What Doesn't Stay in Vegas — Cabaret's Carol O'Shaughnessy Recalls her 'Rat Pack' Experience

by John Amodeo

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 8, 2021

"This show is story about what happened to me when I was 19 years old in Las Vegas," confides cabaret singer Carol O'Shaughnessy with a wink, "And most people don't know about that."

O'Shaughnessy is referring to her brushes with the Rat Pack, those bad boys who made the Sands Hotel their home in the late '50s and early '60s: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. The Las Vegas shows they put together and the swing and pop music they made became the stuff of legend. And while for most people, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, O'Shaughnessy is finally ready to spill the beans in her upcoming one-woman show "The Rat Pack...and Me," which she performs with the Tom LaMark Orchestra at the Club Café's Moonshine Room Saturday, November 13.

It would be nearly 20 years later, after marriage, motherhood, and divorce that O'Shaughnessy would begin her career as a singer. Some friends of hers from the restaurant where she was a singing waitress, took her to a gay bar in Worcester called The Male Box, where she sang a few songs at the piano, at which point the manager offered her a job on the spot. O'Shaughnessy would go from there to spending eight or more summers performing in Provincetown in the '80s, and several decades touring the world as a shipboard entertainer for LGBTQ+ cruise company RSVP. In between, O'Shaughnessy performed at the Club Café, Scullers Jazz Club, the Regattabar and countless other venues, eventually being dubbed by the media as Boston's Queen of Cabaret. Her repertoire is nearly boundless, with songs from the Great American Songbook, Broadway, film, pop, and of course, the signature swing music of the Rat Pack.

This isn't O'Shaughnessy's first foray into the material of the Rat Pack. Back in early 2006, she created her show "Ring a Ding Ding: the Music of the Rat Pack," which she performed numerous times in various Boston and New York boîtes in tandem with the release of her recording of the same name. However, this will be different. Edge spoke with O'Shaughnessy about the Rat Pack, fame, and what's really important.

EDGE: Who is the Rat Pack?

Carol O'Shaughnessy: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. Bishop wrote a lot of the improv stuff they did at the Copa. It may have looked like improv, but he set it all up. Lawford was there because Frank was enamored with JFK and Lawford was married to a Kennedy sister, for a minute. So Frank kept him around. Frank was a strong family man. I'm part Italian and as an Italian, you take care of your family. Frank loved his kids. Sammy was a terrible family man, and he admitted it. His dad and uncles brought him up without a mother and he didn't know how to parent because he was never shown or taught how to parent. He was pushed on stage at three by his uncles because he could sing and dance even then. Dean had seven kids. Of the three Rat Pack singers, he was probably the best dad. He wanted to be with his family the most. He was crazy about his wife, and that helped. He lost his son and that was a problem. He wasn't the lush he pretended to be on stage. The scotch glass was just a prop.

EDGE: Do you have a favorite?

Carol O'Shaughnessy: Sammy. Frank had to work at singing. He made it a craft, learning the bel canto method of singing, phrasing, breathing, he worked at it. But Sammy was a natural at everything: singing, dancing, timing, comedy, impersonations. He could impersonate white people, like Jimmy Stewart and it was hysterical. But Sammy in the 1960s was mistreated, because of his skin color. Even the other members of the Rat Pack treated him lousy, but few people knew about that, and he took it. Change happens slow. Even in today's world. You wonder if we've learned anything.

EDGE: How is this show "The Rat Pack...and Me" different from your cabaret show "Ring a Ding Ding?"

Carol O'Shaughnessy: This is a theatrical piece, not just music. Most people don't know this story about me. This is a play with music. Jack Neary wrote this for me. I worked with Jack a long time ago when I was in [the Worcester Foothills production of the stage musical] "Chicago," and I was Mama Morton and he was Amos. I had this story to tell, and he is a good writer, and he was able to write this story in my voice. I told him I have this music that I do and working with Jack opened up this world for me. It's great music.

EDGE: You are performing this show with the Tom LaMark Orchestra. How many pieces will you have?

Carol O'Shaughnessy: Lots off brass. The [Rat Pack] boys loved brass and so do I. Seven pieces. Four brass with rhythm. Two trumpets, trombone, and sax, though the sax player will also play flute, and other instruments, so you get more than one there. Tommy's written an overture for this and he won't let me hear it. We are having a rehearsal coming up and he won't even let me hear it during that. He's only done that for me for one show before. And I was a mess when he played it before my show. He does everything for me, he's like a goalie: save, save, save! He saves me. And he even bought a goalie pin, and maybe he'll wear it. Because he saves me every time. It's not about him. He supports the singer. He is the best. And he gets the best musicians. He said, "You're not gonna croak on me before the show, are you?" And I said, "Don't worry, you'll still get paid."

EDGE: What about the music of the Rat Pack draws you to it?

Carol O'Shaughnessy: The lyrics, the melody, the beat. It's like the beat of your heart. It's so comfortable and easy and speaks to the pulse of my life. I was raised with this beat. I sound like my mom when I sing, and she knew how to sing. She would tell me "Float over the music," and I never knew what she meant then, but the more you do it, the more you get it. Growing up, the sound of love was the sound of this swing music, and my grandfather would play and my mother would sing, and she was born in 1919. Growing up as an only child, I got into music from an early age upstairs in my huge bedroom on this little turquoise record player. I would go into Arlington Center and buy these little 45 record packets with four 45s in it, and stack them on the thick adapter, and I would do my homework to this music. I got all As and probably because of the music. It's the mechanism in your brain. As a program director in Assisted Living centers, people with dementia still remember music. I would sing songs in the center, and the ladies with dementia would correct me and say "No, no, this is how it goes." I was fortunate as an only child that I was lavished with this music. My grandchildren will be singing this music. My children play for their families the music I listened to. That's the oral history that gets passed down. This is also the music of Michael Bublé. Over a hundred years of music, it sustains like a classical piece. It's not Tchaikovsky. But Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, people who sat down and wrote a lyric that you could understand, that you could enunciate and hear the consonants.
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EDGE: Who were some of the other celebrities that you've rubbed elbows with:

Carol O'Shaughnessy: Joan Rivers, Herb Reed and the Platters. Rusty Warren and I met in Phoenix. Donn Trenner. I've been in three different celebrity homes that showed me their gold records. Herb Reed lived in Arlington. Rusty Warren lived in Arlington and had gold records. Donn Trenner had a gold record. He was the musical director for Steve Allen's show. But let me tell you, fame is baloney. [She then begins to sing from the song "Make Someone Happy (Jule Styne/Betty Comden & Adolph Greene) until her voice trails off] "Fame if you win it, comes and goes in a minute, where's the real stuff of life to cling to?"

I don't care about the razzle dazzle. It just sparkles and goes. I have three amazing children. They are smart, educated, do work in the world that's important, spouses that are amazing, raising families. My mother and grandfather were both only children, and my mom could only have me. The fact that I had three and they were able to produce more, then their dreams are fulfilled, and they had children who can dream now. That's my biggest success. The fact that I can sing, that's a gift that was given to me, and what do you do with a gift? You share it. It's so simple.

Carol O'Shaughnessy performs "The Rat Pack...and Me" on Saturday, November 13, 7 PM at the Moonshine Room, Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA 02116. Tickets: $25. For reservations, visit: https://www.clubcafe.com/club-events/the-rat-pack-and-me-carol-oshaughnessy/

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.