Over the years, Sammy Davis Jr has been referred to a number of times as the “world’s greatest entertainer,” and this may well be true. He was a gifted singer, dancer, impressionist, comedian, actor, multi-instrumentalist and even an expert at fast-draw (guns, not pencils). And yet, the title he has been given often masks how brilliant a singer he actually was. History books have left us with the impression that, for all his vocal talent, Davis was forever trying to emulate or copy his idol, Frank Sinatra, but a closer look at his musical legacy reveals a very different picture. Contrary to popular opinion, Davis was very much his own man.
Davis began his recording career in the late 1940s for Capitol – an association that can be viewed now simply as a prelude to his work with Decca and Reprise from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his early Decca albums, made in the mid-1950s, despite the fact that they helped catapult him to super-stardom. For example, Lonesome Road, the opening track on the Starring Sammy Davis Jr LP, finds him beginning the song in Sinatra-esque style before moving into a section which sounds like him impersonating Johnnie Ray. Davis had yet to find his voice. And yet, even on this album, he had started doing things that Sinatra rarely did, with My Funny Valentine utilising a small group rather than a big band or full orchestra. What’s more, Davis’s arrangements were often more extravagant and flippant than those often used by Sinatra, with the possible exceptions of certain tracks on Come Fly with Me and Sinatra Swings.
By the time of Sammy Swings, in 1957, and due to be released on CD along with Sammy Awards in a few weeks, Davis had found his own voice. A look at the track listing for Sammy Swings sees him seemingly avoiding standards that Sinatra was associated with, and he certainly puts his stamp on Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Comes Love, and By Myself. The arrangements are big and brassy, and Davis himself uses his voice in a way that Sinatra would not have done. Davis uses his remarkable power, singing in a swing style but with a Broadway voice. This album, and the even better Sammy Awards, are all showbiz. What they lack in subtlety, they make up for in exuberance. For a comparison of how Davis and Sinatra approached songs differently, one could compare their two very different 1950s readings of The Gal That Got Away, with Sinatra’s being more straight-award swing, and Davis’s being a mini Broadway play, starting off in a low-key jazzy style and using an almost rhapsodic arrangement that switches from lyrical sections to bombastic swing and back again. When he takes on a Sinatra song, as in I Fall in Love Too Easily, he does so in a quiet, subdued manner, using just a guitar accompaniment – something Sinatra didn’t do in the studio until the early 1980s.
By the late 1950s, Davis was putting together albums that were collaborative efforts, including ones with jazz singer Carmen McCrae, the Count Basie Orchestra and, most notably, a whole album of just Davis and guitarist Mundell Lowe. He was also already venturing far away from standard repertoire, most notably incorporating the influence of Ray Charles with recordings of Mess Around and I Got a Woman (and even incorporating Hound Dog into his live act). But if there was an ongoing problem with Davis’s Decca recordings it was that he, for some reason, didn’t seem able to take himself totally seriously, often larking around in the middle of serious songs for no apparent reason – almost as if he is embarrassed of his own talent.
When he signed a contract with Sinatra’s Reprise label, he did three important things. Firstly there was a series of sessions with Marty Paich, who provided Davis with arrangements that incorporated his “showbiz” style of performance, but also added some subtlety. At the same time, Davis started digging more into Broadway for his repertoire, being among the first to record songs from shows written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, and Lionel Bart. And then, Davis also stopped the joking. He was at the peak of his vocal ability, and his first album for the new label, The Wham of Sam, proved that. Sammy was now his own man, taking songs associated with others and making them wholly his own – not by clowning but by being versatile. Sinatra’s I’m a Fool to Want You became an unexpected tango, and Blame It on My Youth eclipses virtually every other recording of the song.
The album As Long As She Needs Me encapsulates Davis completely, from the beautiful rendition of showtunes such as the title song and an earnest Climb Every Mountain through to a wonderful, light-hearted reworking of There Is a Tavern in a Town that seems somewhat influenced by Sinatra’s rendition of Old MacDonald. But just listen to what Davis does with the vocal line – it’s Broadway, swing, jazz and comedy all at the same time.
Davis was also ambitious, with him recording the entirety of the California Suite by Mel Torme for one album made up entirely of Torme compositions. There were yet more collaborations with Count Basie, Sam Butera, Laurindo Almeida and the great Buddy Rich, with the latter resulting in a wonderful live album that swings from start to finish. Not only does Davis sing two of his signature songs on this occasion, but he also completely reworks them, turning What Kind of Fool am I into a mid-tempo swing number. Davis was doing things that Sinatra never did, such as the vocal/guitar duet albums, the recording of the Torme album, and an album dedicated to the songs from Dr Dolittle – not the cheesefest one might imagine, but one of Davis’s very best albums. He was also appearing in his second Broadway show, Golden Boy.
Then it all fell apart. Davis started working new sounds into his music such as Motown, soul and funk, and while he didn’t do this badly, his efforts to become hip and cool sometimes backfired and he ended up sounding silly (as in the awful In the Ghetto) and appearing on TV in more and more bizarre costumes. The best days were gone, but he still had hits with I Gotta Be Me, The Candy Man and Mr Bojangles, and recorded a fine TV special entitled simply “Sammy.” Davis made a move to Motown and recorded some generally poor albums, although they have nice moments. And, then it was basically over. His tour of Australia in 1977 was recorded by RCA and released on two albums released in 1977 and 1979. And there was just one more studio album, of country material, in the early 1980s. Davis, helped along by fast-living, drink, sex and drugs, had become an imitation of himself.
But there would be one last hurrah. The Ultimate Event saw him touring with Sinatra and Dean Martin (replaced by Liza Minnelli) in the late 1980s and video footage from the tour finds him in brilliant form. His rendition of Music of the Night showed that he was still in touch with what Broadway musicals had to offer, and his comic rendition of Michael Jackson’s Bad showed that he could still poke fun at himself. Sadly there was no final album. Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer and died in 1990.
Davis was, despite what we might be told, very much his own man vocally, with his own unique phrasing and styling, and his work for Reprise in particular is a real marvel. Collector’s Choice released the Reprise albums on CD some time back, and then started on the Decca years, but never finished that part of the reissue programme. PD company Sepia have remastered Sammy Awards and Sammy Swings and this will be released April 2015, making available for the first time in decent quality two key Decca albums on CD. Great news – my vinyl copies have long been worn out.