Frank Sinatra still sings in Seattle

Jun 12, 2024, 11:15 AM | Updated: 11:16 am

A newspaper ad for Frank Sinatra's concert on June 9, 1957 at what's now McCaw Hall called it "The Greatest Attraction to Ever Play Seattle!" (Courtesy Feliks Banel)

(Courtesy Feliks Banel)

On a late spring day during the Dwight Eisenhower administration, one of the biggest names in show business came to Seattle and played a concert on a Sunday evening. It turned out to be a show that’s been echoing in some parts of the music world ever since.

Legendary performer Frank Sinatra played for thousands of vigorously clapping fans at what’s now McCaw Hall on June 9, 1957. It was part of an unusual tour of western cities that stretched out over three consecutive weekends that month, with stops in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Denver; El Paso, Texas; Vancouver, British Columbia; Portland, Oregon; Seattle and three cities in California: San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento.

Incredibly, Sinatra and his more than two-dozen musicians would play an afternoon show in one city, and, later the same day, an evening show in a different town hundreds of miles away. The band made these quick late afternoon hops via chartered plane between Albuquerque and Denver; San Jose and Salt Lake City; Portland and Seattle; and San Francisco and Sacramento.

The Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland shows were promoted by the legendary team of Zollie Volchok and Jack Engerman, whose Northwest Releasing Company was a force on the local entertainment scene for much of the 1950s and 1960s.

Ed O’Brien, a longtime Sinatra scholar, says that for Sinatra in the late 1950s, taking to the road someplace other than Vegas, New York or international capitals was rare.

“You just couldn’t see him,” O’Brien said. “And he was recording [albums] at the same time, so the idea of doing concert tours was not something that Sinatra did at all, so it was unusual. Very unusual.”

But the most unusual thing about the 1957 Seattle show was that it was recorded. Bootleg tapes of the show circulated among collectors as early as the 1960s, and a CD was even released back in the 1990s.

O’Brien, who wrote the liner notes for the 1995 CD, says that Sinatra the star was at the top of his game in 1957.

“At that particular moment in his career, Sinatra was the biggest selling album artist in the world,” O’Brien said. “He had three albums in the Billboard Top 100 that week when he played Seattle, and he was the number five top-drawing film stars in the box office.”

But while Sinatra was batting 1,000 artistically when he played Seattle, his personal life was full of major league troubles. According to best-selling author and Sinatra biographer James Kaplan, the spring of 1957 was an especially challenging season for Ol’ Blue Eyes.

“He was the most famous celebrity in the world, he was the most famous entertainer in the world, he was a multimedia star, but he was, at the center of his soul, a boiling pit of insecurities,” Kaplan said.

“He was deeply worried during the recording of [an] album in the spring of 1957 that he was losing his voice,” Kaplan said.

“He was feeling sad for a few reasons in 1957,” Kaplan said. “His great friend and idol Humphrey Bogart had died in January. And by early July, [Sinatra’s estranged wife Ava Gardner] would finally divorce him. So he knew that was in process, and I think that was also another great source of sadness for him.“

Kaplan also says that 41-year old Sinatra was carrying on at least two affairs, with 24-year old actress Kim Novak; and with Bogart’s widow, 32-year old Lauren Bacall.

“I think (Bacall) was in the audience in Seattle that night, and I think it gave him a certain amount of confidence,” Kaplan said.

As an artist known for carefully produced, lush and meticulous studio releases, Sinatra isn’t exactly at his technical best in the Seattle recording, including one particularly painful moment when he can’t hit the high notes in “My Funny Valentine.”

“To hear his voice just give out is like watching a Wallenda fall off the high wire,” said James Kaplan. “It is heartbreaking and unbelievable. His voice gives out.”

On the recording, Sinatra acknowledges the blown notes before beginning the next song. “I think I got a shot glass stuffed in my throat,” he tells the Civic Auditorium audience.

Sinatra also pauses between songs to mention that it’s been more than 20 years since he’d been in Seattle. He tells the crowd it was 1935 when he’d first come through town on a tour [with his original group the Hoboken Four] as part of the Major Bowes radio program. The group was part of a revue that played for nearly a week at the old Metropolitan Theatre, where the main entrance to the Fairmont Olympic Hotel now stands.

Sinatra may not be in finest form throughout the show, but Ed O’Brien says that the Seattle recording has some terrific moments—notably, moving renditions of “The Lady is a Tramp” and “One For My Baby”—as well as real historic value.

“What you have there is you have a wonderful artifact of the live Sinatra in 1957 in front of an audience in an auditorium, a large auditorium and that’s what he did that whole tour,” O’Brien said.

“It really does define who he was at the time.”

The recording was made on location by Wally Heider, a legendary Los Angeles audio engineer in those years who also taped at least one more show on the tour. Sinatra apparently gave the rights to the tapes to Heider. When Heider died, Ed O’Brien says that a man named Ed Burke purchased the rights to the Seattle tape from Heider’s widow and then released it on CD.

Why, exactly, the Seattle show was recorded has never really been clear. Ed O’Brien says it’s unlikely the recordings were ever meant to be shared publicly; he says Sinatra was too much of a perfectionist. It also doesn’t seem as if Sinatra ever reviewed the recordings to glean insight for improving future performances.

James Kaplan and Ed O’Brien agree that the tour probably didn’t make any money. Expenses were high, and ticket sales weren’t uniformly great. Ironically, impetus for the western tour was supposedly a need to pay back the jilted promoter of an overseas tour that Sinatra had abruptly canceled earlier in 1957.

“The tour wasn’t a success at all. It was a bomb, an absolute bomb,” said O’Brien. Ticket sales were soft in many locations, O’Brien says, because Sinatra wasn’t yet a good fit for the western U.S. cities on the tour. “Sinatra was really urban America and, I think, much more East Coast.” However, at least one show at The Forum in Vancouver, BC did sell out all 7,000 tickets.

Another factor in the soft ticket sales may have been that Sinatra’s core audience in 1957 got more at home from his famously intimate studio recordings of that era than they could ever expect from a live concert in public. Either way, the concert industry was changing, and everything was about to get all shook up by Elvis Presley (who would famously sell out Sick’s Stadium later that summer), another show that happened to be promoted by Volchok and Engerman.

It’s unknown how many tickets were sold for Sinatra’s 1957 Seattle show, but it would be many years until he played here again. Times had changed drastically by April 1975 when he appeared at the Seattle Center Arena. Sinatra had grown in stature as a performer, had retired briefly, and then become more adept at playing giant lucrative venues and often selling them out.

Sinatra returned again to the Northwest and played the Tacoma Dome in April 1986, and then the Seattle Center Coliseum (now known as KeyArena) along with Sammy Davis and Dean Martin in March 1988. Sinatra’s final appearance in the area was at the Puyallup Fair in September 1993 along with Shirley MacLaine. Sinatra died in 1998.

Ed O’Brien says that, to a certain point, Sinatra got better with age, but that the culture simply moved beyond what he was offering. The Seattle recording, then, offers a rare local glimpse into the heart of a global giant from a much different era.

“A perfect world for Frank would’ve been if he’d been able to maintain a record-buying audience that still loved Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwins, and Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. He would’ve been a very happy man,” said O’Brien. “But unfortunately that just wasn’t true.”

Those 16,000 screaming Elvis fans at Sick’s Stadium would likely have heartily agreed.

Editors’ note: This piece originally was published on June 8, 2016. It has been updated and republished since then.

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X.

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