Tag Archives: Empire Theatre

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 (www.snjo.co.uk) 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 (www.edfringe.com), 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

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Duke Ellington, Glasgow, 1933

22 Feb

Duke - McKeans ad
The legendary American bandleader, composer and pianist Duke Ellington  made five visits to Glasgow; one in each decade from the 1930s until his death in 1974, and all but the 1940s one with his legendary band.

I’ve researched all his visits to Glasgow, but the one that most thrills and intrigues me the most is that first one, which lasted six days in July 1933. Why? Well partly, of course, because of the music that was played – I can tell you that Ring Dem Bells was Scotland’s introduction to the wonders of Ellington – but also because the band was here for a residency, and I’m tickled by the idea that some of the original Ellingtonians (including Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Sonny Greer etc) , all of them young men at the time, walked the same streets I walk, and possibly stayed in the hotel which my great-grandfather managed.

Best of all, I love the fact that – according to a series of adverts that appeared during his stay – Duke Ellington actually came to Scotland for non-musical reasons. In an advertising campaign for McKeans shops, a photograph of Ellington is printed above the legend: “I came to Scotland to taste McKean’s Haggis … I have, it was worth the trip!”

The Ellington Orchestra came to Glasgow’s Empire Theatre fresh from a sensational final night in Liverpool which was attended by none other than the Prince of Wales whose cries for an encore did not go unnoticed by the band – or the press. The Glasgow papers were not sure, beforehand, what exactly to expect – but they did recognise that this was a major event, the first appearance by a major jazz orchestra playing work by a major composer. So much so that The Glasgow Herald, a broadsheet which didn’t usually deign to review Empire shows, sent a critic along, and there was coverage in the local papers throughout the week.

At the Empire on Monday, July 3, the band went down a storm at the packed houses for their two, hour-long, shows. According to the Bulletin reviewer, “thrilling” was the only word to describe them.  “Those strident, scarlet-toned trumpets and trombones, those thrumming banjos [sic], those reedy, imperative saxophones, working together in a stream of wild, insistent, rhythmic harmony, set the blood tingling.” It must have been utterly exhilarating to hear this young band, with its dynamic and charismatic leader, playing music familiar only from records..

The Daily Record review pointed out that “one of the trumpeters was taken straight to Glasgow’s large heart right from the first sight of his cheery non-stop grin. The whole place wanted to give him a cheer all to himself, and they got their wish when he blew strange noises in the approved Louis Armstrong method. His grin grew wider and wider, and the cheering rose in volume.”

Indeed, Glasgow seems to have gone suitably nuts for the show which featured Ivie Anderson – memorably described by one reviewer as “a sort of Gracie Fields of the negro metropolis” – who sang Stormy Weather and (bizarrely, since it was Cab Calloway’s hit) Minnie the Moocher, and various dancers including Bessie Dudley.

And as for Ellington himself? Well, the dashing and dapper 34-year-old made a strong impression on Glasgow audiences, and reporters with whom (at the Stars in Scotland 030edited
height of a heatwave) he discussed his idea of taking some rolls of Harris tweed home as presents for his family. The journalist sent to interview him for the Evening Times wrote: “The Duke of Harlem has a grin and an effervescent personality that project themselves across the footlights – and at close quarters he is no less charming.

” ‘No, I don’t take my compositions from negro melodies,’ he said in intervals of signing the books of dozens of autograph hunters who were waiting outside the theatre. ‘The negro folk-tunes that are known the world over are negro in name only, written and altered into conventional form by conservatory trained musicians. Real negro music was never meant to be written down – it is just sound that comes from the heart to express a particular mood.’

“His own compositions, he told me, are evolved on those lines. ‘We compose – it is always we – to express a mood. There are no improvisations in the finished composition, every note being scored.’ ”

Nevertheless, as another article noted, none of the tunes from the band’s 500-number repertoire are played from printed music; they are all memorised.

The Sunday Mail’s reporter grilled him on the “distinctive Harlem slanguage” that was exchanged onstage during the shows, and in particular Ellington’s habit of shouting “Every tub!” during particularly “forceful” numbers. The ducal explanation was: “It’s another way of saying ‘Let go!’ We’ve got an expression, ‘Every tub stands on its own bottom’. In other words, ‘Every man for himself!”

I can’t find any information on whether he fulfilled his stated desire to hear bagpipes being “properly” played during that first visit to Scotland, but can report that among the other tunes performed on the opening night of the Empire residency were Mood Indigo, Black and Tan Fantasy, Whispering Tiger and Rockin’ in Rhythm.

That last tune can be heard – along with Stormy Weather, also played in Glasgow – on the short film Bundle of Blues which the band filmed in New York just before coming to Britain.  This classic soundie gives us a flavour of what the Glasgow Empire audience experienced – right down to the vocals of Ivie Anderson and the loose-limbed dancing of Bessie Dudley. As for the haggis? You’ll have to imagine that for yourself…. 

(c) Alison Kerr, 2012 

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