The night was January 27th, 1961. At the time, Carnegie Hall was perhaps the most prestigious concert hall in the world. There was a magic and mystique about the New York concert hall that few other venues had. A few years earlier, the likes of Etta James, Bo Diddley, and Billie Holiday graced the stage to thunderous applause.
However, the night of January 27th, 1961, was unlike any that the historic venue on 57th Street and 7th Avenue had ever hosted before. It was about to host one of the most socially significant events in its seventy-year history.
In 1961, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, under the leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That same year, the annual fundraising goal for Dr. King’s Civil Rights Coalition was $100,000.
Dr. King, seeking to organize a signature benefit gala to help the Coalition kick off the year on a positive note for its fundraising efforts, landed on New York’s famed Carnegie Hall venue. While Carnegie Hall would bring a heightened level of prestige and awareness to Dr. King’s Coalition, the venue alone would not be enough to attract the financial support that Dr. King sought.
In search of a headline act to ensure the event’s success, Dr. King, through close friend Sammy Davis, Jr., secured a rare appearance from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin along with additional Rat Pack member Joey Bishop.
Ticket prices were set as high as $200, which adjusted for inflation, amounts to approximately $2,000 in today’s dollars. The prices did not deter the New York theater fans who lined up in the cold Manhattan winter to secure their tickets. Tickets sold out within days, leaving thousands of fans relegated to reading about the concert in the following morning’s newspaper.
New Yorkers who were lucky enough to secure a ticket were treated to three hours of jubilant theater, complete with hit songs and the Rat Pack’s signature skits and comedy routines.
Sinatra and company sang to a standing ovation from the thousands who packed into Carnegie Hall that evening, helping raise $22,000, nearly one-quarter of the fundraising goal for the entire year.
Just seven years later, Dr. King would be assassinated, but not before he left an indelible mark on equality and Civil Rights in the United States and across the world. While it paled in comparison to Dr. King’s numerous achievements, that January night at Carnegie Hall will forever be remembered as one of the most significant in the legendary New York concert hall’s history.