When the King Met the Voice

blogopener1As part of Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday celebration, TCM has included several television specials in their Wednesday Sinatra-centric programming. This Wednesday, December 16, the 1973 special Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back airs at 8:00pm EST.

However, one TV special that was not included in the December programming is The Frank Sinatra Timex Special, which was broadcast in 1960. I like this special, not because it is particularly good, but because of the history behind it. It represents a key moment in the career of Elvis Presley as well as one of the few times that Sinatra back-pedaled a bit.

The Frank Sinatra Timex Special was part of a plan to re-tool Presley’s star image. Elvis’s tour of duty in the army from 1958 to 1960 had provided the perfect opportunity to break away from the Elvis the Pelvis image that had created controversy during the 1950s. His legendary manager, the notorious Colonel Tom Parker took a potentially disastrous situation for any performer’s career–being away from the public for two years–and turned it around to the singer’s advantage by releasing positive publicity about Elvis’s  service to his country. After his discharge, Presley’s management team, which included Parker, film producer Hal Wallis, and William Morris agent Abe Lastfogel, planned to steer his career toward an image and musical style that would attract a more mainstream audience.

NANCY SINATRA GREETS ELVIS AT FT. DIX AFTER HIS DISCHARGE. THE GIFT IS FROM FRANK.

NANCY SINATRA GREETS ELVIS AT FT. DIX AFTER HIS DISCHARGE. THE GIFT IS FROM FRANK.

The plan went into action the day Elvis was discharged in March 1960. The Colonel arranged for the press to cover both Elvis’s departure from Germany and his arrival in Ft. Dix, New Jersey. Greeting him at Ft. Dix was Sinatra’s daughter Nancy, who presented Presley with two silk shirts from her father. The gesture served as publicity for Frank’s upcoming TV special.

Television became an essential tool in the career of Elvis Presley. In early 1956, Elvis quickly evolved from a regional singing sensation to a national recording star when he appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show. That summer, a single appearance on The Milton Berle Show in which he sang “Hound Dog” to a blues beat branded the singer a gyrating, rebellious juvenile delinquent, causing controversy but creating a strong fan base among teenagers. His three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show from the fall of 1956 through January 1957 generated a lot of publicity, particularly his final appearance. For reasons known only to the censors, CBS waited until this appearance to prohibit the cameras from showing him from the waist down. Kind of like closing the proverbial barn door after the horse is long gone. In retrospect, it is this final Sullivan appearance that has been mythologized in show biz history, spinning legends, exaggerations, and apocryphal stories.

CARTOONIST AL HIRSCHFELD INTERPRETS THE VOICE AND THE KING.

CARTOONIST AL HIRSCHFELD INTERPRETS THE VOICE AND THE KING.

By 1960, Team Presley understood the power of television. If an appearance on TV could construct a negative star image, it could spin that image in a different direction. And, whatever the controversy, a Presley appearance guaranteed a number-one position in the ratings for that week. The competition among variety programs was cutthroat during this time frame. As far back as 1958, Ed Sullivan had begun negotiating for Presley’s first post-army TV appearance. Instead, Parker opted for The Frank Sinatra Timex Special, which would be subtitled “Frank Sinatra’s Welcome Home Party for Elvis Presley.”

On the surface, the Timex Special seems a peculiar choice for Elvis’s return, because Sinatra had continually blasted rock ’n’ roll in the press. He had singled out Presley for criticism in a Paris magazine without actually calling him by name. These remarks were repeated in the New York Times Magazine in early 1958: “Rock ’n’ roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty lyrics…it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.” In the late 1950s, Elvis had been repeatedly criticized, lampooned, and bullied because of his sideburns—to the point that any reference to the word sideburns was understood as a reference to Presley.

 

ELVIS AND FRANK AT THE FIRST READ-THROUGH

ELVIS AND FRANK AT THE FIRST READ-THROUGH. THE SPECIAL WAS SHOT AT THE FONTAINEBLEU HOTEL, SINATRA’S FAVORITE MIAMI LOCALE.

