

The visit by 54-year-old composer and lyricist – whose career stretched back to before the First World War and whose hits included White Christmas, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Cheek to Cheek, Puttin’ On the Ritz, God Bless America and How Deep is the Ocean – didn’t attract the amount of press attention one might have expected.

Instead, the Glasgow papers focused on the return to the city, after 27 years, of Bridgeton-born Mary Gordon, the Hollywood character actress who was best known as the housekeeper Mrs Hudson in the popular Sherlock Holmes movies (which starred Basil Rathbone) and Mrs M’Guinness in the Bowery Boys films.

Irving Berlin and Mary Gordon were joined by Gordon’s old chum, Sir Harry Lauder, for the the prestigious screening of Blue Skies at Green’s Playhouse and the reception which was held afterwards at the Central Hotel, where Berlin was staying for his one-night visit.

(c) Alison Kerr, 2012. To purchase this photograph, visit

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