SAMMY DAVIS JR.: The Legacy of the World's Greatest Entertainer

Article excerpt

This is the fourth of a series of articles on landmark triumphs of the 20th century. The third article on Martin Luther King Jr.'s triumph at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo appeared in the December issue.

GEORGE BURNS said "a phenomenon like him comes along once in a lifetime." Milton Berle called him "the world's greatest entertainer."

Little Richard said he was "the greatest entertainer who ever lived --bar none."

Janet Jackson said he was "the Martin Luther King of the entertainment industry." And Willie Brown, who then was Speaker of the California Assembly, said he was the godfather of the Black superstars of today. "Cos," he said, "would not be Cos [Bill Cosby], and Sidney [Poitier] would not be Sidney, if Sammy had not been Sammy."

Sammy Davis Jr., the rare and extravagant spirit who was the object of these rare and extravagant appraisals, was an American original.

In his life and death, the singer-dancer-actor-mimic marked a major milestone in our common cultural history. For he was a crossroads figure who almost single-handedly created a civil rights revolution in the entertainment world.

For 36 daring, dramatic, tragic, triumphant, controversial, go-for-broke, what-the-hell years, he inhabited center stage in our national psyche. And when he died in his Beverly Hills mansion in 1990, after a long struggle with throat cancer, he was a legend who lived in a time on the other side of time.

His death triggered an unprecedented national tribute. The lights on the Las Vegas Strip went dark for 10 minutes in his memory. This had happened only two times before --after the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. And the Davis funeral, which will be talked about for years, enlarged on the legend, attracting thousands of ordinary citizens--Black, White, Brown, Jew, Gentile, Protestant and Catholic--and a Who's Who of the entertainment industry (including Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Dean Martin and Cicely Tyson) to Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.

In a development that would have pleased Sammy, a 300-car caravan--one of the longest funeral caravans in memory, according to police--followed his body from the memorial service to the Forest Lawn/Glendale grave site, forcing the California Highway Patrol to briefly close off two freeways.

In the end, as almost everybody said, Sammy, as almost everybody called him, was a great entertainer because he was a great witness and he was a great witness because he was a great entertainer. It is certainly significant in this connection that he gave more benefits than any other entertainer and that he marched with Dr. King not only in Washington, D.C., but also in Mississippi.

The son of a Baptist father and a Roman Catholic mother, Sammy was an American, an African-American and a Jew--and he transcended all categories. A metaphor and a bridge, he carried in his flesh all the contradictions and all the hopes of our pluralistic social and musical heritage.

A Man Called Adam, Golden Boy, Anna Lucasta, Porgy and Bess, Ocean's Eleven, Mr. Wonderful, "Hey There," "What Kind of Fool Am I," "Birth of the Blues," "I Gotta Be Me," "Mr. Bojangles,": This was the light and legacy of the ultimate "Candy Man" who was born in poverty and overcame impossible odds by telling himself and anyone who would listen: "Yes I Can. …