Heavy Metal legend Ronnie James Dio died yesterday. And that reminded me of Muppet Master Jim Henson ... which reminded me of... Rat Pack legend Sammy Davis, Jr.
Why? Because they all died on May 16. For me, however, Sammy will always have a special place in my heart and will resonate the most. As a child, one of the first songs I remember hearing was Sammy's "Candy Man." Granted, the addicting tune can be somewhat annoying but let's face it, to a little kid, a song about candy was the friggin' bomb...
I had older parents and the New York radio station WNEW-AM was always on in the house. Back in the '70s and '80s, the station was best known for its "Milkman's Matinee" and their "Make Believe Ballroom" standards which included everything from Benny Goodman and Sinatra to Sammy and Nat King Cole. Great stuff. That music was in my consciousness from when I was in grade school and I don't regret it for a second.
In 1987 when Sinatra, Sammy and Dino embarked on their Rat Pack Reunion tour, I was lucky enough to have a chick who, like me, also enjoyed that era's music. We snagged tickets for Radio City Music Hall in March of '88 and in the last frikkin' row, there we were seeing them: Frank Sinatra (who I would see several more times) and Sammy Davis, Jr. Dean Martin had backed out by then and would eventually be replaced by Liza Minnelli.
I saw Sammy again, however, later that year but it wasn't in concert. In September, the same gal encouraged me to volunteer with her to work on Jerry Lewis' Muscular Dystrophy Telethon on Labor Day. I'm sure I scoffed. But then she told me: Sammy would be emceeing the New York part of the show which really shot in Secaucus, New Jersey. That's all I had to hear. I prepped my wool double-breasted blazer and I was in.
Now this is where it gets fuzzy. I don't remember much from that day. I remember being there at WWOR backstage but truth be told, I don't remember working much, if at all.
I do remember seeing Sammy, however. And man, was he little. I was in college and a little guy at that and I remember Sammy being smaller than me. I also remember my chick telling me to go up to him but I punked out. It was Sammy... What would I say to him? I mean, he was like, three feet from me. What a mistake.
I'll never forget the next day. Many of the audience members were probably taken with Sammy's gaunt appearance on the telecast and the cat, by that point, was let out of the bag. That morning, I remember seeing the front page of The New York Post that read:
A blow to the gut. My hero was sick and I never said hi. Nor would I ever...
Davis died in Beverly Hills, California on May 16, 1990, of complications from throat cancer. Earlier, when he was told he could be saved by surgery, Davis replied he would rather keep his voice than have a part of his throat removed; the result of that decision seemed to cost him his life.
This is my favorite Sammy tune by far...
A few things about "Mr. Bojangles" that some may not know. For me, it has to be one of the most powerful songs with the most poignant lyrics I've ever heard. Listen and you'll see why.
The popular country folk Song was written and recorded by country music artist Jerry Jeff Walker in 1968 and covered by many varied artists including Harry Chapin, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Whitney Houston, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Jim Croce and Frank Sinatra. Sammy's rendition is most poignant. He always said the song was a rough for him to perform because, in essence, he could have become Bojangles at any time.
The ditty was inspired by an encounter with a street performer in the New Orleans First Precinct jail and does not refer to the famous stage and movie dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
According to songwriter Walker, a murder on the 4th of July weekend in 1965 precipitated the arrest of all the street people in the area. In the crowded cell, a disheveled homeless old man began to talk to Walker, who had been arrested earlier for drunkenness. The man told various stories of his life, but the tone darkened after 'Mr Bojangles' recalled his dog who'd been run over. Someone then asked for something to lighten the mood, and the man obliged with a tap dance. Wow...
I've always maintained (and you can tell at around at around time 1:26), that Michael Jackson was undoubtedly inspired by Sammy's performance of this song. The hat. The fluid movements. Watch and you'll see.
So why did I love Sammy so much and even have a denim jacket with Sammy airbrushed on the back (!!)? He did it all. A child performer/hoofer; a teenage crooner; perfected his talents in the Will Mastin Trio as a young adult before going into the army (where he was confronted by strong racial prejudice); endured an awful car crash in 1954 that took his eye; became a charter member of Sinatra's Rat Pack; married white actress May Britt to the disdain of a racially-divided nation; famously supported Republican President Richard M. Nixon and endured lung cancer. What more he danced his booty off, did awesome impressions, churned out tune after swingin' tune. And sang 'em right up until the day he got sick.