Frank Sinatra blasted ‘degenerate’ Elvis as a ‘cretinous goon’ but later tried to save him

Sammy Davis Jr recalls his first meeting with Sinatra in 1978

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They were and remain two of the greatest legends of popular entertainment, as well as two of the greatest voices of all time – but the stars got off to a very rocky start. In the mid-1950s Sinatra was the big established star, a movie and music icon, while Elvis was the young Pretender. Back in the 1940s, Old Blue Eyes had effectively been the first pop star, with hordes of screaming women at his shows, known as bobby soxers. But he was surprisingly horrified by the hysteria generated by Elvis. 

Asked about newcomer Elvis and his rock and roll, Sinatra said: “It is the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear… It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false.

“It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact, dirty—lyrics, and as I said before, it manages to be the martial music of every side burned delinquent on the face of the earth … this rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.” 

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Before he met Elvis, Sinatra said of the young pretender in 1957: “Only time will tell. They said I was a freak when I first hit, but I’m still around. Presley has no training at all. When he goes into something serious, a bigger kind of singing, we’ll find out if he is a singer. He has a natural, animalistic talent.”

Fair enough, The Chairman of the Board had been a major and respected star since the early 1940s, while The King had only just been catapulted to global success with his first major hit, Heartbreak Hotel, in 1956.

Within a few years, though, Elvis was guest of honour on a special edition of Sinatra’s TV show, which celebrated his US return from military service in Germany. Many believed Sinatar was forced to allow the new hotshot on his show.

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A mutual respect grew between the two men and by the late 1960’s both found themselves at the centre of the Las Vegas show scene.

At the same time, both also became friends with Tom Jones, who was headlining his own show there.

Years later, Jones’ publicity man, friend and journalist Chris Hitchens revealed a candid conversation where Sinatra confessed he had tried to save Elvis.

Hitchens said: “Tom Jones and I met up for a drink with him in New York and he told us that he had just been on the phone to Elvis.”

The King has been admitted to hospital in August 1975, with liver problems exacerbated by his heavt drug use. Friends and family were starting to worry about him, which prompted an extraordinary intervention from his fellow star.

Hitchens described Sintatra telling them: “When I called the hospital in Memphis, the girl on the switchboard asked: Who’s calling?’ and when I replied: ‘Frank Sinatra”’I fully expected her to say: ‘Oh, yeah, and I’m the Queen of England”’or some such dumb line. But she must have recognised my voice because, a few seconds later, Elvis came on the line.

“I told him he’s got to look after himself and quit fooling around. He’s too young to die, and I told him so.”

Elvis, according to everyone around him, could not be persuaded to change his behaviour, despite frequent declarations that he would.

Exactly two years later Elvis was found dead in his bathroom at Graceland. He was, indeed, too young, at only 42.

When he heard the news, Sinatra said: “There have been many accolades uttered about Elvis’ talent and performances through the years, all of which I agree with wholeheartedly. I shall miss him dearly as a friend. He was a warm, considerate and generous man.”

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