So, it seems that Sinatra had to back down from his rhetoric, because he was now building his special around “the sideburned delinquent.” According to Peter Guralnik’s two-volume, definitive biography of Presley, Sinatra still insisted he still did not like rock ‘n’ roll, but he conceded, “. . . the kid’s been away two years and I get the feeling he really believes in what he is doing.” If Sinatra was nervous that Elvis might belt out “Hound Dog” while thrusting his hips at the audience, he needn’t have worried. That would not have conformed to the new Presley image.

The Frank Sinatra Timex Special aligned Elvis with the show-business establishment, and Team Presley used the occasion to suggest the young singer had matured in age and style. The other guest stars included Nancy Sinatra and members of the Rat Pack. During the opening number, Frank, Nancy, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop welcomed Presley home through song. As the number began, Presley walked on stage in uniform. The number not only signified  that these entertainers were welcoming Presley home from serving his country, but they were also allowing him into their show-business circle. (Sinatra may have softened toward Elvis because daughter Nancy liked both the singer and his music. Nancy and Elvis became long-term, show-biz friends.)

ELVIS, NANCY, AND FRANK BACK STAGE. THE SHOW RECEIVED A 41.5 RATING, REPRESENTING A 67.7 PERCENTAGE SHARE.

ELVIS, NANCY, AND FRANK BACK STAGE. THE SHOW RECEIVED A 41.5 RATING, REPRESENTING A 67.7 PERCENTAGE SHARE.

Presley looked nothing like he did before the army. Though his hair was piled high in a pompadour on top of his head, it was much shorter in the back, and those sideburns—which mainstream American hated for some reason—had disappeared. Even Sinatra noted, “All you seem to have lost [while in the army] is your sideburns.” Presley sang two songs he had just recorded, “Fame and Fortune” and “Stuck on You.” Dressed in an elegant black tuxedo, Presley performed alone and without his guitar; no rock ’n’ roll backup musicians performed on stage with him. Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra provided the musical accompaniment. The new Elvis was downright subdued during “Fame and Fortune,” but for “Stuck on You,” he did move to the music, generating a genuine reaction from the audience without assaulting them.

Afterward, Sinatra and Bishop joined Presley on stage, and the three joked about the way female fans once mobbed Sinatra like they mob Elvis. Presley and Sinatra sang a duet in which Frank crooned “Love Me Tender” while Elvis sang “Witchcraft.” The duet was arranged so that both songs had the same tempo, and both singers “crooned” their tunes as they alternated verses. The effect on “Love Me Tender” was to extract the folk flavor from the ballad because the tempo had been sped up and the sentimentality removed. The pop arrangement of the two songs and the finger-snapping performing style made it inappropriate for Presley to engage in any of the dramatic movements that had made him infamous.

The subtext of the television special was that the Voice was passing the mantle of pop idol to the King, giving Presley his blessing in the process.

4 Responses When the King Met the Voice
Posted By robbushblog : December 15, 2015 6:53 am

Though this happened 14 years before I was born, this is my favorite duet ever, due to it being my two favorite singers of all-time working together. To me, it’s like magic, and unfortunately also ancient history. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the performances of the two, separate and together, from this special. It’s safe to say that the number is ridiculously high though.

Posted By swac44 : December 15, 2015 2:03 pm

The ironic thing is, the very first song Elvis ever recorded was a tune also performed by Sinatra (and Ella Fitzgerald, among others), My Happiness, which he did a demo of at Sun Records, the original acetate of which is now owned by Jack White. And reportedly he was also a big Dean Martin fan.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 15, 2015 4:10 pm

Elvis was a remarkably diverse singer. He was able to sing everything from pop to the blues. Interesting that rock music historians have criticized him for his pop music stylings instead of recognizing that they were a reflection of his expansive tastes and talents.

Posted By robbushblog : December 15, 2015 4:24 pm

He could sing everything from rock and roll to country to pop to gospel to opera to blues. The dude could do it all.

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