Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club #12: Sammy Davis Jr.'s Yes, I Can

Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club #12: Sammy Davis Jr.'s Yes, I Can

Frank Sinatra will live forever as an icon and a legend. It is his Rat Pack compatriot Sammy Davis Jr's profound misfortune to live on primarily as a joke, a punchline and a cheap, popular impersonation. Part of this is attributable to the mediums in which they thrived. While Sinatra made movies and albums his ideal mediums, the places where Davis' phosphorescent talent shined the brightest–the nightclub stage, variety show and talk show couch–were ephemeral by design.

If you want your children to understand Sinatra you can play themSongs For Swinging Lovers or show them Some Came Running or On The Town. But to fully appreciate Davis at his peak you'd need a front row table at the Copacabana circa 1956. Until someone builds a time machine, that's not a terribly feasible option. Personally and professionally, Davis lived in the moment, constantly gauging the mood and needs of an audience and adjusting his set accordingly. It was his firecracker energy and personal magnetism that endeared him to the public as much as his actual talent. He was such a whirling dervish of electricity and excitement that it didn't really matter that he was widely considered a second-rate singer and a profoundly limited actor.

It's telling that when Davis finally made it to Broadway it was with a musical (Mr. Wonderful) that did little more than plug Davis' fabulously successful nightclub act into a thin story about the rise of a consummate entertainer. Audiences didn't want Davis to play a character for ninety minutes or sit down and earnestly sing songs; they wanted him to wow them with everything in his outsized entertainment arsenal.

It could also be argued that part of the reason Davis isn't as respected as Sinatra is because he's nowhere near as talented. An archetypal one-man band, Davis sang, danced, did impressions, played instruments, told jokes, acted, favored audiences with the odd Shakespeare soliloquy and did everything in his power to keep audiences entertained. He did many things proficiently but nothing as superlative or timeless as Sinatra capturing the essence of the great American songbook, getting inside the emotions of the songs he sang and making them his own.

It's also entirely possible one of the main reasons Sammy Davis Jr. jokes continue to thrive, including here on the A.V Club message boards, is because he made so damn many of them himself. By making himself the primary target of his humor, Davis gave audiences implicit permission to laugh at him. It didn't matter to Davis whether you were laughing at him or with him, as long as you were laughing. Incidentally, Davis was super-fan Tim Burton's original choice to play the title character in Beetlejuice but a horrified studio vetoed the casting.

Ah, but I come not to bury Davis but to praise him and his six hundred page magnum opus, Yes, I Can. I suspect that most A.V Club readers know this book largely as the subject of jokes from This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons, just as most of my generation knows Paint Your Wagon as that movie about painting wagons and Jimmy Carter as history's greatest monster. Which is unfortunate, since Yes I Can is a great book; vivid, moving, nakedly emotional, funny, enormously perceptive about race and racism and imbued with alternating currents of self-aggrandizement and naked self-loathing.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Davis was born into show business. Pretty much from the time he could walk, Davis could entertain. As a three-year-old he traveled the dying vaudeville circuit with his father, a man of quiet dignity and infinite sadness, a trooper whose dance act was good enough to just barely earn a living but lacked that extra something that transforms journeymen into stars.

Yes I Can captures with heartbreaking poignancy the bottomless insecurity and self-doubt that comes with making your happiness, indeed your very survival, contingent on winning the love and approval of strangers. Davis grew up in a suitcase, moving steadily from town to town, from one rundown hotel room in the wrong part of town to another. Davis and his father were seldom more than a step away from disaster, from returning home humiliated and penniless.

It was a vagabond existence, devoid of comfort and security, but it was also tremendously exciting for a boy who grew up with a deep, ingrained love of show-business. Davis' father and his early mentor Will Mastin tried to shield Davis from the ugly reality of racism by pretending that people who mocked and jeered him were merely jealous of show-folk. It worked until Davis joined the army and his father was no longer on hand to protect him. In the military, Davis was suddenly confronted with the brutal, unthinking primal force of racism.

In a set-piece so powerful and on-the-nose it feels vaguely apocryphal, Davis writes of a horrifying ordeal where his racist fellow servicemen painted his skin white and forced him to dance until his tiny body collapsed with exhaustion. It's a haunting, devastating scene where Davis' most resonant inner conflicts are suddenly rendered ghoulishly external: the black arch-assimilationist widely mocked and ridiculed as an Uncle Tom acquires white skin in the ugliest conceivable manner and the inveterate entertainer quite literally finds himself dancing for his life.

