What do we know about The Rat Pack, that famed group of celebrity rogues and rapscallions that defined American cool in the early '60s? You might not know that only a third of the classic members of the group were initially included; The Rat Pack was initially made up of actor friends of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, including Frank Sinatra but not Dean Martin or Sammy Davis, Jr.
But after Bogart's death and the subsequent release of Ocean's 11 in 1960, the classic image of The Rat Pack - Sinatra, Martin, Davis and actors Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop - crystallized in the eyes of the American public. On the musical side, Frank, Sammy and Dean were the darlings of the Las Vegas strip, often dropping in on each other's scheduled performances to the glee of patrons. Though the trio never performed together after a short-lived tour in 1987 and would be gone within the next decade or so, they left behind an image of group-related cool that's been emulated for years, whether the pack be brat or frat-oriented.
Rhino's new compilation, The Very Best of The Rat Pack (Reprise/Rhino R2 526241), is amazingly only one of a very select few compilations compiling the best of these three men in one place. (Capitol released Eee-O 11: The Very Best of The Rat Pack in 2001, and a Christmas compilation followed on the same label some years later.) Though each man had careers on many different labels - all three were signed to Sinatra's self-created label Reprise, Frank and Dean had stints on Capitol and Davis started out on Decca - it's not really the licensing that proves difficult, so much as it is capturing the feeling of the group dynamic on disc.
How well does Rhino's set succeed? Find out after the jump.
The Very Best of The Rat Pack is a healthy, 18-track affair; seven tracks by Sinatra alone, five by Martin, four by Davis and two duets, one with Frank and Sammy, one with Sammy and Dean. It does a fantastic job of showcasing the strengths of each man - their powerful vocals, their knack for standards, their flawless arrangers and orchestrators (all of which, happily, are credited in the liner notes) - but the one nagging problem throughout the whole set is its lack of overlap. The highlight of any impromptu Rat Pack show was interaction. Sinatra's leading cool, Martin's warm, tipsy charm and Davis' showmanship mixed well together, and crowds were more than happy to eat it up. The two duet tracks (Dean and Sammy's "Sam's Song" and Frank and Sammy's "Me and My Shadow") do a good job of teasing us with that easy interaction, but there's so much more to it that, for whatever reason, wasn't frequently captured on magnetic tape.
The solo songs, all recorded between about 1958 and 1965, serve as mini greatest-hits collections for each artist. Davis benefits most from this approach, since he's arguably the least-compiled and generally most underrated of the Pack. Sinatra, meanwhile, leaves audiences wanting more; nothing stretching back to the Chairman's Capitol years is included on this set. That's particularly a shame since the disc kicks off with the good-but-not-flawless version of "Come Fly with Me" from 1965's A Man and His Music rather than the sublime original from 1957. The package's sole vault release, an alternate version of Sinatra's "I'm Gonna Live Until I Die," is little more than a slight value-sweetener that doesn't showcase the song in an early stage or a particularly different arrangement.
As a cheap primer for a brand-new fan, The Very Best of The Rat Pack is a must, from its swingin' tunes to its liner notes, adapted from Bill Zehme's best-selling book on Sinatra. But if you know your Harveys from your Clydes and want to feel like the heyday of The Sands and JFK never dissipated, you're going to have to dig deeper.