Monday Blues (02.21.11)

Sammy Davis Jr. (New York, 1925-1990) might not be thought of by anybody as a performer of the blues. As a dancer and a vocalist, however, he drew heavily from his upbringing on the Vaudevillian stage, from a performance space that drew from every African American tradition of the early 20th century and molded it into something dynamically new. The blues and jazz were fundamental parts of that, as were the dance traditions of the stage. At his most popular, of course, his art existed in the mainstream culture, most often coexisting with European American traditions in a performative space that suggested the pluralistic or multicultural visions many of us have.

As you may know from reading this blog, I consider him to be the best showman of the 20th century United States. He was–and remains–without rival.

Here he is performing his classic love song to the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (though the song itself, written by performer Jerry Jeff Walker, was not about the famed dance man at all).

Incidentally, Davis was known (at times notoriously) as trangressor of racial/ethnic boundaries, from his conversion to Judaism in the 50s to his marriage to May Britt, a white woman, in 1960. Yet his pluralistic and hybrid artistic legacy mirrored his own “roots.” His mother was Latina (either Puerto Rican or Cuban, depending on the source).

Strange Coincidences in History

It has occurred to me that this past Sunday was another strange pop cultural event in the world.

Ronnie James Dio died on May 16, 2010, on the exact 20 year anniversary of the passing of Sammy Davis Jr.  On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died and, 20 years to that day, in 1997, internationally-known Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died.  Elvis and Nusrat are a pair, each man has a similar standing in his own musical genre, musical culture, and global industry.  Dio and Davis aren’t too oddly matched either, both being notables inside of a larger genre, perhaps not recognized widely as the best but certainly widely known as on of the best by all those who’s opinions matter.