Alan Livingston Interview
In May of 1998, one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, Frank
Sinatra, passed away. In tribute to Frank Sinatra we thought it would be
fitting to offer remembrances of the singer by some of the people who either
knew or worked with him.
Alan Livingston is one such person. He signed Frank Sinatra to Capitol
Records at a time when the singer's career was a nosedive.
Q. - Mr. Livingston, before you signed Frank Sinatra to
Capitol Records were you a fan of his?
A - Always. I felt that Frank was the best popular singer in the business,
and in the past and in the present always loved Frank. He was a very controversial
character always getting himself in trouble, in flights. He was a very difficult
human being. But, I was just a big fan of his singing.
Q - Since Sinatra was at a low point in his career when
you signed him, what made you signed him?
A - Just my belief in him as a singer. I'll tell you, he was so low at that
point that CBS records, Mitch Miller let him go. He couldn't get a record contract,
and he couldn't get a date in a nightclub to sing. He couldn't get a personal
appearance date. He was broke. In fact, Ava Gardner had left him. He had supposedly
tried to commit suicide. He was really as far down as you could go. I was in
my office and I got a call from a man named Sam Weisbord, who was President
of the William Morris agency. He said, Alan we've just taken on management
of Sinatra. I said really! He said would you consider signing him? I said yes.
He said you would? ( Laughs). He brought Frank in to meet me. He was very quiet.
A pussycat. We talked. I signed Frank to a one year contract with six additional
options, for a total of seven years union scale advance and a 5 percent royalty.
The contract was signed and I got Frank in. I said Frank and I'd like you to
work with Nelson Riddle. He said Alan I've been with Axl Stordahl for so long,
I can't leave him. Axl was a friend of mine and a very talented arranger, but,
I just felt Nelson could do more for him I could not talk him into it. I finally
said okay so he made the first record, and I can't remember the title, and
the second record, and nothing happened. A publisher sent me a song “Young
At Heart”.. I called Frank and I said this is something I think you should
do. I've got to get it out fast and Axl is in New York, so we can do it quickly
because he can't come home here fast enough. Just do this one with Nelson,
and then after that you can go back with Axl. So, he did that one with Nelson
and it was a huge hit. Of course he never left Nelson for many years after
that. Then, with the success of its single record he began putting out available
standard songs-Cole Porter, Gershwin, and all of big songs of the years and
the albums took off like crazy. Frank was now singing great. When I first signed
him he had been drinking. They said he lost his voice, but, the really made
a comeback. We made a whole catalog of Sinatra albums which are still very
Q - Was in routine for someone like Sammy Weisbord to call
you when they signed a musician or singer?
A - Oh sure. They were the manager and represented them. It didn't happen often,
but they were constantly trying to sell us acts. They’d usually do it
through one of their producers. It was unusual for Sam to call me personally.
Q. - Some people consider Frank’s time at Capitol
to be his most productive. If that's the case, why after seven years didn't
he renew his contract with Capitol?
A- Alright, I'll explain it to you. It's interesting story. In the mid '50s
when Sinatra was very big, I left Capitol and went to NBC as Vice- President
in charge of television programming. They were after me. In fact RCA was constantly
trying to get me to leave Capitol to call with RCA records. I kept turning
them down. They were determined to get me out of Capitol. They came to me and
said how would you like to be head of programming for NBC which they owned.
I said that I've got to consider. I finally decided and went to the chairman
of Capitol and said I was leaving a went to NBC. While I was there the first
thing they wanted was an hour Western. So, I produced a pilot on a show called
a Bonanza. I couldn't sell it. Interesting. I took it to New York. In those
days you had to get an advertising agency to commit to sponsorship. Everybody
turned down. I was in every agency in New York. I finally gave up. General
Sarnoff whom I got to know, the chairman of RCA called me and said Alan you
like this show don’t you? I said yes. He said I'll sponsor it for RCA.
Partial sponsor. And that's how got on the air. In the meantime, Capitol called
me. They were having trouble, and offered me the Presidency. I left as Executive
President. I was having some problems with the President of NBC. I did not
get along with him. I left NBC and went back to Capitol. When I came back I
discovered that Capitol had not been putting out Sinatra records for 9 months,
which I hadn't and aware of. I said that what's the problem? They said Sinatra
wanted a whole new deal. He wanted his old company which we’ll share
50/50 and you'll distribute it. He was turned down, and told you’re disturbing
the whole practice of the operation. What would Capitol tell Nat Cole and their
other big artists? Sinatra said the hell with you, I won't record anymore if
you don't do it for me. And, he walked out. When I came back, he had not made
a record for 9 months. So, I picked up the phone and I called Frank and I said,
Frank, I’m back at Capitol now. He said I know. I said why don't you
and I sit down and see if we can figure out something to solve your problems.
