Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Sammy Davis Jr.

The PBS series "American Masters" is currently repeating a two hour show about Sammy Davis Jr, and it's a marvel. There are many aspects, both creative and personal, to Sammy, and this covers them all, without taking rigid stances about nuanced issues, e.g. his obsequious support of Richard Nixon, which brought him great scorn from Black people. Like with most things, it was complicated. And the show explains the complications.

I played with Illinois Jacquet's big band for a few years. I was one of the youngest guys in the group, and my best friend was the oldest, Johnny Grimes. Johnny was a Zelig of mid-century black music, appearing on a bunch of classic James Brown records, and touring with many superstars, including Sammy, with whom he worked for years. Here are two Sammy stories courtesy of my buddy, the late, great Johnny Grimes:

Sammy Davis Jr Story #1

I need to set this up. Musicians are cynical bastards. We don't give a damn about celebrity (which is not to say we won't toady ourselves in the presence of anyone famous enough to hire us; I was once invited to a jam session/get-to-know-each-other with some 20-year-old pop sensation - can't even remember her name, but you've heard of her - along with a militantly Jewish trumpeter friend. She felt like playing Christmas carols, and my friend never flinched, playing the bejesus out of "Oh, Holy Night" while making all the right pious faces, to boot).

We roll our eyes at the public's passing fancies and the mediocrities they anoint (while angling to maximally profit). We don't get caught up in hype; our esteem is earned only by genuine talent, and genuine talent isn't a marketable commodity. So if you've clawed your way to popularity despite real talent, that means you're mostly impressing the band, and nobody cares about impressing the band. This is why we are, again, cynical bastards.

But here's what Johnny said about Sammy: "Sammy is the greatest entertainer who ever lived." He said this solemnly, making clear that no argument would be tolerated. Johnny Grimes, who'd graduated in the same high school class as Sun Ra, and who by age 90 had seen, and often worked with, everyone from Count Basie to Prince, was stating an unequivocal fact which carried substantial weight.

Sammy Davis Jr Story #2 (aka "The Sammy Davis Jr Show Biz Zen Koan")

I will present this exactly as Johnny did, without commentary or explanation.

It was the sax player's birthday, and the guys were celebrating backstage after the gig with beer and snacks. The door opens. Sammy's head appears in the doorway.

Sammy: "Uh...hi, guys! What's going on?"

Johnny: "Hey, Sammy! It's Bobby's birthday! Come in and have a beer with us!"

[Sammy looks quizzically at Johnny, then at Bobby, then at the others, then at the beer]

Sammy: I'm still Sammy Davis!

[Sammy's head disappears and the door closes firmly, not quite a slam]

See also the tale of how I recently came upon an obscure Sammy Davis Jr TV movie I'd been searching for since childhood.

Extra bonus TV tip: "The Other Two" - a Comedy Central series about the shiftless older brother and sister of a viral Internet child sensation - makes me scream with laughter at least once per show. Not just "funny", but new, highly creative ways of wrangling humor. I'm used to formulaic humor (which can be amusing when done right), but this blows it up. It may not be the greatest or most lovable show in the world, but if you, like me, live for unexpected brilliant cleverness, you should not miss this. Here's Alan Sepinwall's series review.

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