Sinatra at Jack’s Back: The John F. Kennedy 1960 Campaign Song

Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy, January 19, 1961.

A Hoboken, New Jersey native and the son of Italian immigrants, Frank Sinatra was the Elvis, the Bieber, the Jagger, of the teenage generation during World War II. After a few years of bobbysoxer besiege, however, “Old Blue Eyes”  slid before the Technicolor cameras and transformed into a film star of the Fabulous Fifties. From there he was soon enough popping into the little screen once a week to host his own television variety show.

The iconic image of the Rat Pack in Vegas: Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford and Bishop.

He did all this while belting out smash-hit singles and albums, just enough whiskey by now to give texture to the silky sound of his voice, very much at the top of his game, a living legend by the dawn of the Jet Age in 1960. Beside his solo work, however, Sinatra was by then titular king of a swinging gang of hard-drinking wisecrackers, actors and singers collectively known as the Rat Pack. Numerous names came along for the ride, but they weren’t a pack if, on any given Las Vegas stage or Hollywood backlot, they were absent Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joey Bishop.

Actor Peter Lawford, early in his career.

Although not as renowned as them, the one who proved to lynchpin for what Frankie Boy considered an important part of his public life was actor Peter Lawford.

British by birth, it was Lawford who famously connected Sinatra with his brother-in-law in 1960, then a United States Senator from Massachusetts, but soon to be the Democratic nominee for the presidency, John F. Kennedy.

Patricia Kennedy Lawford.

Yet while Lawford has always been credited with introducing “Frank” and “Jack,” the person who unfailingly fails to be credited for drawing Sinatra into the family circle was Patricia Kennedy Lawford, wife of Peter, sister of Jack.

According to the memoirs of her son Christopher, also an actor, it was his mother’s fascination with Sinatra and her initial cultivation of him which led to the development of a friendship with her husband. Pat Lawford so persistently charmed him that Sinatra dropped his misguided grudge against Peter for being sweet years earlier on his old flame Ava Gardner.

The Lawfords with Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Mai Britt (wife of Sammy Davis, Jr.) and Shirley Maclaine at their Santa Monica home.

The Lawfords had a swell spread in Santa Monica, California and soon enough Sinatra was always swinging through there, along with other bold-faced names like Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Shirley Maclaine. Lawford and Sinatra even became partners in Puccini’s, a famous Beverly Hills restaurant in the late 1950s.

Apart from his talents, the Lawfords knew Sinatra was one serious Democrat. He’d been a strong supporter of the party since 1944, contributing an astounding $5,000 to F.D.R.’s fourth and final campaign and stumping for him. He did the same for Truman in 1948 and Stevenson in 1952 and 1956.

Although he sang the national anthem at the 1956 Democratic National Convention while Senator Kennedy was in attendance, hoping to nab the vice-presidential nomination, they didn’t then connect.

JFK & Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas after their initial February 1960 meeting.

They finally got to personally connect on February 7, 1960, at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.  Sinatra was performing with the Rat Pack. Kennedy and his entourage, including his brother Teddy, western-state coordinator during his primaries campaign, were fundraising and seeking commitments of political support.  Peter brought Frank around to sit down a spell and talk politics with Jack.

Sinatra (far left) on stage at the Sands Hotel the night he called out JFK in the audience as the “next President.”

After their initial meeting, while Sinatra was on stage performing with the Rat Pack, he soon couldn’t help himself from bellowing to the audience with pride in pointing out “the next President of the United States,” seated among them. The moment was even caught on tape.

By night’s end, however, Sinatra had cooked up a way to back Jack through a venue more massive than any Las Vegas stage could reach. Before the month was out,  he released a single with a new take on a song he’d made his own the year before.

Sinatra’s changed version of the song High Hopes which became John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign song.

He’d not only starred in Frank Capra’s 1959 movie A Hole in the Head, but also sang an energetic song cheerfully enforced with a chorus of kids. Called High Hopes, it had even won the Oscar for Best Original Song.

Now, Sinatra approached the song’s lyricist Sammy Cahn and they changed the words to transform it into what soon proved to be the upbeat, catchy campaign song for John F. Kennedy, used during the primaries and straight up to Election Day.

Although, after the convention, the campaign would commission a song, Kennedy, Kennedy with a jumpy mix of graphics and still photos was used as a television commercial and sought to convey through its lyrics the idea of Kennedy as old enough to be seasoned and experienced but young enough to innovate policy with new ideas, the chorus of alternating men and women had the distinctive sound of popular television commercials from the 1950s, making it sound a bit , it dated next to the new version of the Sinatra hit.

Sinatra, Pat Kennedy Lawford (back to camera) and Senator Kennedy.

Not only was the small 45rpm record available for sale to the general public, but it was placed in diner and bar jukeboxes in primary states Kennedy needed to win if he hoped to nab the nomination. High Hopes was also played at rallies and a few television and radio commercials.

On at least one occasion, Sinatra performed the song at a fundraiser attended by his friend Pat Lawford and her brother, the would-be President.

