John H. McWhorter
The extraordinary gifts and fleeting legacy of Sammy Davis, Jr.
I never quite got the Sammy thing. Back in the 1970s, “Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr.!” would pop up on television shows singing cheesy songs and making lame jokes about being black, Jewish, and one-eyed. TV Guide always trumpeted these appearances; the implication was that the experience would be a special privilege. I could never tell why.
The archives shed some light on what sparked the legend. On Eddie Cantor’s Colgate Comedy Hour in 1952, after some hoofing and singing, a coltish young Davis launches into an imitation of Cantor so dead-on that it’s almost eerie when Cantor prances in, with his clapping hands and trademark “banjo eyes,” to finish the number with him. Davis steals the episode, leaving us wanting more even now.
Perhaps we can explain the contrast between Davis’s prodigious talents and his ephemeral legacy by observing that his life and work were all about mimicry. Not many years before the Colgate appearance, Lionel Hampton, one of Davis’s early mentors, had advised him, “Don’t imitate nobody. Go be Sammy Davis.” But just who was Sammy Davis? A look at his life shows that he was, as Gary Fishgall put it some years ago in the best biography to date, “an ill-formed polyglot.” Before the sixties, Davis imitated whites; afterward, as he tried to go with the times, the best he could do was to imitate being black.
Davis was born in Harlem in 1925 but grew up on the road during the waning days of black vaudeville. His mother, caught up in seeking her own fortune as a chorus girl, barely knew him. This left him available to shore up the hoofing routine of his father, Sammy Davis, Sr., and small-time producer Will Mastin. The Will Mastin Trio was one of hundreds of now-anonymous race acts in the thirties and forties. Trotting out a poor man’s version of the “flash dancing” that the Nicholas Brothers dazzled at—fancy jumps, splits, and circular maneuvers on the floor, some familiar today from break-dancing—the trio would have become a historical footnote but for Davis. Mastin and Davis’s father had brought the kid aboard when they caught him parroting the show at the tender age of three, and when Davis started doing impressions in the middle of the act, the trio’s fortunes started climbing. By the late 1940s, the group was getting choice bookings.
Davis’s singing was fine and his dancing was better, but it was as the black kid who imitated white stars that he attracted national attention. This has been easy to forget because there are no filmed records of the nightclub appearances on which he rode to stardom and because he largely stopped doing the imitations after the 1960s. But the scattered recordings that catch him at the craft reveal a Rich Little times two. On an album recorded at a Chicago club in 1962, Davis captured Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart, and Louis Armstrong so precisely that you’d swear they had walked onstage. He dazzled as well with spot-on renditions of Cary Grant, James Cagney, Billy Eckstine, Nat “King” Cole, and Jerry Lewis. Once, while he was performing on Ed Sullivan’s show in the 1950s, the picture feed went out temporarily and left the audience with only sound. Davis was so good that some people thought the celebrities he was mimicking were actually appearing on the show.
But Davis had little interest in burnishing his other talents. Singing, for example: for all the LPs he recorded, he charted few Top Ten hits, having none of the obsession with detail and nuance that Frank Sinatra lavished on his Capitol recordings. Sinatra tried to teach Davis the finer points of singing by playing him opera and the better pop singers, but Davis just wanted to go out and perform.
Some recent critics suggest that Davis’s singing is underrated, but they protest too much. It is certainly smooth and professional, but in the end, Davis’s recorded oeuvre is—again—mimicry rather than self-expression. (He once said that while it was easy to imitate other singers, he had trouble finding himself when he sang.) His “Something’s Gotta Give” is a cute Sinatra imitation. At the beginning of “As Long as She Needs Me,” he does an ornamental swoop down a third on “she” that stretches the word into two syllables, a frequent trick of his that channels Eckstine but has no connection with the lyric’s claims of selfless devotion. When he tackles “Soliloquy” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, he manages a fine imitation of a Broadway baritone—but not an actual statement. It’s one thing to listen to Davis’s recordings in isolation and another to compare them with the work of singers like Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney. Wil Haygood, in another recent biography of Davis, puts it well: “Sammy sang from the neck up, Sinatra sang from the heart up.”
