In show business, Monday nights tend to be the quiet nights, the dreaded nothing-much-happens kind of nights, where empty seats and a slightly jaded, subdued atmosphere mark the start of the working week after the heady frolics of the weekend – except, that is, when Frank Sinatra is in town. The Chairman Of The Board performed many times in Philadelphia during his long and storied career, but on October 7, 1974, when he was two months shy of his 59th birthday, he ventured there on a Monday night, paying a visit to a relatively new venue called The Spectrum.
An 18,000-seater arena which had opened seven years previously, it regularly hosted some of the biggest names in rock and pop music – everyone from Elvis Presley to Led Zeppelin – though in terms of fame and influence, none of them eclipsed the magnitude of Francis Albert Sinatra, who was still shining brightly even in the autumn of his career.
The buzz of excitement that those lucky Philadelphia concertgoers felt that October night can be detected in the hubbub of audience chatter that is clearly audible on the opening orchestral overture that begins the first official commercial release of the concert (which was recently made available on the second CD of the in-concert box set, Standing Room Only).
The opening notes of the recording find Sinatra’s orchestra playing an instrumental overture prior to Ol’ Blues Eyes’ stage entrance. “Overture” begins with a rising shimmer of soft string chords and mellow woodwind, followed by a saxophone playing a sensuous snippet of “It Was A Very Good Year.” The orchestra then makes a seamless transition into another Sinatra favorite, “All The Way,” before the melody dissolves and, at two minutes in, a fast, swinging groove develops. Over it, we hear the familiar melodic contours of “My Kind Of Town (Chicago),” which whips the audience into a frenzy as they anticipate Sinatra’s appearance.
A short brass fanfare announces his arrival, and then the band launches into “The Lady Is A Tramp.” Sinatra comes in right on cue, his distinctive laconic baritone riding on a swaggering big-band swing juggernaut that rolls back the years.
“I’m glad to be back here,” says Sinatra, who, at 58, unequivocally demonstrates that he can still swing effortlessly – as he proves on further uptempo favorites such as “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “My Kind Of Town,” the latter delivered in a heroic, rip-roaring fashion.
But it’s the ballads that show that, despite the enormity of his fame at that point, Sinatra never abandoned his roots as a saloon singer. Especially noteworthy is a sublime and touching rendering of “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” a classic, lovelorn hymn of denial co-written by Hoagy Carmichael, with Sinatra’s voice floating on a cloud of elegant Nelson Riddle-arranged strings. “Isn’t it nice? It’s a pretty song,” says Sinatra, almost casually understating the beauty of a performance that elicits rapturous applause from Philly’s assembled multitude.
Showing that he’s in tune with the times, Sinatra includes some contemporary songs in his set. “Send In The Clowns” is solemn and haunting (“I’m crazy about this song,” he enthuses) and is followed by a delicate version of Bread’s David Gates-penned “If” (spotlighting guitarist Al Viola). Best of all, perhaps, is a take on Stevie Wonder’s “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” which is transformed into a playful, vibrant swinger with punchy horns.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the concert ends with “My Way,” Sinatra’s 1969 hit revamp of an obscure French song (“Comme D’Habitude”). With English lyrics written by Paul Anka, Sinatra transformed the tune into a personal anthem. Its popularity meant that it very quickly became one of his signature songs and he routinely used it as a show-stopping curtain-closer. Here, the band also play it as an outro, jazzing it up as Sinatra takes his bows to an 18,000-strong standing ovation.
Philadelphia, evidently, was Frank’s kind of town. As for The Spectrum, though, it appears not to have been loved by the folks of Philly. After several changes of name, it closed down in 2009 and was demolished a year later. But as the second CD on Standing Room Only reveals, it was a place that gave Frank Sinatra a lot of love on his visit there, on October 7, 1974, proving that when The Chairman was in town, Monday nights were never quiet.
The full October 7, 1974 Philadelphia performance is featured in the 3CD box set Standing Room Only, which can be bought here.