By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
“The Eagles Hall in 1955 was the first time I worked with Elvis,” Sands remembers. “We met that night standing on the stairs waiting to go on. I’d had a permanent wave in my hair so I’d look like Tony Curtis, and Elvis really liked that — the next time I saw him, he had the same curl. We always talked about our idol, James Dean. We both wanted to get out to Hollywood and be the next Dean. After I moved to Hollywood and was shooting Sing Boy Sing, I got a call from Elvis: ‘Well, Tommy, you beat me to it.’”
Sing Boy Sing was the big-screen version of The Singing Idol, a 1957 Kraft Theater television show Sands starred in, though it was written for Elvis, who had grown too hot for the network to afford. The Colonel arranged an audition for Sands, telling him, “If you don’t get this part, don’t ever speak to me again.” Sands got it — along with a boxcar of fan mail, a deal with Capitol Records and a million-selling record, “Teen-Age Crush.” Based in Hollywood, Sands achieved the Olympian career he had sought since childhood, appearing in 10 movies and recording as many albums. Yet the packaging failed to intersect with his own artistic core; he was a Texas beer-joint rocker remade into a sanitized Elvis alternative. So Sands was rarely recorded appropriately; while his “Worryin’ Kind” stands as a magnificent glimpse of his ability, most of the material he cut was prefab pop.
By 1960, Sands was going the Bobby Darin route, rock cat turned Nelson Riddle–arranged swingin’ crooner, working engagements at such high-toned rooms as the Cocoanut Grove, where he was introduced to Nancy Sinatra. “She came up and gave me a big hug, and it was one of those moments,” says Sands. “We both knew.” The pair wed shortly thereafter, becoming fan-magazine faves. Sands worked continuously, whether touring or making flicks like Babes in Toyland and The Longest Day. It was a celebrity-à-go-go itinerary straight to meltdown.
When he walked out on Nancy in ’65 — “We just got married too young” — Sinatra asked for a meeting. “Frank was a perfect father-in-law — respectful, unobtrusive. After I left Nancy, he asked me, ‘Do you love her?’ I said no, and he said, ‘Well, that about does it. If there’s ever anything I can do for you, just let me know.’ That was the last time I saw him.”
The marriage wasn’t the only thing on the rocks. Struggling against the British Invasion and frustrated with a recording catalog of less-than-ideal proportions, Sands quit show biz: “With the Beatle haircuts, free love, the Monterey festival, it was totally different — our music was out of favor. It was my idea to move to Hawaii; I ended up staying there for 20 years. It had nothing to do with Frank.” The weirdly persistent rumor about the purported torpedoing of Sands received one more blow due to its absence from ax-grinding Sinatra biographer Kitty Kelley’s His Way.
Sands returned to show business in the mid-’70s, and continues with biannual treks overseas, where he remains a top draw; a recent German CD compilation sold over a million copies. “I’ve been to Australia 15 or 20 times. I’m going over to England and Germany again soon,” he says. He seems restless but not troubled; he falls silent, then lights up: “I did some rock & roll records that I’m very proud of — my ‘Worryin’ Kind,’ and the Sandstormalbum, that’s all early R&B songs, sold one copy here but was big all over Europe, and that’s what they want to hear. I go over and spend two hours signing autographs after the show — avid fans who remember you exactly as you were.” Another pause. “I’m blessed in that regard.”