I’m sorry, Mr Sinatra, but Sydney airport has a curfew
Australian music promoter Michael Chugg remembers the blacker side of Ol’ Blue Eyes
Among my first memories as a war baby growing up in Launceston were the sounds of Frank Sinatra wafting through our house.
Due to World War II, Dad driving landing barges in the Pacific for the Yanks, where he received regular food parcels from my gran, we were among the first to hear all of Sinatra’s music right through to the 1950s. The records came in the mail, as thank-you presents from ex-Marines who, thanks to my old man, had enjoyed gran’s fruitcake during and after the war.
My dad’s second job was as an usher at the local picture theatres, so I also got to see Frank in every movie he made. He had a profound influence on me. The idea that I might one day meet him — and his wrath — would have seemed ridiculous back then. As a kid the only future I could see was in cycling. That was my passion before music kicked in.
In 1988, however, I was lucky enough to see Sinatra’s return to Australia, 14 years after he had left here in a huff vowing never to return after a run-in with the press. This wasn’t to say he had mellowed with age, as I was about to discover.
Sinatra’s unexpected Aussie comeback came at The Main Event at Sanctuary Cove on the Gold Coast, run by my friend Tony Cochrane, the man who convinced Ol’ Blue Eyes that Australia would welcome him back. At the time I was a partner in the Frontier Touring company along with Michael Gudinski and others
So taken was I by Frank’s performance that night, I blagged my way backstage and congratulated Tony on his brilliant coup. Every promoter of note had been in the audience and it turned out that I was the only one who went back and gave Tony his dues. Several months later Tony offered Frontier a share of a planned national Main Event tour with Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Liza Minnelli replaced Martin in the line-up after he pulled out of the American leg for personal reasons.
The tour here was a total sellout, with amazing performances by the three legends, but it was not without its challenges.
Frank’s mood swung between ignoring everyone and being very grumpy, although he posed for photos with all of us. It was always interesting to see what mood he was in when he arrived at the venues. Liza would arrive usually after a long lunch and float through our production-administration area. Sammy was such a great bloke, a true gentleman, and would hang out with the crew and production team for 20 minutes every night. Without exception, greetings of “Good evening, Mr Sinatra” would elicit a grunt as he stomped through. That was forgotten and forgiven when he hit the stage. He was truly a magnificent entertainer.
The tour rolled on and with it came an unprecedented series of A-list tantrums and extravagances, including police escorts, Frank’s wife Barbara’s luggage full of expensive jewellery being left at the hotel and having to be delivered to the US by private jet, plus Frank’s grumpiness and his horrible treatment of his musical director, his son Frank Sinatra Jr. I will never forget the way he screamed at Frank Jr in front of the orchestra and other people during a dress rehearsal at the Melbourne Tennis Centre. We all felt sorry for his son.
I will never forget how, after a dinner at Darcy’s in Paddington following the show in Sydney, I went back to the hotel to check on things around 3am. I was talking to our local security team when the daily papers arrived. One of the front pages had the headline in huge print ‘‘Sammy steals the show”. About 20 minutes later, amid the sound of slamming doors, there was Frank, screaming in the corridor of the InterContinental: “Get up, get up, start packing. We are going home, I’m never going to sing with that little black cocksucker again!”
I was terrified as I approached Frank and said politely: “I’m sorry, Mr Sinatra, but Sydney airport has a curfew and there is no way you can fly tonight.” I copped a few classic curses and the man went back to his room.
The best thing to come out of it all for me was it rounded off the journey that began with my father and his records all those years before. He had always given me shit because I didn’t have what he considered a real job, such as being a lawyer or a doctor.
Here was my big chance to show Mum and Dad that what I was doing was something special. I flew them to Melbourne for the show and had seats 20 rows from the in-the-round stage, plus five-star accommodation — the works. Five minutes before the show, Frank’s tour manager Gary Labriola came to me and said: “Chuggi, Barbara’s friends have not arrived and he needs two trustworthy people to sit with her.”
Dad settled down next to Barbara, with Mum on the other side. Barbara held Dad’s hand for the entire show and he loved it. Mum didn’t talk to me for months afterwards, but Dad never gave me shit again about getting a real job.
autobiography, Hey, You in the Black T-Shirt, was published by Pan Macmillan in 2010.
Michael Chugg, right, with Frank Sinatra and Tony Cochrane