A beautiful cat split
If you hadn't noticed, Sammy Davis would have been 71 on December 8, just a few weeks after the abortive hoopla over Frank Sinatra's near-death experience brought again to mind the demise of one of Frank's dearest friends and colleagues.
Sammy was an entertainer of enormous talent and energy -- and a pioneer who helped bring blacks into the mainstream of show business, despite the widespread impression of Sammy as a sellout and Uncle Tom. It was his very act of embracing white show-biz mediocrity, sacrificing his artistic integrity in the process, that opened entertainment's doors to blacks in the same way that white performers of widely varying talent are able to find success.
Double standards certainly continue to exist, but at least in part because of Sammy, a black musician doesn't have to be as great as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Chuck Berry to hit it big, and black actors don't have to be quite as classy as Sidney Poitier to be taken seriously.
This article was written shortly after Sammy's death in 1990.
Was Sammy a beautiful cat, no more, no less?
Or an Uncle Tom, a camp follower of Frank Sinatra and his swinger friends, a token with talent for nothing but filling talk-show slots?
The treacly outpouring of tributes and declarations of close personal friendship that followed his death make a strong case: He exited the world amid such pap because pap was all his life amounted to.
Yet Sammy was in some sense the Jackie Robinson of entertainment, as thousands of people with little to say undoubtedly said when he died. He did help pioneer the entrance of blacks into the showbiz mainstream, as Michael Jackson was saying when he told Sammy on Sammy Davis Jr.'s 60th Anniversary Special that he wouldn't be here if Sammy hadn't been there.
Unfortunately for Sammy's artistic reputation, however, what made him important wasn't that he was the first black in the showbiz mainstream but rather that he was first black able to fully embrace its mediocrity.
Stepin Fetchit, for example, was the first black actor to get featured billing in Hollywood, according to Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia. Eddie `Rochester' Anderson preceded Sammy in radio, in the movies and on TV. Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen made Gone With the Wind the movie it was long before Sammy said "Yes I can."
But before Sammy, most blacks in showbiz were relegated to demeaning and servile positions. Many performed as musicians or dancers without the shuck and jive, but they were still usually stuck on the margins -- local color, so to speak.
Sammy accomplished something more. On TV talk and variety shows, those distillations of showbiz shallowness, Sammy achieved moments of transcendence in which a black entertainer finally became in everything the equal of his white colleagues. When he was on Merv or Carson or Mike, he might as well have been Robert Goulet. He was a personality, a performer -- nothing more, nothing less. That a white audience finally could, for a moment, find a black performer just as colorless as a white one was Sammy's historical achievement.
Not that Sammy stopped being black. Indeed, being black was part of the persona that made him a star -- but innocuously black, like Liberace's gayness. Where Liberace could pretend not to be gay, however, even the Jewish Sammy couldn't pass for white, and his unalterable blackness was sufficient to keep him from full membership in the entertainment power elite.
It is hard to imagine Dean Martin, for example, driving the garbage truck in Ocean's 11. Or the swarthy Dino being shunned for marrying a blonde actress. Yet Sammy's singing and dancing talents were at least equal to Dino's. By most accounts, his nightclub act in his prime was something to behold, as he moved effortlessly between impressive displays of hoofing and dynamic song stylings. Unlike Dino and his other showbiz peers, though, Sammy could never really be the next Frankie or Bing (the Elvis and Beatles of their generation).
Sammy worked hard to overcome his underling status, and his efforts resonate with other stories of blacks burning themselves up trying to cope with unremitting racism and hostility. Sammy shared in some of that tragedy. He projected a kind of displacement as he tried to compensate for his blackness by being hipper, wilder, harder working and a more beautiful cat than his far more secure pals in the Rat Pack.
That meant he sometimes tried too hard. On stage and, apparently, off, Sammy was pathetically eager to please. You can't imagine Frank proving his swinger credentials by servicing a roomful of partiers as Sammy did, according to Andy Warhol in his memoir of the sixties, Popism. Even if Warhol's claim isn't true, there are plenty of other stories of Sammy's driven decadence, including those he told himself.
In fact, long after Dino, Frank and the rest of the Rat Pack stopped fancying themselves cool (satisfied instead with just being powerful), Sammy was still working hard on his swinging hipster image. Consider Sammy's own words in his autobiography, explaining his reluctance to record The Candy Man: "Can you imagine me, a swinger, a cat that's done everything 92 times around the pike, and I'm gonna sing to kids? Like I'm Julie Andrews?"
Sammy was with it, all right, but with it like those embarrassing middle-aged parents you ran across in the early '70s, wearing beads and bragging about how they had tried pot once. "Peace, love and togetherness," he said at the close of a seventies-era TV ad for a repackaging of his songs, a repackaging no one with a touch of hipness would have gone near at the time.
