MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, [a show of vocal jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook], I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
Last week on the program, we explored the life and career of Dean Martin, one of the members of Frank Sinatra’s so-called “Rat Pack” in the 1950s and 60s. And this week, I want to continue by looking at another member, “Mr. Wonderful,” “Mister Show Business,” Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr. Davis was a trailblazer, an African-American performer who penetrated the world of white entertainment due to his electrifying and undeniable talent, opening the doors for many Black entertainers. I’ll spend the hour highlighting aspects of his recording career.
It’s The Rat Pack: Sammy Davis, Jr., coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "BIRTH OF THE BLUES"
Sammy Davis Jr. with the 1926 Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson song “Birth Of The Blues,” arranged by one of his frequent musical partners Morty Stevens. “Birth Of The Blues” was one of Davis’s signature songs. He first recorded it as a single for Decca Records in 1954; this recording was made in September 1963 for the Reprise label.
MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON TRIO, "BIRTH OF THE BLUES"
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re celebrating the work of one of the members of the so-called “Rat Pack,” Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr.
Sammy Davis, Jr. belongs to an even more exclusive club than the Rat Pack. He is one of the few entertainers who can call himself a true triple (or even quadruple or quintuple) threat. He was a singer, but also a dancer, an actor, a comedian, and an impressionist, and he excelled in all of it. Like Al Joslon or Judy Garland, Davis was raised in vaudeville, and adopted that “all-around entertainer” quality, so key to those performers.
His parents were performers in New York City, and when Sammy was only three years old, he joined his father on tour as a dancer. He soon became part of the act. The act was the Will Mastin Trio, led by Davis’s godfather, Will Mastin, along with Sammy Senior and Junior. It was a vaudeville dance act, and they became famous on the vaudeville stage and in short films during the 1930s, mostly due to little Sammy’s precocious talent.
In 1944, at age 18, Sammy Davis Jr. was pulled away from show business when he was drafted into the army. There he encountered his first real experience with racism, which led to physical and emotional abuse from his fellow servicemembers. There he learned that through entertainment—whether it was singing, dancing or doing impressions—he could temporarily keep the racist attacks at bay.
After being discharged, he re-entered the world of entertainment, soon becoming the star of the Will Mastin Trio, and earning the respect from some famous stars, like Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, and Billy Eckstine.
In 1949, a now 23-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. was offered a solo recording contract at Decca Records. He recorded 20 songs for the label that year, none of which became hits, but all of which began to showcase his unique talent.
Here’s a track from July 1949, featuring him singing and tap dancing. This is Sammy Davis Jr. with “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "SMILE, DARN YA, SMILE"
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE"
Two early recordings from Sammy Davis Jr. for Decca Records. Just now, we heard him in 1955 with the Sy Oliver Orchestra performing Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Something’s Gotta Give.” That was a top ten pop hit. Before that, one of his first studio recordings both singing and tapping his way through “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile” in 1949.
Sammy Davis, Jr. ascended to nationwide fame in the 1950s. His breakout in the entertainment world came when he and the Will Mastin Trio performed at an Academy Awards afterparty in 1952, dazzling the crowd of famous attendees. After that, the trio was making frequent appearances on television, and started headlining exclusive clubs, breaking the color barrier in New York and Vegas. By the middle of the decade, Sammy, Junior, was also one of the most reliable recording artists for Decca.
He was on top of the world—and that’s exactly when tragedy struck. In November 1995, on a drive to Los Angeles for a recording session, Davis got into a horrible car accident, losing his left eye. The near death experience also led him to religion, and he converted to Judaism. Davis bounced back stronger than ever. In 1956, producer Jule Styne even helped build a new Broadway show around his unique talents. The show Mr. Wonderful, with music by Jerry Bock, helped Davis achieve new heights of fame, and even introduced a few songs into the American Songbook.
