Sunday, 19 February 2012

Sammy Davis Jr.

During the week the name of Sammy Davis Jr. was mentioned and someone said they hadn't realized he was more than a somewhat mannered singer.   This is an easy mistake to make; Britain did not receive the quantity of shows which demonstrated his ability.  Let's put that right now that by thanking the uploaders and his estate who have made  material available so that we can glimpse how this major talent worked and begin to appreciate that he was one of the very best popular entertainers which America has ever produced.

Those who knew him insist that he was in fact the greatest; talented in  an over-arching way that was difficult to see it all at once.

Exhibit one is a section of a 1963 show he did with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.  Despite the natural competition between them, they knew who was the talent on that stage.  Sinatra pleads  "What do you waaaant of us?" They go through their joshing and party pieces in the time honoured "Hollywood Party" mode, then at 6:14 Davis produces Marlon Brando.

He doesn't just impersonate a character; he acts it for both good and ill, showing the power but also the incoherence in that style of theatre. Impersonations, my foot. Right there in a tiny link you have a profound critique of the method school of acting; Davis was never incoherent in his life and he's not convinced that it is of any value.  Dammit, this is supposed to be performing for an audience, not modelling.

The Copa Room, Sands Hotel, 1963 part 3

Item 2.  This interview ought to be compulsory viewing for every grunting youth in the land. Pay attention boy, this is how articulacy makes people forget about the looks of the person in front of them. Although Davis regularly joked about race - it was, and is, a major political consideration which can get in the way of a performance - it is known that what he was particularly sensitive about was the glass eye he was obliged to wear after a car accident.  Although he walked in rhythm, it's observably the case that he was no raving beauty. Perversely, that was lucky. A prettier face might have found it impossible to cope with the disfigurement.  As it turned out, people were not all that bothered; they wanted him to joke, to dance and to sing. Luckily, so did he.

Wogan interview with Sammy Davis Jr. 1989 (part 1 of 4)

His signature song, Mr Bojangles, has many versions available. This one is from 1985 and is remarkable for its simple orchestration which never overpowers the poetry. When lesser performers attempt it they misunderstand it to be a schmaltzy tum-ti-tum.  Davis shows that it is in fact an intimate monologue delivered to you, personally.

Mr Bojangles 1985

A Youtube search now shows the major performances of his life and The Estate of Sammy Davis Jr. has archive photography and further material.   In 1964 Ed Sullivan knew he had created a special moment when Davis and Ella Fitzgerald appeared together for him.  He says that when the audience grows up, it will tell its children they saw them perform.  What Sullivan could not foresee is that the recording survived and is here.


Sniper said...

Despite the natural competition between them, they knew who was the talent on that stage. Sinatra pleads "What do you waaaant of us?"

Small point of order - James Dean, I think.

Woman on a Raft said...

Good point, but Sinatra knows exactly why that is so appropriate.

Electro-Kevin said...


A far nicer man than Sinatra but all three brimming with talent.

Anonymous said...

Slightly off topic but I believe he also held the world record for the fastest pistol draw from a holster.

Not something you would add to a 20th century CV, but impressive all the same.

Woman on a Raft said...

Indeed he did, Lakelander.

If you want to see a demonstration of it, it is in this clip from a programme.

The first section is him lip syncing to The Music Man "Ya Got Trouble" and is followed by his quick-draw routine.

Perhaps one of the difficulties for Davis was just unlucky timing; he was allowed to be a song and dance cabaret but what he really needed was to build a solid set of broadway musical theatre roles and take them in to film.

There just were not enough roles to allow him to build up a repertoir early enough.

agriculture investments said...

Sammy Davis Jr! Now there's a name I have not thought of for awhile. One of the first Jewish-Black chaps I'd ever heard of.