Wil Haygood discusses his book “In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.”
TAVIS SMILEY, host:
From NPR in New York, I’m Tavis Smiley.
If ever there was an entertainer who paved the way for African-American crossover success, it was Sammy Davis Jr. In the 1940s, Sammy Davis began touring high-end, all-white nightclubs. With brilliance, he sang, danced, mimicked and played a variety of instruments. In the process, he made his audiences love him. From there, he ascended to become one of the most celebrated African-Americans of his day, but beneath his agreeable showmanship was a burning ambition that sometimes ran against the social grain of the time.
Journalist Wil Haygood spent five years researching the life and times of Sammy Davis Jr. The result, “In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.” He joins us now from our studios in Washington.
Wil Haygood, nice to have you on.
Mr. WIL HAYGOOD (Author, “In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.”): Well, thank you very much.
SMILEY: He clearly was multitalented and multifaceted as an entertainer, but I get the sense reading this book that he was also a very complex man.
Mr. HAYGOOD: Yes, he was, and I think a lot of that stems from the simple fact that his mother left him at the age of three. His parents were both show business people and they had their own dreams. And he was born in New York City in 1925, and his mother left to go back out on the road in 1926, and they never again lived together. And there was a lot of pain with that for Sammy. His father, Sammy Davis Sr., took him out on the road and thus his show business career started. All children are assured of their parents’ endless love, but Sammy wondered if his mother truly loved him, his thinking being, ‘Well, if she loved me, she would have come after me while I was out there entertaining.’
SMILEY: What was his genius? What was the genesis, if I can put it that way, of his genius?
Mr. HAYGOOD: Just an all-around beautiful entertainer. He could do mimicry, he could sing, he could dance, and many people, entertainers, specialize in one field, but with Sammy Davis Jr., and I think it’s because of his start in vaudeville where you had to do a lot of things in a 10-minute span or be snatched off stage, he became an expert at so many things. He could tap-dance, he could play the drums, he could play the vibraphone. He could do so many things, and I think he made audiences love him.
He never liked introduction. He would just walk out on stage–Boom!–and there he was, and you’d be sitting in your seats and you’d go, ‘Ooh, wow! There’s Sammy Davis Jr. He’s out on stage.’ And he would walk very quietly, take the microphone in hand and say, ‘Hello, ladies and gentlemen. I am Sammy Davis Jr.’ and they would explode, I mean, they would just go crazy. And, you know, he made audiences love him.
(Soundbite of drums)
Mr. SAMMY DAVIS Jr.: (Scat singing). I’ve got you under my skin…
SMILEY: There were other marvelous black entertainers at the time. Why was Sammy so acceptable to white audiences?
Mr. HAYGOOD: Mm-hmm. Because in the 1950s he played the top-flight nightclubs in America, in Philadelphia, in New York City, in Miami Beach, in Los Angeles, in Las Vegas. Most of the audiences at these nightclubs happened to be white, and Sammy ingratiated himself to these audiences night after night. He was on the road for 49 weeks of the year. He rarely stopped. So these people from city to city to city saw him in the ’30s and the ’40s and the ’50s, they sort of grew up with him. And he became a one-named figure, Sammy. ‘Sammy’s in town.”Sammy’s at the Copacabana.”Sammy’s at The Latin Casino.’ So he became like family, and that was just an amazing, shrewd move on his part.
(Soundbite of drums)
Mr. DAVIS: (Singing) I’ve got you, got you under my skin. I’d sacrifice anything, come what might, for the sake of having you near…
(Soundbite of show)
Mr. FRANK SINATRA: Hey, Sam? Sam, I’ve got an idea.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SINATRA: I’d like to thank the NAACP for this wonderful trophy.
Mr. DAVIS: Put me down!
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMILEY: The Rat Pack. Did Sammy get the short end of that stick?
