The 13 years since he died -- of throat cancer perhaps not unrelated to the cigarettes that filed ceaselessly through his lips — have been good to Sammy Davis Jr. A four-CD career retrospective (Rhino's Yes I Can! The Sammy Davis Jr. Story) came out a few years back; last year, Sammy, "a new play with music and tap inspired by the life of Sammy Davis Jr.," toured Britain. The Recording Academy gave him a Grammy for lifetime achievement, albeit not within his lifetime. Don Cheadle played him in a TV movie about the Rat Pack, whose resurgent popularity, born of cocktail-age nostalgia, continues generally to surge; and actor-comedian Eddie Griffin (Malcolm and Eddie, Undercover Brother) has been set to star in the film based on Davis' twin memoirs, Yes I Can! and Why Me? Now he is being celebrated in Sammy in the Sixties: The Television Work of Sammy Davis Jr., a two-part program at the Museum of Television & Radio that catches him, for the most part, at his best, not long before changing tastes set the singer down the wrong road to unka-chunka-chicka-boom, Nehru jackets, leather pants and love beads. (He got funky then and forgot, for a while, to sing.) Later he hugged Nixon and recorded "Candy Man," but I remember seeing him in the late '70s, on The Tonight Show, burning through "From This Moment On" at a clip that made the Ramones sound like Vanilla Fudge. His best performances were a kind of a daredevil act, and like any great daredevil act felt both dangerous and casual.
Worship, of course, can warp a reputation as effectively as can disdain. Billy Crystal's awful, if affectionate, imitation — "Hey, man" — hangs around in the cultural memory, half-obscuring its source; it's all many people may ever know of the man some call Mr. Entertainment. Rat Packism saddles the art with the "life," and not only his but that of Frank Sinatra, against whom he is invariably judged — just as his race ensured he'd ultimately be reckoned against African-American performers whose history and interests had nothing to do with his, and held to account for his processed hair and manner of speech ("posh," the way Madonna talks now).
I come, then, not to bury Sammy in extracurricular particulars, the things by which he is parodied — a black Jew with a glass eye, a thrice-broken nose, and an underbite you could launch jets from; follower of Frank, intimate of Linda Lovelace — but to praise him as the last practitioner of a certain brand of stage-based 20th-century entertainment, wherein a singer might not only dance, but conduct the band, play the drums, do impressions and perform fast-draw gun tricks. Having entered show business at an exceedingly tender age — it was still the 1920s when he made his stage debut, at 3 — he was one of the last real vaudevillians, a peer of performers 10 and 20 and 30 years his senior. But it also meant he was young enough to grasp the new sounds of the swinging '60s and the more florid expressions of late-period Broadway, if still too old for psychedelia and all that came after. Although he apparently dropped a lot of acid.
The programs and clips being screened at the MT&R span the years 1963 to 1966, as Davis neared and hit 40, though he seems years younger; this was his peak. He had by then been famous in a big way for a decade, but the '60s were when he came into his own, artistically — he had a style for the times, with the speed and gleam of a sports car — and professionally: a best-selling autobiography; three Rat Pack movies; a Tony nomination for Golden Boy, the Broadway musical created especially for him; a top nightclub act; a busy recording career; and the effective American franchise on the songs of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse — "What Kind of Fool Am I?," "Someone Nice Like You," "Once in a Lifetime" and a couple dozen others through the years — songs I would care to hear no one else on Earth sing, but which became his signature, and suited not only his taste for the dramatic, but his existentially conflicted, who-am-I, why-am-I, eternally questing disposition.
Notwithstanding the odd big-screen star turn, such as his Sportin' Life in the film of Porgy and Bess, TV, which in its youth was essentially electronic vaudeville, was a more receptive medium for him than film, as it was for black variety artists in general. As TV's implicit charge was to reflect and channel the world, most everything of pop-cultural interest was at some point fed into it. Davis' own TV career runs from the early '50s, when on NBC's Colgate Comedy Hour host Eddie Cantor controversially embraced him — Cantor's response to the ensuing uproar was to book the act for the rest of the season — until his death in 1990, and includes Westerns, cop shows, sitcoms (on which he often but not always played himself), soap operas, variety hours, anthology dramas, TV movies, talk shows, awards shows, superstar specials (some of them his own), Shindig and Hullabaloo and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. He made a cameo appearance on Batman. He kissed Archie Bunker. He co-hosted the Emmys in 1965, the Oscars in 1975, had his own variety series, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, in 1966 — the final episode screens here, in the "Golden Boy of Broadway" package — and his own syndicated talk show, Sammy and Company, from 1975 to 1977. He sang the theme to Baretta.
The years have not been kind to every element of these shows. His jokes about race relations are a beat or two behind the times. Some bits, like the fast-draw gunplay — which is ultimately not so different than watching a man fly model airplanes — or his lip-synching to Robert Preston's recording of "Trouble," are just puzzling now. More troubling is his famously ostentatious humility; in his eagerness to please, he can become his own worst enemy — he mugs, plays cute, puts on a widdle kiddie voice, laughs too hard or too long. One feels for him.
But when he's working, when he's really inside a song or a dance, none of that matters. The BBC's 1963 Meet Sammy Davis Jr. (part of the museum's "London and More" program) is the thing to see here. Performing in a tan sport coat that suits him somehow better than the tux in which he's elsewhere clad, he is all business and in terrific form. At ease across the octaves, a master of melodic leaps and plunges, of long-arc portamento and the slyly bent note, Davis had a voice variously redolent of trombone, French horn, tenor and even baritone saxophone. He was a juicier singer than Sinatra — if not quite as profound — and a bluesier one, and a jazzier one, but could marshal as well the semi-operatic throb and sob of a Mario Lanza. If there is in his singing, as in the rest of his act, a bit of the showoff, of Check out what I can do, well, you know, he could. He phrased like the dancer he was, syncopating, punctuating, messing with the pulse. Singing or dancing he seems to be making it up on the spot, every note, every change from heel to toe a new possibility. Everything about him said soar: Not only his songs, but the career they define, and the life the career defined, are manifestoes of self-actualization — "Yes I Can," "Gonna Build a Mountain," "Once in a Lifetime," "A Lot of Livin' To Do," "I've Gotta Be Me."
"I'm gonna do great things," he sings, and does.
SAMMY IN THE SIXTIES | "Golden Boy of Broadway" (through Thursday, February 27) and "London and More" (Friday, February 28, through Sunday, April 6) | At the Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills | (310) 786-1025
© Robert Lloyd 2003 and 2011