Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., live in front of an audience, is an iconographic moment of American entertainment history so often imitated and ironically referenced that it's almost hard to watch this 1965 performance without laughing at it. But if you can forget all that for a moment, you'll almost certainly begin laughing with it, because the Rat Pack is perhaps the last stage show to pull off the classic entertainment package of vaudeville yuks and some modicum (or in this case, an overabundance) of cool.
As its name implies, Live and Swingin' really is all the casual fan will need in terms of live Rat Pack material. More serious aficionados will already have the CD half of this two-disc set -- selections from recordings of Frank, Dean and Sammy in Chicago, 1962, that have been available on bootleg for years, and recently on more than one official release as well. The DVD half however, a show performed in St. Louis as a benefit for Teamsters-related charity Dismas House, is a rarer treat.
Frank Sinatra was America's most unique singer -- as one critic pointed out, no matter how well you think you know his recordings, no one can sing along, because Sinatra's phrasing is constantly counterintuitive in tiny, beautiful, soulful ways. His ease with an audience -- in this case the $100-a-head charity crowd -- is a constant lesson to any performer. And on songs like "Fly Me To the Moon," Sinatra and Count Basie's orchestra (under the direction of Quincy Jones, the unsung hero of the show) perform with a sympathy that borders on telepathy. Sammy Davis Jr. seems as though he's challenging The Chairman during Davis' set, performing a dark and singular version of "I've Got You Under My Skin" with nothing but drums, and an all-celebrity-impressions arrangement of saloon-era Frank tune "One For My Baby." It's a challenge Sammy wins hands down, especially when similarly chiding the audience's obvious civil-rights-era nervousness. (As the tom-tom rhythms begin for "Skin," Sammy warns Basie's drummer, "No messages ...")
But, as always, it's Dean Martin who proves himself to be the true sad-clown genius of the three. In Martin's patented stage-drunk persona and post-Bing vocal quirk lies the root of so much: Elvis Presley's wavering vibrato, Tom Waits' sodden stage loser, rock's loving irreverence for its own audience, the ironic, exaggerated self-deprecation of one's own character. Martin's jokes are well known: burping, "I've got enough gas to get to Pittsburgh"; "You're not drunk 'til you can't lie on the floor without holding on"; "We'll just do one chorus and get off -- I've got a drink waiting." But seeing his movements and facial expressions makes them new.
This is largely classic Rat Pack complete with a three-man free-for-all on "Birth of the Blues." But at this late stage in the Pack's game, and before a rattle-your-jewelry crowd, it all feels been-there, stilted. Besides Martin's ever-fresh posturing -- when Sammy suggests giving it up for the bands, Dean points out that "Maybe I didn't like either band," and the Basie boys are visibly irked -- there's a sense that the group has departed from itself. That the trio's gone from its real crowd -- gangsters, gamblers, politicians and stars -- to the Rat Pack's equivalent of a modern performer's "Vegas": St. Louis, for charity, in front of chumps.