An old joke about Sammy Davis Jr., attributed to a mid-'50s newspaper columnist, resurfaces in the liner notes of the four-disc Yes I Can!: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story (Warner Archives/Rhino). One day the diminutive dynamo—then riding high with his first Broadway success, Mr. Wonderful—was playing golf on Long Island. The club's pro came over and asked, "What's your handicap?"
"I'm a colored, one-eyed Jew," the singer shot back. "Do I need anything else?" As anyone who's read his 1965 autobiography will corroborate, throughout Davis' 60-plus years, prejudice blinded many Americans to this energetic entertainer's gifts as a dancer, singer, actor, multi-instrumentalist, and mimic of arresting accuracy.
For many moons, I also lived in a Sammy-free zone, but not because of anti-Semitism or racism. The barrier that proscribed me from appreciating his charms was drawn around my heart. My college boyfriend couldn't stand Davis, for reasons as absurd yet sincere as anything found in Freud's notebooks.
As a young lad, several of my beau's older brothers once pinned him to the carpet and tickled him so mercilessly that he lost bladder control and wet himself. As his siblings leapt back in laughter, Davis was belting out "The Candy Man" on an AM radio somewhere in the house. The mere mention of that song forever exerted a terrifying hold on my ex. I once tried to defuse a quarrel by singing, "Who can take a sunrise. . . ." Instead of shrinking back, my beloved's rage surged so fiercely I feared he suffered from multiple personality disorder. From that moment on, Sammy Davis Jr. was persona non grata in my home.
After our break-up, I began noticing clues that Davis' talent might transcend the Cannonball Run flicks and "love ya, babe" shtick with which I'd associated him. In a record store, I spied a used copy of Our Shining Hour, his 1965 collaboration with Count Basie. Surely if his work once merited release on esteemed jazz imprint Verve, Sammy wasn't irredeemable.
The turning point came with a TV special documenting Davis' 1988 tour with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. The 63-year-old performer took a song I despised—"Music of the Night" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's loathsome The Phantom of the Opera—and wrapped himself around it so completely, not only vocally but physically, that I nearly forgot to breathe. After that showstopper, Frank and Liza came off like two dusty Muppets animated by ham-fisted mannerisms.
I often wonder why so many of my generation's hipsters swoon over Sinatra and Dean Martin yet continually underestimate Davis. Listening to his 1962 Top-20 hit "What Kind of Fool Am I?" you can practically hear the furrowing of his tormented brow. Perhaps hard work is no longer a virtue to which folks in this era of get-rich-quick investment pyramid schemes aspire.
His precision is impeccable, too. The all-live fourth disc of Yes I Can features a four-and-a-half minute "West Side Story Medley" in which Davis deftly zigzags through seven of that show's tunes with only a Latin percussionist for accompaniment. It's impossible to imagine any of his peers, with the exception of Mel Torme, executing such a stunt. The advice that dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson handed down to Sammy as a child always stuck with him: "Make it so the people can understand it. Make it look easy."
Despite his tendency to push for notes outside the ranges of his more celebrated Rat Pack peers, Davis knew when to back off. Take his 1963 rendition of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from Guys and Dolls. The song's simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure affords anyone singing it little room for dramatic build. Yet because of its role in the original show (a testimonial sung by a hardened gambler before a Salvation Army assembly), most Broadway babies blow their top each time they hit the chorus. But not Sammy. Like a pitcher with a slow wind-up, he elongates interpolated low notes just before the downbeat, then swings the tune gently, like a man revealing a secret. The result? His character's conversion from vice to virtue seems eminently believable.
In 1972, "The Candy Man" became Sammy Davis Jr.'s sole number one hit. Playing it for the first time in aeons, another memory, unconnected to my ex, flooded my brain: I'm five years old, dancing around my grandmother's sunny Ohio kitchen to the song on the radio. Hearing the way Sammy leans so persuasively into the phrase "talk about your childhood wishes," especially the second time it comes around and he takes it into a higher register, I realized why that line still makes me happy. Because Davis knew that no matter how unfavorable the odds, with talent, elbow grease, and dogged stick-to-itiveness, those wishes can come true.