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The Boston Phoenix Yes He Could

The Sammy Davis Jr. story

By Richard C. Walls

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  My most deeply imprinted Sammy Davis Jr. moment isn't from the one occasion I saw him perform live, in Golden Boy in Detroit in 1964, but rather from a passage I came across around the same time when I was browsing through my older sister's copy of his autobiography, Yes I Can. It's the part where he describes how, just after his 1954 car accident as he lay on the highway, barely conscious and waiting for an ambulance to arrive, he realized what damage had been done to him and tried to stuff his eyeball back into his head. Now that's pluck. It's also not quite believable, though there are times when I'm listening to Rhino's four-CD overview Yes I Can! The Sammy Davis Jr. Story that I think it may be true, so more than merely mortal-sounding were his greatest moments of power and grace.

But before I start to gush, I ought to back up and acknowledge that there's an awful lot of baggage that comes with Sammy's image, stuff that gets in the way of some people's appreciation of his singing. Almost everyone to whom I mentioned I was going to write a piece on the famous dynamo responded with some variation of "Oh, you should have fun with that," the implication being that Davis was a good joke, a rich repository of camp, stale hipsterisms, and amusingly wretched show-biz sentimentality -- fun fodder for an acutely ironic late-'90s dissection. And there's something to that. By the 1970s, Davis, who had been singing and dancing professionally since shortly after his birth, in 1925, had become such an anachronistic entertainment monster that he could be encapsulated in a cruel but funny Saturday Night Live joke, a "Weekend Update" item reporting that the singer had to be rushed to the hospital after getting his jewelry snagged in his pants cuff during a "fake laughter" rehearsal.

So there's the Sammy that lives on in the Billy Crystal impression, the talk-show guest -- and briefly host -- Sammy who was always being grotesquely "sincere," the famously priapic Sammy who made a memorable appearance in Linda Lovelace's calculatedly remorseful biography . . . you get the point. And then there's the singer waiting to be rediscovered in the Rhino box set, the crooner Sammy who had found his mature voice before he was 30, a sensual singer who seemed almost too well-equipped for his job. There's an easy playfulness in his approach, especially on the cuts from the '50s, as though he were saying "This is soooo easy . . . let's fuck with it a little." On "Too Close for Comfort," a song from his tailor-made '56 Broadway hit, Mr. Wonderful, he alternates the expected lush held notes with slightly sarcastic-sounding syncopated lines delivered in a sometimes burry baritone. It's a keynote recording in which he establishes the modus operandi of humanizing his awesomely beautiful voice by flirting with self-satire.

Sammy had a surprisingly mellifluous shout that allowed him to belt out warhorses like "The Lady Is a Tramp" with preternatural ease. In most cases where singers turn up the volume, you're expected to appreciate the effort and root for them as they reach for the higher notes; but Davis negotiated his full-throttle passages without any apparent strain. If anything, he sounds most relaxed and unaffected when he hits a potentially tissue-tearing patch, wholly in his element with his pipes turned up to 11.

He was also capable of an exacting and subtle romanticism, the best early example here being his version of "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry," where he shows himself very aware of the dramatic efficacy of those little touches of melisma that appealingly suggest sadness. A well-done torch song is, after all, a painful story transformed into something pleasing, and Davis repeatedly conveys heroic loss without becoming maudlin.

The later recordings aren't as thrilling. You can ace the standards only so long before you're just doing your act. Sammy did get a decent pair of ballads from Leslie Bricusse to carry him into the '60s ("Who Can I Turn To" and "If I Ruled the World"). He even had two late-period commercial hits, '72's abysmal jingo "The Candy Man" and the insufferably groovy "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow (Baretta's Theme)" from '76. (The much more palatable "Mr. Bojangles," also from '72, didn't chart, though it became something of a themesong during his last two decades.) But discs one and two are fabulous, and, despite the slight decline in the material, disc three is solid. Disc four, which collects live performances from '59 to '77, has a lot of slick thrills and some ghastly shtick, like bad jokes and so-so impressions. But that's okay because, when he wanted to, Davis could be one of the most mesmerizing pop singers ever to mine the standard repertoire. Yes he could.


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