Being black added a touch of credence to Sammy's hipster shtick, but it didn't add much dignity, a term not usually heard in reference to Sammy. More likely descriptions in many circles would have been "joke," "oreo," "Uncle Tom." Sammy clowning around. Sammy driving the garbage truck. Sammy making cracks about being a colored, one-eyed Jew. Ultimately, Sammy peddling a heavily sanitized version of blackness that let whites feel broad-minded as they accepted him as one of their own.
Watching Sammy serve as catamite to the Rat Pack in their early-sixties movies, it is hard not to see an Uncle Tom at work. But to reduce him to that role is a mistake, and the same can be said for Stepin Fetchit, Rochester, Hattie McDaniel and all the other talented black performers who worked the best they could within the roles they were allowed. Thus vilifying Bill Robinson for his happy-slave tap dancing with Shirley Temple in "The Littlest Rebel" ignores that the dancing is what mattered, and he did it where he could.
Anyone who makes a living as an artist must sell his or her talent and its products to someone. If there is only one buyer, that's who you sell to; if you don't sell, you linger in obscurity. It is the system with the buying power that so limited the range of these black performers, including Sammy himself, as caught as anyone in the racial politics of the entertainment world. If we reduce these black pioneers to nothing more than the dubious roles Hollywood imposed on them, we share in the system's guilt.
That's not to say it doesn't matter how you sell yourself, especially when you sell yourself short. (Criticism is not the same thing as condemnation.) Sammy, for one, typically sold to a pretty low common denominator. Its racial consciousness may have been a little higher than in the heyday of Fetchit and McDaniel, but there were other black performers from Sammy's generation (and earlier) who better maintained their integrity while compromising with a racist cultural establishment.
Nat King Cole's material often got as saccharine as Sammy's, and he was sufficiently middle of the road to be the first black to have his own network variety show (Sammy was the second). Yet even Cole's most string-laden performances have something of musical substance that redeems them. Cole's background as a jazz musician before becoming a pop singer appeared to serve him better than Sammy's background in vaudeville.
Similarly, Sidney Poitier, who got his acting start in serious theater before becoming a movie star, managed a distinguished career before fading in the seventies. Clyde McPhatter was never as famous as Sammy, but his roots in gospel before joining the Drifters (and later becoming a successful solo act) added substance to his most syrupy pop songs.
Even Louis Armstrong likely will get a more favorable rating from posterity than Sammy, though he pandered shamelessly to white stereotypes. As a musical genius who established credentials in the creation of modern jazz styles long before he became a pop culture icon, he will be cut a lot of slack.
These artists, with the possible exception of Poitier, succeeded in gaining entree to mainstream culture without completely substituting its conventions for the contributions black culture made to their art. This is not to say that black performers only perform well when they stick to black idioms. But in the case of popular music, black music has been the primary, if not the only, energizing force for the last few score of years. To the extent that Sammy, first and foremost a singer, didn't draw on that well he was diminished in his art (which can be said for most of the singers with whom he shared stages).
Racism set the terms for Sammy's self-trivialization, but the smothering conventions of the mainstream pop culture he embraced ultimately did more to circumscribe his talents. He was immersed in those conventions from the start, growing up in vaudeville. The MTV of its time with its furious pacing, low-brow titillation, slapstick violence, pandering melodies and bumptious humor, vaudeville was a key source of the sort of superficiality that so dominated mainstream popular culture in Sammy's time, and that Sammy personified. But the same showbiz that made Sammy count for so little culturally nonetheless made him socially significant.
His personal achievement wasn't heroic, as the eulogists claim. To the contrary, the notion that Sammy was our greatest entertainer does a disservice -- dare I say it -- to the man himself. Better to forget the vapid performances behind the Mr. Entertainment nonsense in order that we might find the man himself more interesting because more problematic: Sammy may have compromised unwisely to attain his star billing. He may have been forced by racism to compromise his blackness to achieve success, but he couldn't and didn't discard it.
It is unfair to dismiss Sammy as a Tom or an oreo. Even if he was never shy about adopting white mannerisms as his own, even if in some way he did live white, as he was sometimes accused, it could still only be as a black man that he lived white.
The things that made Sammy a figure of derision -- his bland material, Rat Pack connections, gold chains, faux-hep talk and the like -- also made him the pioneer he was. Had his art possessed the distinctive impact of, say, a Chuck Berry, he never could have integrated himself so completely into the show business world. Those things that identified him as an oreo and Uncle Tom, the fate that reduced his artistic legacy to Theme from Baretta and Robin and the Seven Hoods, can be viewed as the extent of his sacrifice just as easily as the extent of his sellout.
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Copyright Interesting Ideas 1990