Here is a comparison, the first clip being of the officially commissioned campaign song and the second clip being the Sinatra one:

On July 11, the night before the Los Angeles Democratic National Convention began, Sinatra recruited some of Tinsletown’s most famous names to fill the seats at a party fundraiser and was on stage the next day for the opening ceremony of the convention.

Pat Kennedy Lawford on stage behind her brother Jack Kennedy as he delivers his nomination acceptance speech.

Throughout the week of balloting, he alternated between dropping in on meetings in a Beverly Hills home serving as the Kennedy crowd’s base and weaving among state delegations, imploring the uncommitted to back Jack.

Pat Kennedy Lawford campaigning with her brother.

When Kennedy won the nomination that Wednesday, Sinatra cracked to Lawford, “We’re on our way to the White House!”

Despite his busy work schedule, Sinatra managed to make campaign appearances in the fall, singing his High Hopes, and keeping a flame under other celebrities to keep on for Kennedy.

On Election Night, he gathered at the home of fellow loyalists Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, hunkering down for what proved to be a long night waiting for the state vote counts which eventually gave Kennedy victory in the early morning hours.

Along with Lawford, Sinatra organized Kennedy’s Inaugural Gala, held in the Washington Armory on the evening before the January 20, 1961 swearing-in ceremony.

Frank Sinatra lights Kennedy’s cigar at a private dinner during the 1961 Inaugural festivities. (www.cursumperficio.net)

The Gala gave him a second chance to politicize some familiar lyrics. Putting High Hopes aside as the campaign song, Sinatra crooned another of his standards, That Old Black Magic – but as That Old Jack Magic, in honor of the President-elect.

Sinatra would visit the Kennedy family in the summer of 1961 at their Hyannis Port compound, and the President’s father even hosted a party for him, in thanks for his campaign effort. Two months earlier, he’d been joined by the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, for a Cedars-Sinai Hospital charity fundraiser. And that fall, he eagerly accepted an invite to a White House luncheon. In early 1962, however, when President Kennedy retracted his acceptance of Sinatra’s invitation to stay at his Palm Springs home on what is widely speculated to have been due to the performer’s friendship and business involvement with organized crime leaders, their friendship ended abruptly.  The ensuing years would bring further allegations entangling Sinatra, Peter Lawford, their friend Marilyn Monroe, President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, despite the lingering fact that no imperative documentation has managed to absolutely prove anything one way – or the other.

Still, Frank Sinatra’s musical contribution to the campaign and and infusion of it with big-name entertainment made him the man to marry Hollywood and Washington.  As Kennedy remarked at the end of the Inaugural Gala, “The happy relationship between the arts and politics which has characterized our long history I think reached culmination tonight.”

Frank Sinatra and Jack Kennedy.


Categories: History, Hollywood & The White House, Politics, Presidential Campaign Music, Presidents, The Kennedys

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5 replies »

  1. That campaign jingle is a kick. Reminds me of the lively ads for laundry powder, spray starch and cigarettes which were so much a part of watching TV in those days. The almost frenzied repetition of the Kennedy name during the song–and especially at the end–must have driven Kennedy foes wild at the time. Also: it’s so much more fun to look at pictures of people like the Lawfords and Sinatra in their energetic prime than geriatric photos taken of their haggard visages after decades of sunbathing, smoking and who knows what else. Thanks for the great post.

    • Thanks – and I agree, the first song does sound like those from the era, repeating the brand name. One also wonders if getting a popular singer like Sinatra to record a campaign song influenced the product commercials like one for laundry detergent sung by – I think it was Lou Rawls. A great one!

  2. Do you remember which detergent the Lou Rawls song was sung for? It would be fun to hunt it down. Also: that photo of Sinatra and JFK outside in Las Vegas makes me think of something I’ve often considered–how JFK has become so legendary, however one regards him today, and so unreal, in a way, as a result, that perfectly legitimate photos seem somehow fake, as if a cut-out of the President had been superimposed on a picture of Sinatra actually standing alone outside a hotel in 1960. Or maybe my mind is just playing tricks on me, and I’m transferring similar conjectures about allegedly manipulated photos of Oswald to pictures of the President. Perhaps such phenomena–I wonder if anyone else has experienced this–are merely part of what happens when historical figures, especially tragic ones, enter the realm of the mythological.

    • I think it might be on youtube – I have to check. I know just what you’re saying about seeing iconic figures together. Like one of Ann Coulter and J.J. “Kid Dynamite” from Good Times who went to some Hollywood event together – but it was real, not super-imposed.

  3. I’ve seen that commercial and found it very much in the vibe of the “We Like Ike” commercial by Disney…which is a different song from the Eisenhower one I have posted here. Perhaps it proved too dated for the campaign. I thought I might have mentioned it in the article – but I have to edit something out now and then or these articles would be even longer than they are! Anyway, very much appreciate your writing – and your message will alert others, so thank you.

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