|Photo by Wild Don Lewis|
Tommy Sands raced through one of the most spectacular rock & roll and pop careers in the mid-20th century. A former chart-topping teen idol and movie star, he is also the only man alive who can claim acquaintance with Hank Williams Sr., Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. Tommy did it all, but when he was 27, it just seemed to evaporate. To many, the reason for his sudden crash was obvious — he walked out on his wife of five years, who happened to be Nancy Sinatra. The exaggerated legend of his father-in-law’s displeasure spread wide. In New York, the version talked up within Mafia circles was recalled by Profaci-family-backed teen idol Jimmy Angel: “Frank chased him out, gave him one week . . . ‘Get as far away from here as you can — and make sure it is someplace I will not come to, because you do not want me to find you.’”
The path that led to Sands’ exile was no less intense, starting at the moment his parents first met. “My father was a pianist, he played with a lot of big bands, and wound up in Chicago,” says Sands, seated at the dining table in his Sherman Oaks apartment. “My mother was a singing waitress at one of Capone’s clubs on the South Side, and one night the place got shot up by one of the other gangs — they met under a table. One of my father’s friends was badly wounded, and my mother had to hold her thumb over the hole in his neck.” Sands’ father worked with Art Kassel, Ben Bernie and “the King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman, to whom, at 13, he lied about his age in order to secure the gig. He imparted the same youthful ambition to Tommy.
“My mother and father were having trouble almost from the time I was born” — August 27, 1937, in Chicago. “And when they’d have a fight, she’d take me to my uncle’s farm down in Shreveport. I got my first real guitar at age 5, a little Martin. Took the bus into town, alone, with the last payment, picked it up and went to the local radio station and asked to audition for Pop Echols — he put me on the air that afternoon. My uncle always listened to that show to get the reports on hog and cotton prices, and when he heard me, he nearly had a heart attack.” The family soon returned to Chicago, and young Sands repeated the solo-audition stunt, this time landing his own television show on WBKB-TV. “They had Kukla, Fran & Ollie, which I loved. I took the train, auditioned, and they created a show for me, The Lady of the Mountain with Barbara Ellen Rogers. I’d climb up to her cabin, she’d teach me about animals, and we’d sing folk songs. I was 5 or 6 at the time.” By age 12, back in Shreveport, Sands was a regular on KWKH-AM’s newly launched Louisiana Hayride, alongside Jim Reeves, Faron Young and Webb Pierce. “I was on it quite a stretch, doing ‘Oklahoma Hills,’ and I used to imitate Little Jimmy Dickens’ ‘Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed.’”
Dickens’ hot hillbilly boogie fired Sands’ blood, and after his mother moved them down to Houston in 1950, the kid became a genuine proto-rockabilly freak. “I’d do anything to get that applause — roll around on the floor, dance.” He worked a series of dates with Hank Williams, who would stand in the wings as the kid brought down the house, and hiss “You little son of a bitch” every time Sands came off. “He was just kidding,” says Sands. “I worked with Hank at clubs in southern Texas, right up to just before he died. He was really strung out, had a doctor traveling with him. At Cooks’ Hoedown, they carried him in — just skin and bones. They brought in a big cauldron of coffee and poured it down his throat to get him onstage, and he had to have two guys beside him, holding him up.”
Coincidence favored Sands from the start. Pop Echols’ bassist, later a big wheel in country promotion, was Tillman Franks, who helped the lad secure his Hayride spot; one night Colonel Tom Parker caught the antics of “the Wonder Boy of the West” and got him signed to RCA, where Chet Atkins cut seven records on him — jumped-up stuff like “Syrup Soppin’ Blues.” But “None of them sold, and RCA dropped me. I was just too young. Even I didn’t like the way my voice sounded.” Sands traveled the highways with Parker every summer for years. It was an invaluable course in show-biz hustle: They’d roll into a town and enter a bar, and he’d get Tommy to dance on a table. “People would throw money at me, and that would buy our dinner. Colonel always told me, ‘Keep the snow flying at all times, Mr. Sands.’” The Colonel struck out with the Wonder Boy, but their paths continued to intersect, and Sands was one of the first to recommend that Parker take on the singer who became his prize attraction.
“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 Sandstorm album, 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.”