Mention the name Sammy Davis Jr. to someone under 30, and the first image will probably be of a slick Las Vegas type loaded down with gold chains and oozing show-biz platitudes. Picture: Billy Crystal's wickedly funny impersonation.
That's why the all-star salute to Davis at the Shrine Auditorium on Monday was so valuable. It put the spotlight back on Davis' exceptional talents as an all-around entertainer--dancer, singer, actor and mime--and on his historical importance as one of the first black performers to achieve mainstream popular acceptance. The show raised more than $500,000 for the United Negro College Fund.
The best thing about the salute, which was taped for broadcast early next year on ABC-TV, was its integrity and sense of purpose. The event didn't come across as just another collection of big names brought together to garner a TV rating, but as a group of friends and admirers who wanted to express their affection and gratitude.
Gregory Hines, who starred with Davis this year in the film "Tap," spoke of his longtime admiration for the veteran performer. "When I was a young boy and I'd hear your name or see your name, I would just get so excited," he told Davis, who had front-row seats with his wife, Altovise. "I just idolized you."
Hines then performed a tap routine, and finally coaxed his mentor on stage for a brief tandem routine. Davis didn't speak, however; he is undergoing radiation treatment for throat cancer.
Michael Jackson expressed his gratitude eloquently in a striking performance of the ballad "You Were There," a piece of special material that he wrote with Buz Kohan, the writer of the show.
In a dramatic, semi-spoken style, Jackson sang, "Thanks to you there's now a door we all walk through/I am here 'cause you were there."
Eddie Murphy, Whitney Houston and Anita Baker were among other stars who turned out to thank Davis for blazing a trail for black performers. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, too, spoke of Davis' role in "chipping away at walls" that have held back blacks.
Davis, who has been in show business for 60 of his nearly 64 years, has appeared in 23 films and in numerous Broadway productions, including "Mr. Wonderful" and "Golden Boy." But it was Davis' charter membership in the so-called Rat Pack of the late '50s and early '60s that most vividly symbolized his quest for equality and mainstream acceptance.
Davis' involvement in the Rat Pack (which also included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford) was recalled Monday through a film clip of the Pack in concert at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas--with Sen. John F. Kennedy at a ringside table.
There were also live appearances by three Pack alumni.
Sinatra, leader of the Pack, opened the show with a nostalgic "Where or When" and told Davis, "You're my brother." A frail-looking Martin, who bowed out of a high-profile 1988 reunion tour with Sinatra and Davis because of ill health, read some mock telegrams. And MacLaine sang a tender, intimate version--with specially-adapted lyrics--of "If They Could See Me Now," a song from the 1969 film, "Sweet Charity," in which she and Davis starred. MacLaine also recalled her thoughts the first time she saw Davis perform: "Never had so much come out of something so small for so long."
The show's producer, George Schlatter, made excellent use of video clips highlighting Davis' career. There was the classic 1972 "Sammy's Visit" episode of "All in the Family," shtick with Milton Berle and Jack Benny, and a 1968 appearance with Goldie Hawn on "Laugh-In."
Hawn was also there in person, recalling Davis' kindness on the "Laugh-In" set--and in an earlier meeting when she was a struggling go-go dancer. She also sang a lovely version of the ballad "True Colors."
Eddie Murphy was a gracious and effective host, peppering the proceedings with low-key humor and doing spot-on impressions of guests Bill Cosby and Stevie Wonder. Wonder performed Davis' 1969 hit "I've Gotta Be Me," and added that the song's message of personal growth through risk meant a lot to him when he was coming of age musically two decades ago.
The show's generous and respectful tone was dramatized when Murphy and Michael Jackson teamed to escort Ella Fitzgerald to the stage. Physically frail but vocally strong, Fitzgerald sang "Too Close for Comfort," a song from Davis' 1956 Broadway hit "Mr. Wonderful."
Other performance highlights: Anita Baker sang a sultry version of "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess" (Davis appeared in the 1959 film version). Whitney Houston and Dionne Warwick also sang, while Gregory Peck and Clint Eastwood gave personal appreciations. Tony Danza tap-danced amiably to an instrumental version of Davis' 1972 smash "Candy Man." Bob Hope misfired on an ill-advised one-liner about the Ku Klux Klan. Sports stars Mike Tyson and Magic Johnson added their perspectives on Davis.
And, toward the end of the three-hour show, Richard Pryor commented on the "billion dollars' worth of talent" that was gathered backstage. (On this night, that was probably an understatement.)
The most revealing clip was one of Davis on a talk show in the mid-'70s talking about "Mr. Bojangles," Jerry Jeff Walker's ballad about a once-great song-and-dance man who has fallen on hard times. A 1971 hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the ballad has since become Davis' signature song.
"That's my fear, that I'll wind up like Bojangles," Davis said in the clip. "One night in Vegas I said, 'Oh my God, that's how I'll be when I'm 70 years old. I'll be working little joints and I'll talk about what I used to be and that'll be the end of it.' "
Which goes to show that, although Davis is a great dancer, singer, actor and mime, he's a lousy prophet.