Frank Sinatra in Rio: January 1980

40 years ago, in January 1980, the unlikely figure of the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, arrived in Rio de Janeiro. He landed on 21 January at Rio’s international airport to be the star attraction at the opening of a new five star hotel on Rio’s Copacabana Beach, the Rio Palace. A property that has been recently renovated and is now the Fairmont Rio.

Sinatra had been brought to Rio by the head of the Artplan advertising agency, Roberto Medina, a name familiar now as the man behind the famous Rock in Rio festivals. But it is unlikely that without the visit of Sinatra in 1980 that Rock in Rio would ever have taken place five years later, or that the gates would have opened for other major performers and artists to come to Brazil.

Medina had already worked with Sinatra, having used Ol Blue Eyes in an advert for the Brazilian bottled Scotch Whisky, Passport. Medina had also used David Niven and Burt Bacharach as part of the campaign. Sinatra also had his own links to Brazil having performed and recorded an album with Tom Jobim in 1967, which they followed up with a second in 1969.

Medina paid Sinatra a reported US$1 million for five shows in Rio. Four of these would be for an exclusive nightly audience of just 700 in the Rio Palace’s ballroom on the 22, 23, 24 and 25 of January 1980. The fifth show was altogether more ambitious, a stadium show on Saturday, 26 January at the Maracanã Stadium, which would also be broadcast in Brazil on TV Globo.

The shows at the Rio Palace were the place to be and be seen in Brazil that week of January 1980 (each ticket costing over US$1,000), and did what they were intended to do by putting the hotel on the map, both in Brazil and internationally. Few hotels outside of Las Vegas had the clout to attract Sinatra.

The famous concert at the Maracanã Stadium nearly did not take place, however, due to the weather. It was an open stage located right in the centre of the pitch. The special seats on the grass, closest to the uncovered stage, had been the first to sell out at US$160 each, with tickets in the stands costing just US$6.

Due to the persistent rain on the Friday and through Saturday, it was impossible to mic and wire the orchestra, and for a time it looked as if the concert would be called off and fall foul to the weather. And there was no back up date as Sinatra had to return to the US.

At 21.00, on the night of 26 January, Sinatra walked on stage just as the rain stopped and performed to the largest crowd of his career, 175,000 people, a crowd that went into the Guinness Book of record as the largest paying audience for a single act.

In honour of Brazil, Sinatra started with “The Coffee Song” which he followed by his repertoire of hits including “The Lady is a Tramp”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, “My Way”, “Strangers In the Night”, which the crowd sang with Sinatra when he appeared to forget the lyrics, and his new hit that year, “New York, New York”. In all Sinatra performed for one hour and forty-five minutes.

Not only were Sinatra’s shows in Rio historic, but it showed that Brazil could hold major concerts. Sinatra was followed at Maracanã by Sting, Tina Turner, Kiss, Madonna, The Police, The Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, and the Pope, no-less, and in 1991 Medina’s own Rock in Rio II with headline acts such as Prince, Santana, George Michael, Guns’n Roses, A-ha! and INXS among others. But it was to be Sir Paul McCartney who, on another wet Saturday, would break Sinatra’s record for the paying public for a single act, when he sold an estimated 180,000 tickets for his show at the Maracanã

Sinatra was to return to play Brazil one more time, in August 1981 when he played the Maksoud Plaza hotel in São Paulo.