Jazz Professional               

Composer, bandleader and trombonist
Bobby Lamb

On tour with Frank Sinatra and
Liza Minnelli

Lamb/Premru interview
On tour with Frank Sinatra|
Sinatra and Liza Minnelli tour
Bill Miller remembers

Published in the Sunday Independent of April 15th, 2001 and reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.
Frank liked working with a big band - more than anything else. He was a product of the big-band days, and all the time I played with him he used a big band. In fact, he used three big bands. When he was working on the west coast of America, he had what was called his Los Angeles band, which worked up the west coast and as far inland as Chicago. Then he had his New York band, which worked the east coast and as far inland as Chicago from the other side. This band would also go to Africa, South America and. Argentina. Then there was his European band, where there were people such as myself. But he had a nucleus of guys who travelled everywhere with him. There was, from 1951, Bill Miller on piano. He also conducted for Sinatra. Irv Cottler, the great drummer, was always with him from 1955. The guitar chair was always covered by Tony Mottola or Ron Anthony and the outstanding bass player of all this period was Gene Cherico. When Frank's son, Frank Junior, was made conductor, he liked to use the people who had worked with him performing his own act in Las Vegas. He liked to use the Las Vegas musicians a great deal. Sometimes it got so that I was the only working non-American guy in the band. Most of the musicians who came to Europe were American and I was the extra guy that they would pick up here. If they had to, they would pick the string section up from here as well. The Frank Sinatra Ultimate Tour beckoned. It was to consist of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior and Frank Sinatra. However, before they came to do the grand tour of Europe, which was in April 1989, Dean Martin cried off ill. They got a last-minute replacement, Liza Minnelli. I had worked with Sammy Davis, and had done his tours as well, so I was really looking forward to seeing him again. We had spent 15 years together and I have to say he was a really easy guy to get to know. Such a talented and sweet guy! If there were ever a criticism to be made, it would be that he was too nice.

Liza Minnelli is a very, very talented person, but so insecure that it continually drove me up the wall. I should have been prepared for this because I had worked with Liza at the London Palladium a year before. At the first rehearsal the usual thing happened with Frank: he wasn't there and we just ran some of the music we would play. Sammy Davis came in and sang a couple of songs and was happy with the sound of the orchestra and just let everybody get on with it. Then Liza came in and insisted on going through every song she was doing with the band over and over and over again.

At the end of the day, the orchestra was quite exhausted, but we all felt, “Right, we're going on tour; that was the end of all that. We'll just do our usual 10-minute sound checks and get ready for the show.” This was not to be! After the very first night, Liza's insecurity began to show even more. When we opened in Milan, she insisted on a sound check. To explain, a normal check is for the sound man to make sure the microphones are working properly and the speakers are responding properly and that's it! Most singers, if they were going to turn up at all, would sing six or eight bars and turn around and say “Thanks very much” and go. This was what happened with Sammy Davis, though not with Frank as he wouldn't bother turning up. But Liza's insecurity wouldn't allow her to do this, so she would half rehearse her act again.

We did the show, and more of the same in Rotterdam. By this time, Sammy Davis wasn't turning up for the sound check either, but Liza was there again! Her conductor and drummer was a gentleman called Bill LaVorgna. He was an excellent drummer, so he played and conducted at the same time. He, coincidentally, had been the drummer for Liza's mother, Judy Garland.

Judy was the complete opposite to Liza; she hated rehearsing and hated having anything to do with it at all. In fact, a short anecdote sums up one of Judy's idiosyncrasies. There was a session with EMI and a 70-piece orchestra was booked. In a normal recording session the arranger/conductor takes the piece through once to make sure everything is in order and then might try certain sections to get them even better. Then the singer would sing along with the orchestra whilst the engineer would balance the sound of the voice and orchestra. However, Judy turns up and stands at the microphone straight away, ready to go.

The engineer is doing a levels check to make sure the sound of the voice is all right and balanced, and Judy says to him to record it. He assumes she is asking him to record the rehearsals so that she can double-check things herself. So he records it and when she finishes the song, she turns around to the orchestra and says “Thank you very much chaps” and walks out. If that was a situation with Liza, the orchestra would have played it 26-30 times.

Anyway, back to the tour and Liza. We moved on to Stockholm and the same thing happened. By this stage she had fixed on something she could relate to: a song which I seem to remember being called Ring Them Bells. I began to hate this song so much that I would even wake up remembering the whole chart in minute detail. There was a little transition section in the middle. In Stockholm, she felt that it was a bit long and the conductor said that this was no problem and turned to the orchestra and instructed us to take two bars off, making it shorter. The next day, in Oslo, we were sound-checking again and she felt that it was too short. We put the two bars back in and spent hours over this, until she finally felt happy with it.

We arrived in Gothenburg, got to the venue, started to sound-check - and there she was again. At this stage she felt that it was not long enough, so Bill put another two bars onto this section and we spent two hours rehearsing it, until she felt comfortable. Next stop, Helsinki, where she changed her mind yet again! By now she felt it should be the original length, that it was too long . . . and so again we were rehearsing until she was satisfied! Somewhere else, and again - too long, too short!