Mr. HAYGOOD: He did, he did, but I think what we really don’t realize much is that Sammy actually was the Rat Pack. If you take Sammy out of the Rat Pack, then you’ve got four white guys on the stage walking around each other. But with Sammy, he gave the Rat Pack edge, he gave the Rat Pack black and white. He gave audiences a reason to think of social dynamics in America. He gave them a reason and a need to think of race. I mean, it was an early integrated moment in our history, in the magazines, on TV, in their movies that they made together. So that was a real explosive moment for Sammy. But he was far bigger, far more talented than just a Rat Packer.
SMILEY: Sammy’s life was so full and did so many things. My time with you conversely is so limited. Let me just throw a few things at you right quick and get you to top line your assessment of these aspects of his life. One, his converting to Judaism.
Mr. HAYGOOD: I think he was very sincere. He often operated on heartstrings, and a lot of his friends happened to be Jewish and I just think he wanted to join their club, as strange as that might sound.
SMILEY: Mm. This black man’s love affair with this white woman, the Swedish model Mai Britt.
Mr. HAYGOOD: Mm-hmm. Sammy was obsessed with white women, and he thought that he had a right like anybody else to date whomever he wanted to. And he married her in 1961 and received numerous death threats, and the marriage ended around 1967. But that was what Sammy wanted. He always went against the grain.
SMILEY: But when you say ‘obsessed with white women,’ that’s a strong word. Did you mean to say ‘obsessed’?
Mr. HAYGOOD: Yes, I did. Yes.
Mr. HAYGOOD: Sort of like Hitchcock blondes. Sammy was into the Hitchcock blondes. And there was Kim Novak that he had a long affair with, as well.
SMILEY: Yeah. He might have been obsessed with white women, but he was awfully big in the civil rights movement. Dr. King could always count on him.
Mr. HAYGOOD: He could. He would turn to civil rights figures, King would, and he had a favorite expression: ‘Get Sammy.’ And he knew that wherever Sammy…
Mr. HAYGOOD: Yeah. He knew that wherever Sammy was at and whichever stage he was on, he would turn to the owner of that nightclub and say, ‘I want all the money made tonight sent to Dr. King.’ And Sammy sometimes would send checks, $15,000, $10,000, $20,000. And no one ever knew about that. I think that is just an astonishing story, unknown story until now.
SMILEY: One could argue that these many years later he’s still the best all-around entertainer that we’ve ever seen. What’s the abiding lesson of what he did share with us all those many years?
Mr. HAYGOOD: I think he is. He was so wickedly good–he could sing, he could dance, he could move, he could take an audience in his hand. On stage with the Rat Pack, he had to subsume his talents or else Frank Sinatra would sometimes get angry with him. So just think of that, a gifted talent like Sammy who had to go inside himself and quiet down his talent. And he did that a lot. Just an astonishing entertainer.
He was knocked down so many times. He wasn’t very handsome, he wasn’t tall. He was black during a rough period in this nation’s history. The world of entertainment is a wicked, very back-stabbing world, and Sammy stayed on the stairwell. That’s to be admired. Anybody who can endure as he did for 55 years as a top entertainer, our hat’s off to them, I’m sure.
SMILEY: Well, our hat’s off to Sammy, but it’s also off to you for spending the five years it took to write this book.
Wil Haygood is the author of the critically acclaimed biography “In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.”
Wil Haygood, all the best to you. Thanks for coming on to see us.
Mr. HAYGOOD: Thank you so much. It was an honor.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. DAVIS: (Singing) This will be my shining hour, come in happy and bright. Through it all your face will flower through the darkness of the night. Light the lights of home for me, or an angel watching o’er me. This will be my shining hour, till I’m with you again. This will be…
SMILEY: Just a reminder you can meet commentator Michael Eric Dyson, along with Cornel West and yours truly, during the Pass the Mic tour coming to a city near you this December. To find out how to meet us on the road, visit TavisTalks.com or npr.org.
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SMILEY: I’m Tavis Smiley. This is NPR. Keep the faith.