Houston Music

When Frank Sinatra Played Juarez... And Galveston

Already a poet laureate of Americana before he moved to El Paso about ten years ago, Tom Russell's border tenure has seen him produce some great hardscrabble portraits of sketchy characters and haunting, even deadly landscapes.

One of Russell's truly great pieces is the border memoir "When Sinatra Played Juarez" from his album Borderland:

The Fiesta Club, the Chinese Palace, The Old Kentucky Bar The matadors and baseball heroes and great big movie stars Those were truly golden years my uncle Tommy said 'Cause everything's gone straight to hell since Sinatra played Juarez

But Juarez wasn't Frank Sinatra's only Texas foray. Down on his luck and his career on the rocks - as well as his marriage to superstar femme fatale Ava Gardner - Sinatra convinced Houston wildcatter Glenn McCarthy to book him into the Cork Club on top of McCarthy's Shamrock Hotel.

During the day, Sinatra drove to Galveston and pestered crime boss Sam Maceo to book him following the Shamrock engagement. Maceo eventually did book Sinatra to sing at the Balinese Room, but only as the singer for the house band.

Houston/Dallas realtor Bill Cherry, who lived in Galveston at the time, told Lonesome, Onry and Mean that "Sinatra lived in a low-rent hotel and was on such hard times that he ate on a tab at the Speedway Diner, which was owned by Biaggio DeAndrea."

Within two years, Sinatra's luck changed; he was cast in From Here to Eternity and really never looked back after that. And within only a few years, the Maceos' Galveston operation drew so much heat that, like The Godfather Part II, they moved their major operations to Las Vegas.

Cherry, who "went out on the road as a musician until my drinking and smoking just about ruined my health," and has written frequently about Galveston history, recalls a lively music scene.

"Jack Fina had a 16-peice orchestra and played off and on at the Balinese for years," Cherry recalled. "He was a pianist, and he'd taken that classical piece 'Flight of the Bumblebee' and made a boogie-woogie hit out of it ["Bumble Boogie"]. He was always a big hit when he played the Balinese."

Cherry (left), 70, also recalls longtime Galveston big-band leader Buddy Kirk, who soldiered on with big bands in Galveston long after the Balinese had been run into the ground by poor management.

But in spite of all the other huge entertainers who passed through the Maceos' clubs - The Hollywood, the Turf, Sui Jen Pier etc. - according to Cherry, the time Sinatra played Galveston is the one old-timers like to trot out the most.

Tom Russell plays McGonigel's Mucky Duck 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 23. Frank Sinatra is probably somewhere tonight entertaining Sam and Rosario Maceo.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
William Michael Smith