15 July 1950
IT WAS THE NIGHT FRANK SINATRA WALKED ON TO THE LONDON PALLADIUM STAGE and, after a slight, diffident bow, swung into the standard When You’re Smiling. Thus began a love affair between the singer and his British fans that would continue until the end of his life.
News that Sinatra was at last coming to Britain broke on June 5. “A few hours previously,” ran one report, “Sinatra received confirmation of a US TV and radio contract that puts him above even Bing Crosby as the world’s highest-paid singer – a £1million contract with the Columbia Broadcasting Company of America.”
For the next few weeks, headlines continued to boost the singer’s projected two-week London season. Come opening night, Argyll Street, home of the Palladium, seemed under siege as Sinatra fans, some toting huge banners, packed the area. “People in some cases literally fought to get inside the theatre,” it was reported.
Chaos reigned at the end of the first house as celebrities and others tried to exit the venue while second-house patrons struggled to get in.
“People literally fought to get inside the theatre.”
Police attempting to cordon off a section of the crowd soon admitted defeat as the mass surged forward. “Long after the second show had started, celebrities were still seen among those striving to enter the theatre,” noted one newspaper.
Inside, after support acts such as comedian Max Wall and sand dancers Wilson, Keppel & Betty, Sinatra held full sway, be it swinging effortlessly or delivering immaculate ballads like Bewitched, Embraceable You, Don’t Cry Joe, Nancy With The Laughing Face, Come Rain Or Come Shine and an off-the-cuff My Foolish Heart, rendered with the aid of pianist Ken Lane, in answer to a request from the gallery.
A tour de force
Sipping tea between songs, Sinatra delivered comedy too. After a range-taxing Ol’ Man River, he did his Ol’ Man Crosby parody before moving on to uptempo items like A Foggy Day (In London Town) and Bye Bye Baby. He gave a tour de force Soliloquy from Carousel, an essential part of Sinatra’s act prefaced with the comment, “We had to get a special piece of legislation passed to allow me to sing this,” a comment about the situation whereby British singers were prevented from performing material from Broadway shows that yet to transfer to the London stage.
The late Woolf Phillips, who led the Skyrockets, Sinatra’s backing orchestra at the Palladium, recalled the engagement as a triumph. Phillips described first meeting Sinatra at a Monday morning rehearsal. “Frank looked at me and said, ‘You know, Woolf, you’ve gotta a lot of friends on the West Coast’ – a rather nice way of saying hello for the very first time. I knew all about him right from his Tommy Dorsey days,” he continued. “Because I was a trombone player I was a great fan of Dorsey’s, though I was more interested in the band and Tommy himself.
“When Frank started singing with him I was more intrigued with Axel Stordahl and his accompaniments. They were wonderful scores Frank sang – and that was it. Gradually, though, over the years, Frank sang ever impressively and it was just great. I like him immensely and he’s always been very nice to me.”
When the Palladium dates were over, Sinatra gave everyone in the orchestra a voucher for Harrods. He also had a special gift for the leader.
“His manager came to me and said, ‘Frank wants to see you – there’s some trouble,’” recalled Phillips. “I went to see him and he said: ‘I know this isn’t very good but I’ve had these flown over from New York and I wish you’d accept them from me as a token of my genuine friendship and appreciation.’ He gave me a pair of cufflinks, one side of which was circular and embossed with St Vitus, patron saint of entertainers, while the other side was a small oblong sort of thing engraved ‘To Woolfie, Gratefully, Frank’.
“God! I don’t have them now. My daughter has one, she took the saint portion off to wear around her neck while the small oblong became part of a wrist bangle.”