As Davis rose to the top of the business in the fifties, even his father and Mastin reinforced a certain formulaic quality in his performances, preserving the fiction of a trio long after he had hit it big as a solo. On the cast album of his first Broadway show, Mr. Wonderful, Davis introduces the number “Jacques d’Iraque” by saying, “Dad and Will, let’s get together and tell the folks about Jacques d’Iraque.” But it’s Davis who tears up the house, surely not needing two old guys shuffling at his side singing backup. Mastin insisted on keeping Davis under contract as part of the trio—so even in his most triumphant gigs, he always had two aging hoofers behind him. On the Cantor show, they both take quick solos but are too old to pull off the moves.
As Davis started gamboling in nightclubs with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop, even his imitations became formulaic—in quotation marks, so to speak. Part of the Rat Pack act entailed Davis trying to do imitations, only to be cut off by the boys muscling in with their own self-consciously lame attempts at impersonation. By the seventies, the impersonations were history: Davis was known as a singer and “personality,” a weak abbreviation of the performer who had first attracted serious attention as a crack impressionist.
But Davis’s copycat essence prevented him from passing from personality to artist. David Denby once wrote in The New Yorker that “to become a movie star, an actor needs a certain density, a stubborn, immovable mass of being that an audience can rely on.” But as Fishgall observes, “there was no real Sammy”; Davis simply “became whatever people wanted him to be.”
Davis’s ill-fated television variety show in the mid-sixties was a case in point. A competent example of the genre of the period, the show had a hole in its middle, and it was Sammy himself. He had no individual essence to anchor the proceedings the way Dean Martin, with much less talent, could on his own variety show by just meandering out with a cigarette, a drink, and a grin. Sammy opens one episode singing an “Ol’ Man River” intended to be ruminative; it comes off instead as mannered. In a medley duet by Davis and Mel Tormé, only Tormé communicates something and comes off as a serious talent. In the same episode, we see Gordon MacRae singing through a head cold; his wife, Sheila, doing the worst imitation of Carol Channing in recorded history; and bug-eyed black comedian Timmie Rodgers doing a chitlin’-circuit act hinging on frequent interpolations of “Oh yeah!” Yet all these performers register more strongly than Davis, who seems more like a guest himself.
For Davis, performing was about the audience’s approval, nothing more. Performers like this do not stand the test of time. Watching a similar case, Al Jolson, strutting and bellowing through his films, we strain to comprehend why he was once billed—as Davis often was—
as the World’s Greatest Entertainer. Once fashions in humor and music change, a performer with little inside but hunger for applause leaves nothing to speak to the ages.
Around the time of his variety-show stint, Davis wooed audiences with jokes about his being black and Jewish. “Can you imagine each morning getting out of bed never knowing whether you want to be shiftless and lazy or smart and stingy?” he asked. “And you ain’t lived ’til you’ve tried kosher watermelon.” By 1967, anyone who found that funny was behind the times: black comedians like Dick Gregory and Redd Foxx had already pushed black humor into realms of irony and pathos foreign to Davis. “I never heard a sardonic word come out of Sammy’s mouth,” actor Ben Gazzara once said.
That absence of irony was the root of what many blacks viewed as Davis’s principal failing: coming up short on “black identity.” In post–civil rights America, maintaining this “identity” has often been a layered, ironic affair. As you contemplate a nation with an ever-larger black middle class, more and more interracial relationships, and biracial people as commonplaces (and today, a black man in the White House), thinking of yourself as a member of a race barred from meaningful participation in society requires a certain amount of elision and doubletalk. Davis, so ingenuous as to believe that he was “dancing down the barriers between us,” was not equipped for the subtle equipoise between rebel and joiner that many blacks since the 1960s have adopted as a sign of informed racial consciousness.
To be sure, one must also take Davis’s times into account. In the fifties, he was proud to dismiss the charge that he wasn’t a “corner guy,” to acknowledge that he openly aspired beyond the working-class black world. This sounds potentially elitist and “un-black” today, when successful blacks are not unknown to signal as much allegiance with the corner as possible to earn their authenticity stripes. (Witness Barack Obama’s displaying a relationship with hip-hop during his campaign.) But before the 1960s, the idea that the street was the quintessence of blackness had yet to become a mainstream conviction; it was a notion that wasn’t yet dominant on the street itself.