Here is one of those songs now, as performed by Davis a few years later. This is Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1961 with “Too Close For Comfort,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT"
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR. AND CARMEN MCRAE, "TEA FOR TWO"
Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McRae in 1957 with the Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar standard “Tea For Two.” That was just one of the many duets the pair recorded for Decca in the 1950s. Before that, Davis and the Marty Paich Dek-Tette in 1962 with “Too Close For Comfort,” by Jerry Bock, Lawrence Holofcener, and George David Weiss. That song was written for the 1956 musical Mr. Wonderful, starring (and essentially designed around) Sammy Davis, Jr.
Towards the end of the 1950s, Sammy Davis’s friendship with Frank Sinatra grew stronger. They had actually met back in 1941 when they were put on the same bill: Davis, a 15-year-old dancing with the Will Mastin Trio, and Sinatra, a 25-year-old, singing with Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra. By now, they were beginning to gallivant around Las Vegas, where Sinatra helped open doors for Davis, doors that were usually closed to Black performers.
Their relationship was a complicated one—Davis idolized Sinatra, and Sinatra may or may not have harbored a bit of jealousy towards Davis and his talent. They had their ups and downs, and in hindsight, Sinatra’s frequent teasing of Davis, especially on stage, can seem cruel and racist in hindsight. But at times, Sinatra acted as a true mentor. When they would hang out in Los Angeles, and Sammy wanted to party, Frank often insisted they stay in so he could help Sammy grow as a singer, listening to the great classical and jazz vocalists and taking notes.
And Davis did improve. Although known mostly for his bombastic vocal style, he also began to croon ballads, adopting some of the delicate, emotive qualities of his idol.
Here’s a ballad featuring just Sammy and guitarist Mundell Lowe, from their 1958 album Mood To Be Wooed. This is Sammy Davis, Jr. with Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "BEWITCHED"
Sammy Davis, Jr. with a rare ballad. That was him in 1958 with Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched,” featuring Mundell Lowe on guitar.
By the turn of the 1960s, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others in their orbit were beginning to gain a reputation on the Las Vegas strip for their wild performances and bacchanalian lifestyle. This group—called the “Clan,” the “Summit,” or more often today, the “Rat Pack”—also began to work together in film. In 1960, they created the Vegas heist film Ocean’s 11, where Sammy played a former baseball player turned garbage truck driver, hoping for a bit of luck. In the film, he sings this new song by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.
Here is Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1960 with “Eee-O Eleven,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "EEE-O ELEVEN"
Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1960 with the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn tune “Eee-O Eleven,” written for the 1960 Rat Pack film Ocean’s 11.
MUSIC CLIP - J.J. JOHNSON AND KAI WINDING, "TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT"
We’ll have more from Sammy Davis, Jr. in just a bit. Stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
MUSIC CLIP - WOODY HERMAN, "MO-LASSES"
MUSIC CLIP - COUNT BASIE AND HIS ORCHESTRA, "WHAT KIND OF FOOL AM I?"
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the life and career of Sammy Davis, Jr. this hour.
In 1960, Davis had cemented his close friendship with Frank Sinatra, performing with him on stage in Las Vegas and co-starring with him in the film Ocean’s 11. Frank was even the best man at Sammy’s wedding that year. Davis also made the decision to leave his record label Decca to join Sinatra’s new record label that he had just created called Reprise. Davis stayed with Reprise for the next decade, creating standout albums with people like arranger Marty Paich, Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, and Louis Prima’s Vegas backing back Sam Butera and the Witnesses.
I want to feature a few notable Reprise recordings now. First up, this is Sammy Davis, Jr. and arranger Marty Paich in 1961 with the Charles Strouse and Lee Adams song “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "A LOT OF LIVIN' TO DO"
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "A STRANGER IN TOWN"
Two recordings for the Reprise label featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. Just now, that was Davis in 1964 with “A Stranger In Town,” a song by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells, off of Davis’s all-Tormé album California Suite. Before that, Davis in 1961 with the Marty Paich Dek-Tette performing the song “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do,” originally from the musical Bye Bye Birdie.
