On Friday, August 20, 1982, Frank Sinatra delivered the inaugural performance of Concert For The Americas, a weekend-long music festival in a unique Caribbean venue, on a bill that also included the rock acts Heart and Santana. The concert took place in the Dominican Republic, an island sandwiched between Cuba and Puerto Rico. Two hours east of its capital and biggest city, Santo Domingo, lay Altos De Chavón, a newly-created, Mediterranean-style clifftop village designed by Italian architect Roberto Copa and bankrolled by Paramount executive Charles Bluhdorn, who was also chairman of the huge American conglomerate Gulf And Western. It was there that Sinatra stepped onto the stage to find himself in a magnificent 5,000-seater reconstruction of a 14th-century outdoor amphitheater, filming his performance for a TV special.
Sinatra had flown into the Dominican Republic the day before the concert. The following day, he made his way to Altos De Chavón but he didn’t feel the need to rehearse. He knew his material like the back of his hand (with the exception of one new addition to his repertoire) and trusted that his accompanying musicians – his own quartet, plus drummer Buddy Rich and his orchestra – did too. Also, like a jazz musician, Sinatra cherished spontaneity and wanted his performance to sound fresh and vibrant.
At 66, The Chairman Of The Board was eligible for retirement, but you wouldn’t guess that from his performance; the Concert For The Americas set found him in magisterial form. From the opening phrases of “I’ve Got The World On A String,” it’s obvious that his baritone voice is in peak condition. For Sinatra, though, the first song of a show was always a test of his nerve, as he recalled in a 1988 interview: “I know it’s funny, but seconds before I step on stage, I still get nervous. Will the notes come out? Is my voice OK? And, to tell the truth, it takes 30-40 seconds before I really feel right, and that’s every time.”
If he was a little apprehensive, you couldn’t tell as he reels off a clutch of beloved classics from his back pages, including “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “The Lady Is A Tramp,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Strangers In The Night.”. In contrast to the swaggering pizzazz of those finger-clicking swingers, The Chairman also serves up some succulent ballads, highlighting his skill as a lovelorn storyteller. Among these is an exquisite pairing of “The Gal That Got Away” and “It Never Entered My Mind,” where Sinatra, in tragic romantic mode, demonstrates the lost art of saloon singing (this medley had appeared on his then most recent LP, 1981’s She Shot Me Down).
In addition to songs drawn from The Great American Songbook, Sinatra performed a Don Costa-arranged version of The Beatles’ George Harrison-penned ballad “Something,” which Ol’ Blue Eyes had recorded in the studio twice, in 1970 and 1980, respectively. Extolling its virtues, Sinatra introduces “Something” as “one of the best love songs I believe to have been written in 50 or 100 years… and it never says ‘I love you.’”
Sinatra also debuted a new song during Concert For The Americas: a haunting ballad from the pens of Jules Styne and Sammy Cahn called “Searching.” “I recorded it three days ago and it’s the first time I’ve done it publicly,” he said, adding, jokingly: “If we don’t get it right, we’ll stay here until we do get it right.” Unsurprisingly, they did get it right, though Sinatra’s studio version didn’t get a release until over a decade later, when it appeared on the mammoth 1995 box set The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings.
Sinatra’s Concert For The Americas set climaxed with the explosive razzamatazz of his Big Apple anthem, “Theme From New York, New York,” which was accompanied by a huge firework display. According to the concert’s executive producer, George B. Honchar, there was no encore, with Sinatra exiting the venue while rapturous applause still rang in his ears.
The Concert For The Americas performance was released as Sinatra’s first official live VHS in the 80s, before being transferred to DVD in 2002. Fourteen years later, the audio provided a highlight of the 4CD box set World On A String. Heard today, it’s a reminder that, despite his infrequent record releases throughout the 80s, Francis Albert Sinatra was still the main event when it came to spectacular, must-see concerts. At $50 dollars a head, those lucky enough to be in the audience at the Altos De Chavón amphitheater witnessed something that, in truth, you couldn’t put a price on: the greatest saloon singer of all time, still at the peak of his powers.
Featuring more classic live performances, recorded in Las Vegas, Dallas, and Philadelphia, the 3CD box set Standing Room Only can be bought here.