WHEN news hit the streets that Frank Sinatra was going to perform his first ever concerts in Ireland — two nights at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road stadium in early May 1989 — a fever took hold in the country.
“We were undecided on whether we would put the second show on sale before Christmas or after Christmas but because the first one sold so quick we put it on sale immediately,” says Oliver Barry, the impresario who lured the old crooner to town.
“I went to RTÉ and did an interview with Gay Byrne on his morning radio show at 10 o’clock to announce that the second show was on sale. I was finished the interview at half past ten. I was on my way in to town and I got a call to say, ‘It’s gone crazy in here. There is a huge queue outside the ticket shop already.’
“There was no Ticketmaster in those days. We sold the tickets in Brown Thomas. There was a queue all down Grafton St, around the block and over to the Mansion House.”
There had been a time when Sinatra’s fans thought they would never see him perform on Irish soil. Barry had tried enticing him to Ireland about 10 years beforehand, but Sinatra’s management team believed the sums wouldn’t add up in a country that was so banjaxed economically.
“Sinatra’s previous manager said that if he came into Ireland it would damage his following,” says Barry, “because we were, how would you say, a Third World country, and an expensive ticket would put all his Irish fans off him. Things changed in the interim.”
Sinatra got a new manager and it turned out Irish fans were willing to cough up for tickets that cost between £50 and £65, which was a hefty sum in 1989.
The going rate for a standing ticket to see Michael Jackson, for example — who gigged at Páirc Uí Chaoimh a year earlier at another one of Barry’s shows — was £16.50.
Sinatra was playing to a gin-and-ton-tons crowd. “There was a sense of occasion,” says Barry. “The women were going in and buying special gear to wear on the night. He had a well-to-do following here.”
The two Dublin gigs concluded a European tour, which took in 27 cities, including five concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which all sold out without advertising.
The tour was billed as ‘the Ultimate Event’. Sinatra was joined on the road by his old Rat Pack sidekick, Sammy Davis Jr. Liza Minnelli made up the trio after Dean Martin pulled out of the tour. They arrived in Dublin following a Sunday night concert in Vienna. They were billeted at the Berkeley Court Hotel in Ballsbridge.
The owner PV Doyle had built a new suite in the hotel, which luckily was big enough to hold Davis Jr’s luggage.
“I remember Sammy Davis had about 30 suitcases for all his trappings,” says Barry. “I asked a man who was looking after him, ‘Jeez, you’ve an awful lot of gear here.’ He said, ‘That’s only one set. He has three different sets.’ He had one set with him, one set in the States and another set somewhere else.”
Barry organised a private party for Sinatra and the entourage — which included Sinatra’s son, Frank Jr, who conducted the show’s 40-piece orchestra — at the Horse Show House pub on the Monday night. He lined up Brendan Grace to do some stand-up comedy for the visitors.
Sinatra’s handlers briefed Grace beforehand about what would be suitable material for his audience.
“His minders — I will call them women now but they were two lionesses — got me to go through my act,” he says. “I said I do this drunk bit, but the minute I said the ‘drunk’ word, one said, ‘No, definitely not.’
“Then I went out and saw Sinatra sitting down with a Jack Daniels in one hand and a cigarette in the other; the same with Sammy Davis Jr. Liza Minnelli wasn’t having a drink. When I stood in front of these people to entertain them — and I can hardly see them for smoke — I said to myself, I’m going to take a chance.
“I did my drunken father-of-the- bride routine. I could see them tearing up in the eye.
“Sammy Davis Jr was down on his knees laughing.
“They must have realised, ‘This guy is either taking the piss out of us or he has balls of steel’.”
When it came to the following night at Lansdowne Road, Davis Jr, who died a year later from throat cancer, opened the show.
He wore a black tuxedo with a white turtleneck. His set included a version of Michael Jackson’s hit single ‘Bad’, complete with a moonwalk dance. He also lured four members from Stockton’s Wing on stage so he could have a stab at doing some céilí dancing. Minnelli followed, toying with the storm clouds overhead with a version of ‘I Can See Clearly Now (The Rain is Gone)’.
Ol’ Blue Eyes himself took to the stage at 9.30pm. He opened with For Once In My Life, the first of 10 solo songs he sang, and he also performed a medley of tunes with Davis Jr and Minnelli to wrap things up.
Sinatra was sparing with his banter to the 18,000 crowd, although he drew laughs by playing the Irish card at one stage (“My father called himself O’Brien for a while”) and when an aeroplane flew noisily overhead, he eyed it with mock menace: “Not when I’m on,” he joked.
Pearse Harvey, former jazz correspondent for this newspaper, found himself backstage when the concert finished. His friend, Cork-born trombone player Bobby Lamb, who was part of Sinatra’s orchestra, had got him a ticket for a guests’ pre-concert reception at the venue.
“I was getting restless,” he says. “About halfway through the second half of the concert, I made my way from my seat in the stand down to the backstage area. People assumed I was security because I was wearing a black leather jacket and I had a guests’ badge on.
“When the concert was over, straight away, down the stairs from what was a built-up stage clipped Frank Sinatra like a child. He was elated. There was a light in his eyes. I was standing there. Just before he came to me, I said, ‘Great show, Mr Sinatra.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think they liked it.’ Within seconds running after him came Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr arm-in-arm. They were on a high.”
You’d imagine the audience felt the same way.