Book Review: Sammy Davis Jr: All singing, all dancing, all screwed up

Haygood, Wil. In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. Billboard Books, 2005.

A compelling biography lays bare the torments and obsessions that drove Sammy Davis Jr.

IN 1960, SAMMY Davis Junior arrived in England with his new fiancee, May Britt, a dazzlingly beautiful Swedish actress. Though he had long since crossed over into the mainstream with the sheer exuberance of his stage persona, they were on the run from the racist protests and hate mail that greeted the announcement of their engagement in the US.

He had come to London, where he could sell out the Palladium for weeks at a time, for peace, but, to his surprise, he found himself hounded by press and public alike. One evening, after dining with Britt’s parents in the West End, the couple had to run a gauntlet of jeers and threats from a racist mob incensed by their presence.

‘He had seen it all before,’ writes Wil Haygood, whose big, blustering, but always entertaining biography starkly illuminates the contradictions that defined Davis, arguably the greatest all-round entertainer of the pre-pop golden age of showbiz. ‘It was like an old newsreel – white and black and secret sex – and he was both projectionist and star. Friends would wonder where all the hurt went after it got deposited inside his small frame. For Sammy, so much of it was entertainment. He couldn’t help but enjoy it.’

From the moment he set foot on stage, aged four, and began mimicking the dance moves of the vaudevillian performers who had already become his adopted family, Davis was in thrall to the notion that entertainment was an end in itself, a force so powerful that it could over come his self-doubt about his diminutive stature, his lack of good looks, his good but not great singing voice and, even, his colour. In nearly all of this, he was correct and his stellar life was a testament to both his self-belief and to the transformative power of celebrity. But neither his fame, nor the self-belief that propelled it, nor the often manic energy he brought to his art, could alter the fact that he was black.

The more he craved acceptance from a white world that treated him, at best with respect, at worst with a contempt that did not even warrant the term condescension, the more his blackness seemed apparent, seemed to be something he carried reluctantly, almost guiltily, like a burden.

There were times, when he was at the very top, sharing a Vegas stage with Frank Sinatra, his greatest hero and most casually offensive tormentor, that he seemed complicit in an unspoken pact not just to denigrate himself, but his race. Haygood sketches one such moment in all its showbiz tawdriness. ‘Here,’ Dean (Martin) says onstage to Frank one night, having lifted Sammy, holding him in his arms like a hurt fawn: ‘This award just came for you from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.’ Sammy cackled with the rest, complicit. He became adept at playing the fall guy as if that, alone, was the only option he had, the price of fame for a black entertainer operating in a white world. Which at one time, of course, it was.

Haygood, a staff writer on the style section of the Washington Post , seems attuned to an older age when showbiz, alongside sport, was one of the only routes out of the ghetto. He is most at home writing about context: the shifting social and political contours of the second half of the century, the decline of the Las Vegas-style enter tainer as the Beatles gave birth to the era of the pop star. Over and over, he reiterates the importance of Davis’s vaudevillian roots and the star’s inability, even at the height of his fame, to transcend them, or relinquish an eagerness to please – and please whitey above all – that seemed pathological.

Born to a mother who danced in a travelling show, Davis was raised by his grandparents. That early maternal rejection shaped his life: on stage and off, he craved affection and when he didn’t receive it automatically, he bought it. He was an extravagant spender, in hock to bookers, agents, managers and, more problematically, the mob. ‘Skinny’ D’Amato was among his Mafia friends, though those same friends threatened to castrate him, and worse, when he started dating Kim Novak.

While most showbiz stars lead a double life – public and private – Sammy lived several double lives: crooked and straight; sacred (he converted to Judaism) and profane: he collected hard-core porn and held orgies in his Hollywood mansions; loyal and ruthless, and, least successfully of all, black and white.

He might have lived happily ever after as America’s token black entertainer had it not been for the youth quake of the late Sixties and the rise of a black militant movement that saw him both as offensive and, to his greater dismay, irrelevant.

This was the moment when everyone but Sammy realised he had played the vaudevillian fall guy for too long, was still snuggling up to Frankie, Deano and, unbelievably, the soon to be disgraced President Nixon, while Watts burnt, Harlem simmered and the Panthers preached black power with a black glove on one hand and a rifle in the other.

On the radical circuit, he became a figure of ridicule, booed and jeered by a southern black audience when he belatedly came out in a fund-raiser for Martin Luther King. ‘Sammy cares about his people,’ went a typical one-liner of the time, ‘and black people too.’

But, even amid this conflict, Sammy the great entertainer triumphed on stage, the only place where he truly felt at home. Had he not been such an extraordinary performer, not moved with such effortless, gliding grace over stage after stage, holding everyone in the palm of his outstretched hand, he would have been consigned to the dustbin of showbiz history. Between shows, he existed perpetually on the run from debts, from commitment, from family responsibility, from anything that would still his restless soul long enough that he might have to face himself.

This, of course, may be the very motor of fame, this running away from the self towards some other created self that feeds on adulation, excess, extravagance, the whole whir and din of the innate and supremely gifted entertainer. And, because of where we live right now, we hardly need Davis’s enthralling, but ultimately empty life to be laid bare to remind us once again of the deep, dark void at the heart of celebrity.

But of all the books I have read on fame and its discontents, this is the most revelatory, the most insightful, not least because it affords us a sustained glimpse of a famous life lived amid the often conflicting crosscurrents of race, fame, sex and crime.

An American life, then, and an outsider’s life, as frantic as a whirlwind and just as dramatic and destructive. A life in which the urge to entertain, to win mass approval, was everything. And never enough. Even in death, it is hard to picture Davis resting in peace.

To order In Black and White for £17, plus p&p;, call the Observer Books Service on 0870 836 0885

Sammy Davis Jr lived several double lives – crooked and straight; sacred and profane. Allstar

Official Sammy Davis Jr website


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