"My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man's thinking," said Sammy Davis Jr. He relentlessly pumped that astonishing talent, both barrels, from his stage debut at age 3 with the Will Maston Trio to his death in 1990, when the lights of Vegas dimmed in his honor (and the IRS realized they'd been suckered to the tune of 5 million clams).
On December 8 of this year, Sammy would've turned 85. While time has enhanced the iconic allure of Rat Pack brethren Frank and Dino, Davis is typically — and unfairly — typecast as some Ghost of Showbiz Past, a buffoon serving up kitsch like "The Candy Man" and the Baretta TV theme in Dashiki and love beads. Drew Friedman's sleek portrait captures the Wham of an earlier Sam, in his swingin' mid-'60s Copa prime; the Sammy of Yes, I Can and Golden Boy, a self-described "short, ugly, one-eyed, black Jew" who dazzled audiences — high rollers and middle Americans alike — with outsized charisma and a volcanic urge to please.
An early and unflagging devotee to the struggle for equality, Sammy shrugged off bigots who called him "Tom" just as he'd long ignored bigots who called him "nigger," while helping demolish barriers of ethnic typecasting. While pop culture deified rockstar lightweights done in young by their excesses, Sammy spent decades indulging an epic appetite for chemical and carnal pleasures, with talent and life-force intact. As pseudo-intellectuals high and low blathered theory about sexual freedom and whether God was or wasn't dead, Sam was busy schtupping porn stars and hoisting absinthe toasts to Satan from Baccarat crystal.
On the silver screen he donned the masks of tragedy and comedy with equal excellence. His masterful mimicry and bright chatter lit up the idiot box nightly. On the Broadway boards, Sammy danced like a dream, even as his name sent product flying off record and book store shelves. Telethon tallies spiked at his earnest behest. If the Accent flavor enhancer he advertised on TV gave you a touch of agita, he sold you Alka Seltzer to cure it. What he proffered, we bought, because like any demon-driven entertainment egoist, Sammy was actually selling Sammy, which in his case was the genuine goods.
If you're too callow to remember or too jaded to recall, click over to YouTube and check out a 1968 Bricusse/Newley medley from Playboy After Dark. Let your contemporary sensibilities adjust to Sammy's cigarette and paisley garb, surrender all detachment and feast on one stunner of a vocal performance — all power, precision and emotional honesty. Yes, He Did.
— Sport Murphy