Oh No, He Can't!

Old Fontainebleu fave Sammy Davis, Jr.

The career of Sammy Davis, Jr., was long and strange -- laced with tragedy, blessed with success, loaded with contradictions, and defined, for better or worse, by his ceaseless determination to live up to his marquee epithet, Mr. Entertainment. He pulled it off, as is amply proven by the 91 tracks collected for Yes I Can!: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, an exhaustive, lavishly packaged box set recently issued by Rhino. There's a lot of just about everything scattered across the four lengthy discs: splashy, brassy standards; hoary show tunes; covers of then-contemporary pop and country hits; and mainstream written-to-orders that would establish him as one of the most popular singers of the Fifties and Sixties, as well as one of the most enduring icons of Las Vegas kitsch and retro camp.

What's missing throughout Davis's extensive body of work, however, can best be explained by James Brown, who in his 1986 autobiography, The Godfather of Soul, wrote that Davis was "multitalented, but he never did himself." It's an astute observation. In his attempts to be all things for all people, an audience-pleaser at any cost, Davis never found his own voice, never eclipsed his influences, and never matched the work of his pop and R&B contemporaries. No doubt he achieved the kind of fame and celebrity practically unrivaled by his African-American peers. For instance, in 1963, while Davis was headlining venues such as Miami Beach's Fontainebleau hotel, Sam Cooke was doing matinee performances at Overtown's famed Harlem Square Club, singing gritty, sweat-soaked R&B for the city's most poverty-racked community. And while Ray Charles made frequent appearances on television variety programs, Davis hosted his own variety shows and ran with the consummate top dogs of white America's entertainment hierarchy: Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

That's not to accuse Davis of being a cultural sellout (that notorious Richard Nixon-bear hug photo notwithstanding). To accuse him of not being "black enough" or too pop, is to forget about the crossover success of Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, and countless doo-wop groups, or to ignore the rock and roll innovations of Jimi Hendrix. Davis's identity, though, was his very lack of identity. He neither flaunted nor denied his ethnicity or African-American heritage. Like a show-biz Zelig, Davis merely adapted to his surroundings, whether hoofing it as a kid at the Apollo Theater or yukking it up for the snowbirds who flocked to Miami Beach for Vegas-style entertainment. Whatever clicked with the audience is what Davis would do. Thus the bulk of Yes I Can! is devoted to standards recorded hundreds of times by literally hundreds of artists. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, and countless others all took their turns at the likes of "The Birth of the Blues," "Too Close for Comfort," and "Begin the Beguine," often turning them into masterfully artful personal statements. In Davis's hands, however, they are mere vehicles for his admittedly powerful voice, a voice that was technically proficient but utterly bereft of anything resembling sincerity or heartfelt emotion. "That Old Black Magic," a Top 20 hit for Davis in 1955, is about as schmaltzy and glib as anything in the lexicon of popular music, as are the inevitable tunes from his 1958 shot at Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. His interminable version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Soliloquy," meanwhile, is a flaccid attempt at glitzy pyrotechnics that is simply empty.

A new box set revisits an old Fontainebleau fave, Sammy Davis, Jr.
A new box set revisits an old Fontainebleau fave, Sammy Davis, Jr.

Showstopping schmaltz has always been at the core of Davis's work. It's what first caught the eyes and ears of Sinatra back in the early 1940s, and it has helped to make him one of the towering figures of the postmodern cocktail craze of the past few years. It held tightly the Harlem-born Davis from the age of three, when he made his first appearance (in blackface, no less) with his parents in the 1928 burlesque revue Struttin' Hannah from Savannah. In short time he was picking up work as a dancer, impersonator, and singer with Will Mastin's Gang, a popular flash-dancing trio with whom Davis would perform for the next twentysomething years. He got his first taste of racism while serving in World War II, and despite his ever-growing popularity following his discharge in 1945, such hatred would continue to dog the tireless entertainer, even among his friends and cohorts. (Who can forget the 1960s Rat Pack concert aired several years back on A&E, during which Dean Martin picks up Davis, then thanks the NAACP for the trophy?)

Davis persevered as though it were all part of the act, and in the process opened the doors for numerous black entertainers. He also established himself as a consistent draw in Vegas, Hollywood, and Broadway, along the way netting nineteen hits on the pop chart. Yet the evolution of his music represents a complex knot of contradictions. During the 1960s wave of African-American outbursts of disenchantment and reform, Davis was laughing it up onstage at the Sands, a willing stooge for the smart-ass Rat Pack. During the early 1970s outbreak of politically charged soul and R&B, Davis had a number one hit with the unctuous "Candy Man," a song he purportedly loathed. He became a smarmy, jive-ass hipster, flashing peace signs, embracing the fashion of psychedelia, and becoming the quintessence of a hapless man trying to stave off old age.

Beyond his silly public image, it's impossible to wade through Yes I Can! and not wonder just how deeply the sting of racism affected Davis's work -- the irony of performing on the stage of the Fontainebleau while having to sleep in an Overtown fleabag. Were the Broadway tunes, pop trifles, and country-and-western panderings his way of ingratiating himself into the conscious white pop culture, of trying to make it by playing someone else's game? If so he was ill equipped to pull it off, despite the attestations in the box set's liner notes by the infuriatingly tight-ass Will Friedwald. Davis never brought anything new to a song, never surprised you with the subtle grace of vintage Sinatra and Bennett, or dazzled you with the urbane elegance of Martin. The manic energy of Davis's stage presence (documented on this set's fourth disc, which is devoted to his live performances) is neither impressive nor particularly exciting. Even within the realm of cocktail camp, this is tedious stuff, the end result of a lifetime spent in search of applause: a lifetime working in show business, the business of show.

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