Sammy Davis Jr.: Hey There (Carmen McRae/ Dave Cavanaugh Music/ David Lennick/ Jack Pleis Orchestra/ Joseph Gershenson/ Morty Stevens Orchestra/ Sam Taylor/ Sammy Davis Jr./ Studio Orchestra/ Sy Oliver Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.120833)
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SAMMY DAVIS JR
'Hey There' Original 1949-1955 Recordings
Sammy Davis Jr went through many differentstages in his amazing career.
Starting out as a childhood hoofer, he latermorphed into a slick variety performer, a cleverimpersonator, charter member of 'The Rat Pack'and Broadway superstar, eventually beingcanonized as 'the world's greatest entertainer'before finishing his career on a sad note of selfparody.
But one thing remained constant through allof these various manifestations of the Samster'spersonality until nearly the very end: he was adynamite vocalist.
At his best, Davis was a songwriter's dream:able to squeeze maximum juice out of anymelody, while still giving the lyric full value andwrapping the whole thing up with his ownunique brand of showmanship that made anynumber seem special.
The selections on this album are assembledfrom a six-year period in his career (1949-1955)with most of them actually having beenrecorded in the course of fourteen months(June 1954 to August 1955) which wouldfeature some of the most defining events in hislife - including a near-fatal accident and areligious conversion.
There are unmistakable changes in style overthat year that are fascinating to note, but first, it'snecessary to recall where Davis came from.
He was born in Harlem on 8 December 1925,the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a blackfather, both of whom were vaudeville dancers.
When he was three, his parents divorced,and Davis's father took custody of youngSammy. He brought him on the road along withanother hoofer named Will Maston, and theyoungster made his stage debut as part of an actcalled 'Holiday in Dixieland', billed as 'SilentSam,The Dancing Midget'.
Davis was a natural with audiences and theact soon changed its name to 'Will Mastin's GangFeaturing Little Sammy'. Film appearancesfollowed as did a 1941 stint opening for TommyDorsey, where Sammy was first to meet FrankSinatra.
After a stretch in the army, he returned tojoin his old buddies and as The Will Mastin Triothey became an increasingly popular act, playingclubs like Ciro's and the Copacabana. Duringthese years,Sammy discovered his gift forcelebrity impersonations and the humour theyadded to the mix made it click even more readily.
The first recordings we hear are from thatperiod and we discover a young, callow Sammy,making up in energy what he lacked in polish.
The 1949 pressing of Smile, Darn Ya, Smileeven features a sample of the legendary Davistap-dancing skill.
But in 1954, Decca picked up Davis and hisrecording career took off at once. Thearrangements of Broadway favourites like HeyThere or And This Is My Beloved are lush andconfident,with Sammy doing his best to live upto them.
He sounds good, but it still feels a bit like akid wearing a borrowed tux: there's a sense ofentitlement that's missing. It's only when hetears into his comic impersonations,demonstrating how everyone from JimmyCagney to Cary Grant would sing Because OfYou, that he truly seems at home.
And then, it all suddenly changed for Sammyin one split second.
It was 19 November 1954 and he was tryingto drive back overnight from Las Vegas to LosAngeles. Just before dawn, on the outskirts ofSan Bernadino, he became part of a freak autocollision and the steering wheel column of hisbeloved Cadillac destroyed his left eye.
At first, Davis was in despair, but friends likeSinatra and Tony Curtis rallied round and hefound the courage to continue. He also made anamazing decision to embrace Judaism which hesaid helped him start to rebuild his life again.
One month after his accident, Davis steppedinto a studio in Los Angeles and recorded All OfYou. The change in his style is instantlyapparent. The voice is more burnished, andthere's the beginnings of a willingness to openhimself up honestly to the listeners, wherebefore there had only been slickness.
He made his comeback at Ciro's on11 January 1955 to a packed celebrity crowdthat cheered him on.
Two weeks later, he recorded The Birth OfThe Blues and it's possible to see yet anotherlevel of depth in Sammy's vocals. There's moreabandon now and a touch of pain - qualitiesthat he was to exploit brilliantly for decadesuntil he finally, unfortunately, began to lean onthem excessively in his final years.
Each session Sammy stepped into thatemotionally charged year revealed another sideof himself. His March recording of That OldBlack Magic showed a new sensuality and asense of rhythmic variation that crackles withexcitement.
A Man With A Dream which came on2 May, marks the first of the great anthemicDavis songs, the ones where he goes to the wallwith a number, belting out the final notes withthat unique bravado he possessed. You can seethe first draft of later hits like \What Kind OfFool Am I?" in this Victor Young tune fromSeventh Heaven.
The very same day, he also paired up withCarmen McRae for a saucy, conversationalrendition of A Fine Romance that presages hislater breezy on-stage repartee with The Rat Packin Las Vegas.
On 18 August, he recorded a pair of songsfrom Guys and Dolls (I'll Know and Adelaide)which find him venturing into a moresophisticated Broadway style, anticipating hisGotham debut the following year in the musical,Mr.Wonderful.
But his final session of the year on10 November yielded a song which has to belistened to several times to discover the levels ofmeaning inside it.
Called The Man With The Golden Arm, itwas written by the team of Sammy Cahn andJimmy Van Heusen, originally intended to beplayed over the opening credits of the FrankSinatra film of the same name about a heroinaddict, but director Otto Preminger wiselyopted for Elmer Bernstein's moody jazzinstrumental instead.
The song is definitely too mainstream tohave accompanied such an uncompromisingfilm, but it works well as a milestone ofdiscovery for our Sammy.
It's possible to listen to it as a tribute to hispal, Sinatra, who was there for him during theworst of his post-accident depression.
But when he barrels into the song'spounding bridge, it's hard not to think thatDavis had also found a generous measure ofautobiography in the lyric:' But there's a chance that heCan shake the misery.
That's if he's strong enoughAnd fights it long enough ...'"