While driving late one morning to Newstalk 1010 for Saturdays with Ted – that being broadcaster Ted Woloshyn -- I informed Ted I’d just previewed the new Sammy Davis Jr. documentary, Sammy Davis: I Gotta Be Me at Scotiabank Theatre. Both of us are big Frank Sinatra fans – Ted during the age of the Rat Pack, the 1960s version with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. Back then, Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, Juliet Prowse, Buddy Greco, and Shirley MacLaine were often referred to as the "Rat Pack Mascots."
For me, it was a slow burn over time. The adolescent shenanigans of five adult men against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, and the peace and love era, didn’t resonate with me. It was the stuff of cartoons. That toon thing lingered well into the 70s and then was stamped laughable when absorbed and regurgitated by SCTV characters; Sammy Maudlin, Bobby Bittman and Johnny LaRue. That dangling limber wrist, slap of the knee, the inside party jokes, the showbiz patter. And the source for such great material? The ultimate model hipster; Sammy Davis Jr.
Both Ted and I read Davis’ autobiography – Yes, I Can – me in the 60s and Ted in the 70s, and we came away with tremendous empathy for Davis; the lost childhood, racist encounters, horrific abuse while serving in the army during World War ll, the blowback against inter-racial marriage, which according to recent polling in U.S. still runs high at 67% against. In Yes, I Can, one of the incidents began when a group of whites offered him a beer bottle full of urine, then held him down and painted 'coon' across his forehead. A country whose foundation was built on the back of slaves and steered by racism is not going to bend easily, especially with the rise of white nationalism feasting on the country’s wounded soul.
“I’m Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored, and married to a white woman. When I move into a neighborhood, people start running in four ways at the same time” - Sammy Davis, Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me had its world premiere at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) courtesy American Masters Pictures. The producer and director is Samuel D. Pollard (editor on Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Clockers, he was born in Harlem) and the writer is Laurence Maslon. The film is a sumptuous feast of archival images, dynamic retro and concert footage, and interviews with movie icons Kim Novak and Jerry Lewis, notable comics Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Whoopi Goldberg, and others.
60 years in show business is two lifetimes in any profession. For Davis, it began at the age of three. He speaks of never getting a grounded education and even at a later age having difficulties writing. Born into a family of entertainers (vaudeville dancers), Davis became the focus of the Will Mastin Trio in 1925 Harlem after his parents' divorce. Adopted by the father figure and nurtured to be a star, Davis was sentenced to endless touring, an amusement to those watching the pint-sized child work effortlessly to entertain. Surrounded by adults, Davis quickly learned every facet of show business – from dance to song, to impersonations (James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart) to developing a commanding stage presence. Will Mastin was still a force in Davis’s life decades after Davis’s star shone bright, drawing a steady commission from the entertainer.
Throughout his career Davis won over his adversaries with immense charm and unquestionable talent up until his entanglement with white women. A love affair with actress Kim Novak took a toll. It is said studio head Harry Cohn, of Columbia Pictures, put out a contract on Davis insisting he part with Novak within 48 hours and marry a black woman, Loray White, and remain in the arranged marriage for a year.
The reprieve lasted until he courted and married Swedish actress May Britt. Davis set himself up for bomb threats and harassment from the American Nazi Party. The headlines – Confidential Magazine – “Will Hollywood Blackball Sammy Davis and May Britt?” May Britt had already graced the cover of Life magazine August 12, 1957 – “One of Hollywood’s Swedish Charmers: May Britt” – and again in August 17, 1959 and was considered a trophy catch, a Hollywood bombshell. The marriage lasted from 1960-1968. Life magazine entered the Davis family’s life with a series of photo essays capturing the young couple at home with their children and on the town.
Davis addresses his own approach to life, saying he just did things the way he chose, independent of influence or outside pressure.
Davis lost an eye from an automobile accident in 1954, then had a spiritual awakening and converted to Judaism after striking up a friendship with fellow comedian Eddie Cantor the year before. These are truly epic moments in a life that seems to have roared to the finish.
In 1941, Frank Sinatra and Davis became instant friends when they first met at the Michigan Theatre in Detroit – Davis with the Will Maston Trio and Sinatra, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
Sinatra was a big supporter of JFK’s candidacy in 1960 and brother Bobby Kennedy's in 1968. Davis got behind the campaigns, attracting black voters. It is said Kennedy, in 1961, scratched Davis’s name off the performers’ list to his inaugural party, not wanting to alienate his Southern base, knowing a mixed-couple would fire them up, since it was illegal in 31 states. Davis had 24-hour security. The slight was a bitter reminder to Davis, one not even his pal Sinatra could resolve. America was still battling history and he was becoming a pawn. Davis then switches sides and campaigns for Richard Nixon in 1972.
If you measure the temperature of the country at that moment; Davis just sealed his fate with the “boomers”. Nixon, like the current demagogue in the White House, Donald Trump, was a lightning rod and a man of the past. None of the show-biz excursions to Vietnam to entertain troops could salvage Davis’s reputation. And then there’s the damaging photo of Davis fawning and pawing Nixon – Sammy Maudlin style.
Davis was truly one of a kind and “I’ve Gotta Be Me” captures the grand moments, mishaps and missteps perfectly. The film runs as a chronological diary with smart graphics separating stages of the performer’s life. Oh how we loathed ‘The Candy Man‘. To know the man who charted #1 June of 1972 on Billboard expressed similar disdain for the Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley ditty, which appeared in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, put a smile on this face. In his heart, Davis wanted a Sinatra style hit – not a cheesy children’s sing-along. He redeemed himself with Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles”. Davis had the range and pipes to make worthy art as witnessed by a deep recorded catalog dating back to 1955 (Starring Sammy Davis Jr.) on Decca Records.
One is mesmerized watching the dance sequences in classic black and white. One such touching routine captures the late great Gregory Hines, who was a patron of the long running Randolph School of the Performing Arts in Toronto. It delights, as it bridges generations. I’m curious if Davis ever enjoyed the company of the Nicolas Brothers tap-dancing duo. That would have made for some earth-shattering footage.
As with the Nat King Cole documentary (Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark), prevalent in every shot is an insidious hand-held prop that eventually kills two of the greatest performers of the last century – that burning cigarette. Davis died of throat cancer in 1990 at the age of 64. Even with unbridled talent and career success, Davis could never escape the color of his skin in a land preoccupied and plagued with burning prejudice. Sammy Davis was the first true black superstar!