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).

Sammy Davis Jr. is Still Dead…

Sammy Davis Jr. passed away 20 years ago today, on May 16, 1990.  He died of lung cancer, after a lifetime of smoking.

I remember his passing very well.  The Friday before his death–on May 11th–the first story on the evening news in LA was the caravan of celebrities who were making their “final” visits to his Beverly Hills home.  Sammy was on his last legs, and everyone from Sinatra to Martin were paying their respects.  He died on the following Wednesday, the same day Jim Henson died.

Davis was only 64 years old, but because of a somewhat sad childhood, his death ended a performance career of more than 60 years.  That’s right!  Sammy Davis Jr. began performing at the ripe age of 3 years old.!

I won’t chronicle his life here, but I will say he was (in my opinion) one of the most talented performers I have ever seen in my lifetime.  He could captivate a crowd with a voice, and a body, that simply amazed. He was a trailblazer, an icon, and, at heart, a simple song-and-dance man.

His life was as remarkable as his career, filled with tragedy and great success.  One of the most powerful autobiographies I have ever read is his famous 1965 bestseller, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr. I highly recommend it.

Here is the genius in action:

And from a tribute to Sammy Davis, when his illness was somewhat known, Gregory Hines:

Incidentally, Davis was half-Latino.  His mother–who was absent in his life after the age of 3–was born in Puerto Rico, according to Davis’ book. (There is some internet chatter about her actually being Cuban, and Davis hiding that fact for political reasons.)

Beginning the week of his death, billboards with his picture began covering parts of LA.  The campaign they represented, prepared with Davis’ permission, was for the American Lung Association.  It featured a gorgeous black and white photo of Sammy, with smoke in the minimal light, and read: “He took our breath away. Smoking took his.”