He said go F--- yourself. I’m gonna tear that round building down. I’m
gonna do this and do that. (Laughs). I was the guy that brought him back. That’s
Frank you see. I said Frank I'm sorry. I didn't know you felt that way, and
I hung up. Then we got it in the hands of lawyers. His lawyer was Mickey Rudin,
who used to be my lawyer, so I knew Mickey well. We finally made a deal if
a Frank would make five more albums for Capitol we'd let him start his own
company, which we would have nothing to do with. It was the only solution.
I wanted to get those five albums. I already had a good catalog, and the rights
to all the records he made for us. So, we agreed and Frank came in grudgingly
and made five more albums. All good. And then he started Reprise Records. While
he was starting Reprise, I would go through our catalog of unreleased masters
and put together albums. I’d pick out all the Cole Porter songs and put
out a Cole Porter album. I put an available out called the Best of Sinatra,
two LPs. On the liner notes it said to this is the best Frank has ever been
or will be. He screamed. Lawyers started to call, threatened to sue. People
came to me and said Alan, look out you’re gonna get your knees broken.
I paid no attention, and they were probably right. Anyway, Frank would talk
to me. I remember going over to NBC one day with Judy Garland, and going to
her dressing room. Frank was in there as well as Dean Martin and one of Dean’s
henchmen, a man named Max something. Dean shook my hand. Judy gave me a kiss.
Frank turned his back on me. His henchmen said Frank you know Alan. And he
just turned his back. He would talk to me. I just said he doesn't want to know
me. And that was his attitude towards me. He just wanted no part of me. He
was so angry at what I had done because we put out so many Sinatra records
and had ‘em on special price that the stores were loaded. When Reprise
came in with their product, they would say we got all the Sinatra albums we
can handle. They couldn't sell them. Reprise was really ready to go out of
business, and in bankruptcy. Jack Warner stepped in and saved ‘em. He
put up money and took a big piece of the company and distributed the product
and saved Reprise Records. In the meantime, if I'd run into Frank occasionally
at a restaurant, he’d turn his back. He wouldn't talk to me.
Q. - Is it true that Frank Sinatra from never recorded
before 10 in the evening?
A - It was always at night. I guess it was 10:00. Most singers don't want to
record in the morning or during the day. Frank was no different than anybody
else. He was a late-night guy. It's a funny, after the first session, and it
was laid at night Frank said let's go across the street to Lucy’s and
have a drink. I said fine. We were sitting at the bar and there was only one
other person in the bar, sitting at the other end. Frank and I were sitting
in talking. I said Frank you’ve gotten into flights and this was before
he can't. Your publicity is very bad. Why don't you take it easy? Get a better
image. He said, Alan I don't do anything. There's a guy sitting across the
bar and he couldn't hear us and he said what are you doing Frank? Buying a
drink for your leech friend? Frank said knock it off. The guy said, knock it
off.Knock it off. Frank turned to me and said, see I don't do anything. Frank's
piano player who also was kind of a bodyguard went up and grabbed this guy.
I thought he was gonna kill him. He bodily through him out of the restaurant.
Frank looked at me and said you see I don't do a thing. People picked don't
Frank. I don't know what it was. Men resented him, presented his appeal to
young girls, women. Here was this skinny, Italian kid who was so popular with
the girls. I guess men resented it. I never understood. Incidentally years
later I was invited to dinner by a man named Artie Deutch , who was a friend
of mine. He said Frank's coming. I said you sure you want me there? He said
why not? I said well I don't know, you may be sorry. He said don't worry about
it. Frank came in and I don't know what was gonna happen. It was a social evening
with maybe 12 people. Frank came up to me shook my hand and was friendly. I
said Frank I didn't think you’d talk to me anymore. He said oh Alan,
that was a long time ago. So, after that we run into each other on occasion
and he was okay.
Q - Your descriptions of Frank Sinatra's mood swings parallelswhat
other people have told me about it.
Q. - If you were a singer in the time period Frank Sinatra
was, and you had to work the clubs that were owned by the underworld, naturally,
you’d rub shoulders with those people. It doesn't mean that your Mob
A - You don't dare cross Frank. He had a hood mentality. He was close to the
Mob. No question about it.
A - That's true, but Frank liked them, because they appealed to what he would
like to be in his life-to do what he wanted to do, to live the way he wanted
to live, and to him these guys ran their own show. That was his mentality. Don't
bother me. Don't touch me. He just couldn't stand anybody to cross him in anyway.
He wasn't going to look to the police to help them. He would rather do it on
Q. - Can you sum up for me what kind of a man Frank Sinatra was?
A - He was the kind of guy would give big money to a hooker and maybe not take
care of somebody who deserved it. He came out of a restaurant and tipped the
parking lot attendant $100. He said to the attendant, what's the biggest bill
you ever had before this? And the guy said $100. Frank said, really, who gave
it to you? He said you did Mr. Sinatra last week. He loved to be a big tipper.
Had great largesse when it served his purpose or he felt like being a big man,
and yet he could be very cruel if he felt somebody was not on his side.
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