Frank Sinatra's 'Sinatra at the Sands' Turns 50: The Whiskey-Swilling, Joke-Cracking American Icon at His Peak

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Frank Sinatra performing with a drink in his hand on the stage at the Fontainebleau Hotel in 1968.

The Hoodlum from Hoboken is at his most Rat Pack-y on this 1966 live release, featuring the Count Basie Orchestra.

Travel back in time to 1966: Lyndon B. Johnson is in the White House. The Space Race and Cold War are reaching their fever pitches, as troops surge in Vietnam and the Air Force bombs Hanoi. NASA is in an all-out sprint to the moon, determined to arrive before the USSR and make human history. The Beatles are at peak ubiquity -- John Lennon stirs controversy by claiming the Fab Four are more "popular than Jesus." In the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights, race riots erupt across the country while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. builds momentum for his movement, delivering speech after speech. Colorful Mod clothing from Swingin’ London is all the rage. LSD arrives and the hippy and psychedelic movements take shape.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Frank Sinatra and his tuxedo-wearing Rat Pack cronies, including Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., are holding court on the Strip, toasting their dwindling youths: The bright neon lights glint. The booze flows. The wiseguy mafiosos scheme. And Sinatra at the Sands, the singer’s definitive (and first) live album, captures it all flawlessly. 

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The legendary singer’s career spanned decades, eras and personas, but when we think of Frank Sinatra we think of this Frank Sinatra -- the whiskey-swilling, joke-cracking singer and entertainer that has become an American icon.

Recorded live at the Copa Room with Count Basie and his band, including conductor-arranger Quincy Jones, Sands finds Sinatra fully in his element: "How'd all these people get in my room?," he jokes as he arrived onstage. With grace and bluster, Sinatra and the 20-member orchestra deliver spot-on renditions of 16 classics, including "Come Fly with Me," "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," and "Angel Eyes"; a pair of Basie instrumental interludes fill the time during Sinatra's drinking. The two had previously worked together on 1962's Sinatra-Basie and 1964’s It Might As Well Be Swing, both released on Sinatra’s Reprise label. But Sands was their masterwork, the live incarnation of their combo of sweeping orchestrations and jazz-pop vocals.

In '66, Sinatra had recently turned 50 years old and was experiencing a career resurgence following a slump in the late-1950s. His 1965 album, September of My Years, won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, while its single "It Was a Very Good Year" won for Best Male Vocal Performance. A career anthology, A Man and His Music, took Album of the Year in '66. His warm, distinctive voice was at the peak of its power. So when he stepped onstage at the Sands Hotel to record this first live album, Sinatra was on a winning streak unmatched in pop music. He behaved accordingly. 

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What really sets Sands apart is the recording and the oft off-color banter. During "The Tea Break" section of the album, Sinatra plays comedian: "I hope you’re having an enjoyable stay here in Las Vegas and have been fortunate," he tells the crowd. "I can't say the same for Mr. Basie and myself. We’ve run into a streak of bad luck. Sunday we went up to the Grand Canyon and it was closed!" Laughter explodes in the Copa. He begs forgiveness for any inconveniences at the Sands Hotel, then undergoing renovations, and claims executives had to borrow 11 million from the cocktail waitresses to fund it. He even prods his Rat Pack pal Martin: "The question most asked of me is, 'Does Dean Martin really drink?' I can say he’s an absolutely, unqualified drunk. If we ever develop an Olympic drinking team, he'll be the coach."

"I would say [Martin's] been stoned more often than United States embassies," Sinatra added to riotous laughter.

He refuted news of his recent birthday, calling it a "dirty Communist lie direct from Hanoi," claiming he was really 28 and would be 22 had comedian Joe E Lewis not "wrecked" him from drinking too much. "Well, I think I better sing before I turn 51," he says. "I mean… 29." The band then jumps into a boppin' version of "You Make Me Feel So Young." Later, he jokes about drinking Jack Daniel's -- "Last night, I fell off the wagon," he says, playing off his reputation as a hard drinker. "I even smoked a couple of cigarettes last night!"

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"Now I'd like to leave you with a proverb that was handed down to me," he says. "We feel sorry for people who don't drink because when you get up in the morning, that's as good as you're gonna feel for the rest of the day." It’s pure, distilled Frank Sinatra. 

Sands is a cultural intersection. It represents the high water mark of Sinatra’s baritone voice and Rat Pack popularity. It’s the cresting point of the Old Vegas, a bygone era that would see many classic hotels ultimately destroyed in the decades to come. It arrived at a hairpin turn in American culture, as a new generation was Turned On. But Sands will always be a gateway back in time. So, do yourself a favor: Play Sinatra at the Sands, loudly. Lay down, close your eyes and picture yourself in the Copa, up front at a small table covered in red cloth and a small lamp. The ice clinks in your cocktail glass and cigarette smoke wafts. Onstage, in the spotlight, Sinatra sings and struts and jokes, transforming a man into a myth.