Davis did have some indications of what we now know as race consciousness. He moved through a world in which he couldn’t attend many of the clubs he played—even in New York—but after the mid-fifties, he refused to play whites-only clubs, giving up money that he always needed. He participated, albeit with prompting from Harry Belafonte, in a second Selma-to-Montgomery march, two weeks after the first one had resulted in violence that Davis was scared to his socks would be repeated. And the Sammy who kissed Archie Bunker in his famous guest spot on All in the Family chalked one up against old-style bigotry—leaving Archie helplessly appalled and stunned, and the audience howling, before the final commercial break.
Yet Davis’s racial consciousness remained only, as it were, skin-deep. Take the photo of Sammy ardently hugging a grinning Richard Nixon from behind at the Republican National Convention in 1972. Blacks responded to the image with a hailstorm of contempt that Davis never quite lived down: How could he cozy up to a Republican president considered grievously unconcerned with race? The real story was more nuanced. Moments before the picture was taken, Nixon had announced that Sammy Davis could not be bought and that he had come into Nixon’s corner in a sincere quest for the betterment of the black race. Davis did believe that Nixon was more committed to black well-being than his public reputation suggested. Unsurprisingly for someone who grew up in a theater trunk and had little education, he was not a news junkie, equipped to assess the extent to which Nixon’s interest in blacks was more political than heartfelt. Even if he had been, he might have been practical enough to be more interested in results than in feelings.
But even with our historical glasses on, Davis’s cavorting with the Rat Pack is almost unbearable. For all its resonance in legend, the Rat Pack’s act was captured in picture and sound just once, in a 1965 benefit that Sinatra organized in St. Louis and that CBS happened to film. Sinatra and Dean Martin play the big boys, smirkily condescending to Davis, who alternates between playing the wide-eyed acolyte and joshingly threatening protest marches, as if the Selma tragedy just a few months before were something to be joked about. Davis saunters across the stage with a glass of liquor, crowing, “If this doesn’t straighten my hair, nothing will.” Soon afterward, Martin carries him back on in his arms, saying, “I’d like to thank the NAACP for this lovely award.” “Put me down!” Davis objects, but it’s not enough—he let himself be picked up, after all.
For Davis, the important thing was getting to hang around with famous white people. In fact, one inconvenient obstacle between Davis and an engaged black identity was that he wished he were white. That charge is usually leveled by blacks at one another out of malice; but in Davis’s case, it was simple fact. “Damn, I wish I weren’t black!” he reported crying to himself sometimes when he encountered bigotry. He was fond of affecting an English accent. Black performers rarely imitated whites when Davis hit the big time; in his case, it seems that imitation was indeed the sincerest form of flattery.
For the worshipful Davis, Sinatra was a kind of Great White Father figure, though Ol’ Blue Eyes clearly didn’t give a damn about him. After Davis lost his eye in a car accident, Sinatra had to be told to visit him in the hospital. When Davis wanted to opt out of a bibulous evening with Sinatra to see his current beloved, Kim Novak, Sinatra, an occasional flame of hers, called her for a rendezvous right in front of Davis; she readily accepted, breaking the date with Davis and breaking his heart. Yet even in the late sixties, Davis delivered one of his signature songs with the line “I’ve gotta be me—but I’d rather be him,” pointing to the Chairman of the Board. Imagine Don Cheadle—who played Davis in HBO’s Rat Pack movie—saying that about, say, George Clooney today.
The conversion to Judaism was just more of this white fever. “I wanted to be a Jew because I wanted to become part of a 5,000-year history . . . which would give me that inner strength to turn the other cheek,” Davis said. “Jews have become strong over their thousand years of oppression and I wanted to become part of that strength.” Leave aside the question of whether one can become part of a history through conversion. Was black America in the fifties an unpromising place for someone seeking to strengthen himself by fighting oppression?
In a sad statement that defined the rest of his life, Davis commented in the seventies, “You know, I’ve worked all my life to be white, and now black is beautiful.” His response was to add a new impression, the “soul brother,” to the act that was his life. Now he wore his hair natural. He also remarried. His earlier marriage to Swedish actress May Britt had slapped the Uncle Tom label on him, and in this new era of Black Power, the charge acquired so potent a sting that it threatened his career; hence the second marriage, to younger black dancer Altovise Gore. For the rest of his life, Davis mentioned Altovise so obsessively in appearances that I’d bet that more black people over 40 know Sammy Davis’s wife’s name than know what SNCC stands for—despite the fact that the marriage was an essentially open one, short on passion.