One of the most fruitful musical relationships Sammy Davis, Jr. developed in the 1960s was with British songwriters Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. He met the pair in London in the early 1960s when he was on tour, performing in theatres and for the Queen in a Royal Command Performance. Throughout the 1960s, Davis had recorded dozens of Bricusse and Newley songs, more than probably any single artist. And many of these songs remain signature songs in Davis’s repertoire, including “Once In A Lifetime,” “If I Ruled The World,” “What Kind Of Fool Am I,” and “Candy Man.”
We’ll hear two Bricusse and Newley songs now. First up, from the 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, this is Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1965 with “Who Can I Turn To,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "WHO CAN I TURN TO?"
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR. AND BUDDY RICH, "WHAT KIND OF FOOL AM I? [LIVE]"
Sammy Davis, Jr. performing two songs with music and lyrics by British songwriters Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newly. Just now, one of his signature songs “What Kind Of Fool Am I?.” That recording, made live in Las Vegas in 1966, was from the Reprise LP The Sounds of ‘66, featuring the Buddy Rich Orchestra. Before that, the song “Who Can I Turn To,” recorded in 1965.
Sammy Davis, Jr. was one of the biggest stars of the 1960s. He continued to score easy listening Billboard hits throughout the decade, including the top 20 single “I’ve Gotta Be Me” in 1969. In addition to his successful nightclub performances in Las Vegas and his appearances in Rat Pack films, Davis was frequently seen on Broadway and television too. He had frequent guest appearances on all kinds of scripted television and television variety shows. In 1967, he and Nancy Sinatra shared the first ever unscripted interracial kiss on television on her TV variety show. And in 1966, he even hosted his own variety show.
In 1964, Davis made his return to Broadway, starring in the musical adaptation of the Clifford Odets play Golden Boy, about a boxer who escapes the ghetto in Harlem. It was a celebrated performance; Davis was nominated for a Tony Award. He ended up recording several songs from the show—”Night Song,” in particular, is a standout song from Golden Boy
MUSIC CLIP - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "NIGHT SONG"
But one particular song that was actually cut from the show became a bit of a signature number for him, the Charles Strouse and Lee Adams song “Yes I Can.” He even used it as the title of his autobiography. This song, like other Davis signature songs “I’ve Gotta Be Me” and “Once In A Lifetime,” was an anthem of self-assuredness. These kinds of songs clearly resonated with Sammy, a person whose race, religion, stature, and disability never got in the way of his grit, talent, and determination.
Let’s hear it now. This is Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1965 with the Charles Strouse and Lee Adams song “Yes I Can,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "YES I CAN"
One of Sammy Davis, Jr.'s anthems: the song “Yes I Can,” originally written for the 1964 Broadway musical Golden Boy, which Davis starred in.
To close off this hour, I want to feature one of the most remarkable talents of Sammy Davis, Jr.: his impressions. He recorded an entire LP of impersonations in 1962 It was a staple of his sets, where he would take a famous tune, and imagine it as performed by a cavalcade of noted entertainers.
This particular iteration of that musical feat comes from his 1963 album recorded live at the Cocoanut Grove in L.A., featuring the old Broadway tune "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," made famous in 1918 by Al Jolson. Davis’s version lasts for over 10 minutes on the album, featuring lots of banter, jokes, and impressions of famous actors like Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, and Marlon Brando. But I’m going to feature a truncated version now with just the singers he impersonates, which includes (in order) Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Frankie Laine, Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis, before finally ending triumphantly with his own, authentic voice.
Here is Sammy Davis Jr., first channeling Nat Cole, with Sam M. Lewis, Jean Schwartz, and Joe Young’s "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," on Afterglow.
MUSIC - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "ROCK-A-BYE YOUR BABY WITH A DIXIE MELODY"
Sammy Davis, Jr. live at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles in 1963 impersonating Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Frankie Laine, Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, while performing the old Broadway tune “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody.”
Thanks for tuning in to this Sammy Davis, Jr. edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - SAMMY DAVIS, JR., "HOW HIGH THE MOON (TAP DANCE)"
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow