Review: ‘The Sammy Davis Jr. Reader’

Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-90) was known as "Mr. Entertainment," a dynamic performer who knew how to utilize music, movement and gesture onstage, and no one captured much of his acrobatic flair, charismatic intensity or abundant energy on paper.

Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-90) was known as “Mr. Entertainment,” a dynamic performer who knew how to utilize music, movement and gesture onstage, and no one captured much of his acrobatic flair, charismatic intensity or abundant energy on paper. All you find in other people’s words is a kind of second-hand Sammy. If you want to get some inkling of what made Sammy great, search for videos of his TV appearances (the 1994 episode of A&E’s “Biography” has some good excerpts) or pick up a few CDs of his music (Rhino offers one excellent collection). His movies — with the possible exception of “Porgy and Bess” — are nostalgic fun, but not evocative of his talent. And be warned: You will search in vain through the 600-plus pages of this book for an understanding of why many people still refer to Davis as America’s greatest entertainer.

This anthology reads more like an unedited researcher’s file, an indiscriminate jumble of newspaper and magazine clips mixed with some excerpts pulled from books. Confidential magazine and the National Police Gazette are given the same documentary weight as pieces from Esquire or the New York Times Magazine. These journalistic bits and snippets hash and rehash the same familiar stories, quotes, gossip and misinformation through the decades. It is from such materials that many cut-and-paste biographies are written by ink-stained wretches who probably know better but need the money.

Gerald Early, the editor, is no ink-stained wretch. He is a distinguished essayist and cultural commentator and Merle King Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis. (Most recently, he appeared as one of the principal contributors in Ken Burns’ “Jazz.”) His introductory essay is a warm mixture of personal reminiscence, critical analysis of several research pieces and a thoughtful argument for Davis’ role as the Last Great American Hipster. Early points out, “As both observer and participant, Davis was, in many vital ways, at the center of the making of American culture from V-J Day to the Tet Offensive.” Davis was part of the Sinatra Rat Pack that inarguably defined “hip” and clearly had a kind of “black cool” style associated with Miles Davis.

For Early, Sammy’s appetite for living big and pushing his experiences to the edge made him a more important symbolic figure than even Jack Kerouac: “Davis was the ultimate hipster, who lived at both the margin and the center, who indeed brought the margin to the center of American life.” Leaving us with those tantalizing thoughts, Early tiptoes away from this pile of undifferentiated journalistic flotsam and leaves the reader to wade in.

In fairness to Early, he probably was asked to write an introduction to the publisher’s flawed notion of a book. The “Reader” concept originated several decades ago at Viking to provide introductory surveys of works by great writers such as John Steinbeck or Saul Bellow. Now, a similar concept embraces this collection of writing about Sammy Davis Jr., a legendary entertainer who was not primarily a writer (although he wrote two autobiographical volumes, “Yes, I Can” and “Why Me?”). It is simply the wrong medium in which to present the man.

For those readers who already have their stacks of Sammy videotapes and CDs, this book provides many undigested nuggets of biographical information and curious perspectives on his life. Virtually every piece in every publication, from the black newspapers to the New York Review of Books, uses Sammy to explore race relations in America. He was a lightning rod for black issues of every sort, and his life threw off black-and-white sparks: his interracial marriage to Maj Britt, his single-handed integration of Las Vegas, his subservient relationship to Frank Sinatra, his lavish lifestyle, his literal and symbolic hug for Nixon, even his eager-to-please performance style. In the most personal interviews, Davis expresses an understanding of the peculiar role foisted upon him and appears capable of objectively seeing himself tossed between white and black worlds as a symbolic being.

By far the most penetrating and revealing piece of journalism in this collection is Sammy’s long interview with Alex Haley for Playboy magazine. In it, Davis describes in detail the brutal, racist tortures he suffered as an 18-year-old in the Army. After a particularly gruesome beating when he was left bleeding in the latrine, he had to go out and entertain the same men who had beaten him. “That was when, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to go out and do my act — go out there and smile at people who despised me,” he recalls. “But I made myself do it anyhow. I was fighting myself so hard to stay out there that the fighting made me do maybe one of the best shows I ever did in my life. And I’m glad it did, because I discovered something. I saw some of those faces out there grudgingly take on different expressions. I don’t mean for a minute that anybody started loving me — I didn’t want that from them anyway — but they respected me.”

“The Sammy Davis Jr. Reader” also includes sweet vignettes of life on the vaudeville circuit with the Will Mastin Trio; some finger-snappin’ memories of the Rat Pack; testimonies to Sammy’s sexual prowess from Linda Lovelace and girlfriend Kathy McKee; persuasive meditations on his conversion to Judaism; scenes of restless, neurotic behavior as Sammy bounces around the country, performing night after night; and some touching tributes after his death.

There are plenty of biographical tidbits here to please the enthusiastic fan. But there is no attempt to embrace the whole life, the puzzling contradictions or the complicated relationship between Sammy and the media trying to cash in on a piece of his stardom.

Digby Diehl is an author and critic who founded the Los Angeles Times Book Review and recently co-authored “Angel on My Shoulder” with Natalie Cole.

The Sammy Davis Jr. Reader

Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 626 pgs.; $15


Edited by Gerald Early
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