Davis’s new imperatives even distorted the facts in the most popular account of his life, Yes, I Can, an autobiography published in 1965. In one memorable section, Davis describes suffering constant abuse from whites he bunked with in the army. But the army was strictly segregated at the time, and while Davis claimed to have been in a special integrated unit, Fishgall checked the records of Davis’s company and found no such unit—besides which, after just one of the beatings Davis described, he presumably would have been transferred to a black unit. Davis might well have had an ugly run-in or two. But he embroidered his army life into a tale of living day and night with racist pigs, hoping to appease the increasingly militant black America that dismissed him as an anachronistic sellout.
One might try, as both Fishgall and Haygood do, to wrest from Davis’s feckless trajectory an idea of him as the embodiment of the races coming together in America. There is a grain of truth in the idea. Davis was a pioneer in engaging white audiences directly, having noticed that black performers tended to address only one another on stage, maintaining a fourth wall between themselves and white audiences.
Also, despite his adulation of white ways, Davis was always a more identifiably “black” performer than, say, Johnny Mathis. At New York’s Museum of Television and Radio, I watched a showing of the St. Louis Rat Pack concert. In the row ahead of me sat two elderly women; and in the row behind, a twentysomething Williamsburg-type couple wearing T-shirts. At one point, Davis did “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” first singing it straight and then launching into an extended scat sequence, chanting rhythmically in a trancelike state, arms extended, fingers snapping, head tilted back, eyes half shut. In other words, Sammy was “getting down” in a style reminiscent of Bobby McFerrin. About halfway through, one of the hipsters behind me said, “Cool!” A moment later, one of the old women said, “Enough of this is enough”—Sammy was too black for those minted in the era of Mad Men. The old ladies were the past; the hipsters, in their embrace of Davis’s beatnik aspect, were the future.
But this is about as far as crossover analysis of Davis can stretch. Fishgall concludes that “his music—redolent with the tunes of Newley-Bricusse, Porter, Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart—was not the sound of the inner city. His humor, for all the black references and Amos and Andy dialect, worked better with Caucasians than with ‘his people.’ ”
In some ways, Davis’s inability to get with the times looks better today than it did then. For example, despite all the jokes about having the NAACP behind him, Davis didn’t join the celebration of the lowest as the blackest, which is one of the less fortunate ways that the races have come together in a country where 70 percent of the people who cherish thuggish varieties of rap as vibrantly real and political are white. In the 1973 documentary Save the Children, about a benefit concert for Jesse Jackson’s new Operation PUSH, we see Davis—having just endured some booing from the crowd about the Nixon photo—delivering the Black Power salute in what Haygood calls “macho pantomime.” Given the thin and questionable legacy of Black Power politics beyond the early seventies, perhaps Davis was right merely to give it a wink.
The problem was that after a while, he did everything with that wink. His efforts to keep up with the times remained gestural. He indulged in the “turn on, tune in, drop out” fad by doing heavy drugs and engaging in kinky sex with porn star Linda Lovelace. But he continued living in compulsively high style despite the antimaterialism at the heart of the countercultural movement. He became a serious alcoholic. In 1973, at a Caesar’s gig, he could barely get through a hot tap routine. His hip gave out, and by the early eighties, one reporter described a “tiny, wraith-like” figure carrying a full line of Campbell’s soups on his tours. Finally, his four-pack-a-day smoking habit led to throat cancer, which killed him, 20 years ago this spring, at 64.
Haygood eloquently captures the essence of Davis by quoting the biological definition of mimicry: “The resemblance of one organism to another or to an object in its surroundings for concealment and protection from predators.” When the predators were whites in pre–civil rights America, Davis aped them frantically and eagerly served as the Rat Pack’s colored mascot. When the times changed and blacks became his predators as much as whites, Sammy, a chameleon to the end, bought some dashikis and got himself a black trophy wife. Far from reflecting the unfolding story of race in America, all this was no more than a series of encores by the talented lad who once became Eddie Cantor before our eyes.