That's the tragic irony of Davis' life: he tried to live in a world where race didn't matter. Yet he could no sooner escape the realities of racism than he could alter his DNA. Davis tries to will racism away through sheer force of personality. But his efforts are inherently doomed.

Davis Jr. writes of a community of entertainers who share a secret language and cockeyed set of values, of an endless series of mentors who took a shine to the skinny, ugly kid with the explosive talent and lust for life. Davis was an ideal protégé: hungry, appreciative and a quick learner. It's easy to see what people like Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rooney saw in him. Davis developed a reputation as a sidekick and a sycophant that lingers to this day. But there are far worse things than being overly appreciative.

Time and time again, Davis takes a long hard look in the mirror and seethes with self-loathing over the pandering phony he's become. In a scene of almost unwise candor, Davis writes of listening to a recording of one of his performances and being horrified at how condescending and phony he sounds, from the gratingly artificial arch-formality of his banter, ("Ladies and gentleman, with your kind indulgence, I would like to present for you good people a song by a fabulous gentleman, and dear, dear friend, not to mention a consummate artist and truly one of the finest songwriters our wonderful country has produced, Mr. Sammy Cahn, entitled…") to his smarmy name-dropping. Mired in self-hatred, Davis unsuccessfully attempts suicide.

There's something protectively preemptive about such self-laceration. Davis and his ghostwriters seem to be taunting, "You think Sammy Davis Jr. is a pandering phony? Oh yeah, well so does he. So fuck you". SCTV, with its unerring eye for old school show-biz phoniness, based not one but two characters on Davis: talk-show host Sammy Maudlin and albino freak Jackie Rogers Jr. There's an awful lot of Davis in Bobby Bitman as well.

Of course, the self-loathing in Yes I Can is part of a redemptive arc: with a little help from his friends and Judaism, Davis eventually learns to love himself and embrace his imperfections. But it's the raw self-hatred that lingers and resonates, not the tacked-on happy ending.

In another passage remarkable for its unblinking candor Davis writes of being drunk and despondent one night when he stumbles upon an old acquaintance, a pretty African-American woman he quickly surmises would be the perfect trophy wife. To paraphrase the great Robert Evans, it was then that lightning struck–bad lightning. Davis had a Eureka moment–a bad Eureka moment. In his drunken stupor, Davis decided that the answer to all his problems with the disapproving black press and an early incarnation of The Black Crusaders was a sham marriage to a woman he didn't love. That's the ticket! A less honest memoirist might try to put a positive spin on such a craven and cowardly act but Davis makes no excuses. He never portrays his first marriage as anything other than a pathetic ruse, the most transparent, loathsome kind of publicity stunt.

Davis devotes much of the last hundred pages of the book to a rather schmaltzy and sentimental account of his controversial interracial romance with May Britt. It's a relationship that nearly cracked under the pressure of public disapproval. The Davis-Britt union took on great symbolic meaning for a country that hadn't entirely emerged from the malevolent shadow Jim Crow: their marriage became a referendum on the viability of all interracial romances, not a private affair. How many relationships, no matter how strong, can stand up to that kind of scrutiny?

It doesn't help that the always image-conscious Davis sees his gorgeous girlfriend add an extra dollop of whipped cream to her hot chocolate and paternally chides, "a minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips". It's not exactly surprising that these crazy kids ultimately couldn't make it work. In another riveting sequence, Davis writes of performing his nightclub act with a handgun strapped to his back after receiving voluminous death threats. Can you even imagine what it would be like to perform your heart out for while half-expecting a hate-poisoned stranger in the dark to take a shot at you?

The remarkable thing about Yes I Can is that it at once reaffirms the popular image of Davis as a smiling, laughing cartoon hipster with a glass in one hand and a vocabulary full of swinging slang and deepens it. It allows the reader to see the man behind the groovy caricature. Yes I Can asks audiences to walk a mile in Davis' shoes before judging him.

It is easy for people who have never personally experienced racism's vicious sting to judge Davis, to say that he should have been less sycophantic and more militant, that when Sinatra made a racial joke Davis should have glared angrily at him and, through a fearful scowl and clenched teeth, seethed, "Don't you dare even think about disrespecting this Nubian God. You may be the chairman of the board but to me you're just another ignorant Cracker. Black Power!"

Nearly twenty years after Davis' death it looks he might finally be receiving some long overdue respect. I don't think it's entirely coincidental that the first black man with a very real chance at becoming President has "Yes We Can" as his campaign slogan, a phrase that, intentionally or unintentionally, poignantly echoes the inspirational, oft-mocked title of Davis' utterly essential autobiography.