I was sitting alongside Bill and he must have heard me saying the strangest of things in a very weird language, but he was an awfully nice guy and took no notice of me at all. The only time this rigmarole changed was in Paris. Liza's special friend, Charles Aznavour, had turned up. She had asked him about the show and he was an old pro at this; his reply was, “Everything's fine baby, everything sounds great!” So there were no more sound checks. Perfect!

But Paris only lasted for four days and we were on to Amsterdam. The same routine started again - Munich, Vienna and Dublin! I'll never forget Liza Minnelli, a very talented artist, and, despite all of the above, a very charming and nice person. It is just that this little bit of insecurity plagued her and in turn plagued the life out of us as well.

Dublin was, for Frank, Sammy and Liza, something really special. I had never seen them enjoy a city more than this - and we had played most of the major cities in Europe. This was all thanks to a gentleman called Oliver Barry. He made them extremely welcome and they were so happy with him. His generosity and warmth and the time he spent with them paid off. I had never seen Frank laugh as much as he did, or Sammy clown around so much and Liza, just this once, forgot about her anxieties and had a ball! Dublin was, for everyone, one of the nicest things that happened to us. I am sure that if Frank Sinatra was still alive he would agree with me. I would have loved to have been there or heard what Oliver Barry did to make them so happy, but he sure worked the magic ...

We came back to Dublin again in June 1990 with Frank and did an extremely short tour, just Stockholm, Dublin and Scotland. By now, Frank's memory was really playing him up and I began to think his hearing was going as well. The frustration this caused made him very, very unhappy at times. So much so that any time the guys would spot him in the bar, they would disappear in case he exploded. It must be a terrible thing to be a perfectionist and a man of such outstanding talent, and then suddenly to be confronted with the fact that growing old means that you are likely to lose your memory and other facilities and, in the grand scheme of things, not be able to run as fast.

For someone like Sinatra, that must have been extremely cruel. But, like the rest of us, he had to accept it. What really put the killer touch on this tour for Frank was that a month before it started, his great friend Sammy Davis died. Having all of that on his mind while still having to try and perform was incredibly hard. It was also becoming more evident at the beginning of every concert that it was taking longer and longer to get his voice under control.

In 1991 we were back in Dublin for the Diamond Jubilee tour with Frank Sinatra, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Frank looked - and sounded - a bit calmer and seemed to have accepted the inevitable. Unfortunately over the previous 10 years, a distance had grown between him and the band. This, I believed, was due to the deep frustration that he felt at the deterioration of his voice and strength.

The last of Frank's visits to Europe came the following year, in June 1992. By now the struggle was becoming more difficult for him. The reception at the Albert Hall was rather mixed; his fans knew exactly what he was going through night after night on the stage. It was like watching the heavyweight championship, except that instead of doing three rounds and winning, Sinatra was fighting 15 rounds and coming out slightly groggy. There was also the terrible tragedy of his nearest and dearest friend, Jilly Rizzo, who had been killed in a car crash one month before Sinatra came over.

Carrying all this on his shoulders while still trying to attain some form of artistic perfection would have been totally impossible for any other human being, but Frank Sinatra was no ordinary human being. He went back to the States and seemed to attain a new lease of life, busy as ever recording all over the place, performing and still doing benefits and charity concerts.

In October 1993 a new album came out with 13 of this best hits sung with people such as Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Carly Simon. The Duets Album was a great success, not bad for a 78-year-old. Robert Mitchum once said that if he had to fight anyone in the world, the person he would least like to be up against would be Frank Sinatra, because no matter how often you would put him down, he would get up and start again.

Sadly, Frank collapsed during a concert in Richmond, Virginia. Everybody was very, very quick to write him off. But as Mitchum had said, you can knock him down but he'll get straight back up again. Sure enough, the following August, he was back on stage in New Jersey, collecting the Francis Albeit Sinatra Tribute for Performing Arts. This was a special award that was given to him for improving cultural life in New Jersey. The rest of the year was full up with concerts and benefits that he attended. In 1994, the follow-up album to Duets came out.

In 1995 Warner records announced plans to release a tribute album of Frank for his 80th birthday. It was difficult to realise, looking at this 79-year-old man, that he had found a new inspiration. His chops were frazzled, his voice nothing like it was, but his presence and personality and the atmosphere that he always managed to create was still there. I used to think his personality was so strong that he could send his shadow in and it could do the show for him. Towards the end of 1995, though, he began to slow things down and he was seen at fewer functions.

In January 1996, with Sinatra 80 years and one month old. Reprise released an album entitled Everything Happens to Me, 19 songs telling the story of a man much like Frank Sinatra, who had loved and lost and loved again.

This is the end of my Frank Sinatra story, but I would prefer not to think of it as the end of Frank Sinatra. The voice will go forever ... At the end of most concerts he would raise his glass, toast the audience and say: “Your health, may you live to be 400 years old, and may the last voice you ever hear be mine!”

Well Frank, we're still hearing it!

Copyright © 2001 by Bobby Lamb