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ClassicsOnline Home » DAVIS JR, Sammy: Hey There (1949-1955)
Sammy Davis Jr went through many different
stages in his amazing career.
Starting out as a childhood hoofer, he later
morphed into a slick variety performer, a clever
impersonator, charter member of ‘The Rat Pack’
and Broadway superstar, eventually being
canonized as ‘the world’s greatest entertainer’
before finishing his career on a sad note of selfparody.
But one thing remained constant through all
of these various manifestations of the Samster’s
personality until nearly the very end: he was a
At his best, Davis was a songwriter’s dream:
able to squeeze maximum juice out of any
melody, while still giving the lyric full value and
wrapping the whole thing up with his own
unique brand of showmanship that made any
number seem special.
The selections on this album are assembled
from a six-year period in his career (1949-1955)
with most of them actually having been
recorded in the course of fourteen months
(June 1954 to August 1955) which would
feature some of the most defining events in his
life – including a near-fatal accident and a
There are unmistakable changes in style over
that year that are fascinating to note, but first, it’s
necessary to recall where Davis came from.
He was born in Harlem on 8 December 1925,
the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a black
father, both of whom were vaudeville dancers.
When he was three, his parents divorced,
and Davis’s father took custody of young
Sammy. He brought him on the road along with
another hoofer named Will Maston, and the
youngster made his stage debut as part of an act
called ‘Holiday in Dixieland’, billed as ‘Silent
Sam,The Dancing Midget’.
Davis was a natural with audiences and the
act soon changed its name to ‘Will Mastin’s Gang
Featuring Little Sammy’. Film appearances
followed as did a 1941 stint opening for Tommy
Dorsey, where Sammy was first to meet Frank
After a stretch in the army, he returned to
join his old buddies and as The Will Mastin Trio
they became an increasingly popular act, playing
clubs like Ciro’s and the Copacabana. During
these years,Sammy discovered his gift for
celebrity impersonations and the humour they
added to the mix made it click even more readily.
The first recordings we hear are from that
period and we discover a young, callow Sammy,
making up in energy what he lacked in polish.
The 1949 pressing of Smile, Darn Ya, Smile
even features a sample of the legendary Davis
But in 1954, Decca picked up Davis and his
recording career took off at once. The
arrangements of Broadway favourites like Hey
There or And This Is My Beloved are lush and
confident,with Sammy doing his best to live up
He sounds good, but it still feels a bit like a
kid wearing a borrowed tux: there’s a sense of
entitlement that’s missing. It’s only when he
tears into his comic impersonations,
demonstrating how everyone from Jimmy
Cagney to Cary Grant would sing Because Of
You, that he truly seems at home.
And then, it all suddenly changed for Sammy
in one split second.
It was 19 November 1954 and he was trying
to drive back overnight from Las Vegas to Los
Angeles. Just before dawn, on the outskirts of
San Bernadino, he became part of a freak auto
collision and the steering wheel column of his
beloved Cadillac destroyed his left eye.
At first, Davis was in despair, but friends like
Sinatra and Tony Curtis rallied round and he
found the courage to continue. He also made an
amazing decision to embrace Judaism which he
said helped him start to rebuild his life again.
One month after his accident, Davis stepped
into a studio in Los Angeles and recorded All Of
You. The change in his style is instantly
apparent. The voice is more burnished, and
there’s the beginnings of a willingness to open
himself up honestly to the listeners, where
before there had only been slickness.
He made his comeback at Ciro’s on
11 January 1955 to a packed celebrity crowd
that cheered him on.
Two weeks later, he recorded The Birth Of
The Blues and it’s possible to see yet another
level of depth in Sammy’s vocals. There’s more
abandon now and a touch of pain – qualities
that he was to exploit brilliantly for decades
until he finally, unfortunately, began to lean on
them excessively in his final years.
Each session Sammy stepped into that
emotionally charged year revealed another side
of himself. His March recording of That Old
Black Magic showed a new sensuality and a
sense of rhythmic variation that crackles with
A Man With A Dream which came on
2 May, marks the first of the great anthemic
Davis songs, the ones where he goes to the wall
with a number, belting out the final notes with
that unique bravado he possessed. You can see
the first draft of later hits like “What Kind Of
Fool Am I?” in this Victor Young tune from
The very same day, he also paired up with
Carmen McRae for a saucy, conversational
rendition of A Fine Romance that presages his
later breezy on-stage repartee with The Rat Pack
in Las Vegas.
On 18 August, he recorded a pair of songs
from Guys and Dolls (I’ll Know and Adelaide)
which find him venturing into a more
sophisticated Broadway style, anticipating his
Gotham debut the following year in the musical,
But his final session of the year on
10 November yielded a song which has to be
listened to several times to discover the levels of
meaning inside it.
Called The Man With The Golden Arm, it
was written by the team of Sammy Cahn and
Jimmy Van Heusen, originally intended to be
played over the opening credits of the Frank
Sinatra film of the same name about a heroin
addict, but director Otto Preminger wisely
opted for Elmer Bernstein’s moody jazz
The song is definitely too mainstream to
have accompanied such an uncompromising
film, but it works well as a milestone of
discovery for our Sammy.
It’s possible to listen to it as a tribute to his
pal, Sinatra, who was there for him during the
worst of his post-accident depression.
But when he barrels into the song’s
pounding bridge, it’s hard not to think that
Davis had also found a generous measure of
autobiography in the lyric:
That ill-fated bend in the road on Route 66
may have taken away Sammy Davis Jr’s left eye,
but it gave him something in return: a way of
looking at the world which brought his talent
to a whole other level.
These songs clock the journey he took that
year – for good as well as for ill – and it’s
magical to hear the way he learned how to
redefine his life through his music.
Sammy Davis Jr. Oh yes, he was much more
than “The Candy Man”.
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DAVIS JR, Sammy: Hey There (1949-1955)