FAME. Sammy Davis Jr. blows my mind. The man is dazzling. He oozes charisma. He glows with a tangible aura. His hipster fashion sense is over-the-top, way beyond tacky. Nobody else could have gotten away with those tight-fitting pants, those snazzy suits, that extravagant jewelry, and that slick, processed hair. Sammy was constantly on display. His whole life was show business. He scarcely had time for anything else. He first appeared on stage at the age of three, and he never stopped. No matter what the occasion, Sammy was always on. Just watch him perform. His scrawny body explodes in frantic motion. He sings and dances. He leaps and twists and spins. He tells jokes. He does impressions of singers and movie stars. He plays a riff on the trumpet, and beats out a rhythm on the drums. He even shoots a brace of pistols at breakneck speed. Sammy's expressive face registers every detail of these exertions. Now he is frowning with concentration. Now his eyes narrow, and his mouth contorts into a grimace. Now he breaks into a radiant smile. And now, in order to sing, he opens his mouth wider than should be possible. When Sammy speaks, his voice is suave and silky, with carefully measured diction. But when he sings, his voice booms out, louder and larger than life. Listen to his 1968 hit, "I've Gotta Be Me." At first, Sammy's tone is smooth and insinuating. He would cajole us into accepting him. "What else can I be," he pleads, "but what I am?" Sammy is always trying to ingratiate himself. He desperately craves the audience's approval. In order to get it, he pushes way too hard. However much he accomplishes, it is never enough. He must go further, the next time around. And so, no matter what the occasion, Sammy pulls out all the stops. He overdoes everything. He doesn't know the meaning of nuance or restraint. "I've Gotta Be Me" may start on a tentative note. But it quickly builds to a pompous crescendo. Sammy's voice becomes overbearing, instead of insinuating. If he cannot coax us, he will bully us into liking him. The song turns into a fatuous display of self-conceit. Sammy carries it off, if he does, by sheer bravado. His singing is technically superb. But it has no soul. It is devoid of personality. And that, alas, is the story of Sammy's life. The me that he wants to be is curiously empty. There's nothing there but talent, technique, and a relentless will to please. You can see it all in Sammy's 1965 autobiography, Yes I Can, and its 1989 sequel, Why Me? These books are doggedly repetitious, in the way that only true confessions can be. Sammy relates, in excruciating detail, every racist indignity ever inflicted upon him. He was beaten up. He got death threats. Someone scrawled obscene graffiti all over his house. He was barred from staying in the very hotels where he performed nightly. And then, there are all the grotesque little things that white people do. For instance, a wealthy liberal threw a party in Sammy's honor. When Sammy arrived, the host immediately ushered him down the length of the buffet, past the caviar and the paté, to a plate of fried chicken at the end of the table. Sammy was too polite to school the man. But he brooded over the incident, and others like it, for years. Nearly every chapter of Yes I Can records his bafflement. Sammy can't understand why people keep on seeing him as black. He insists, again and again, that he is not a Negro performer, but a performer who just happens to be a Negro. What he does on stage, he claims, has nothing to do with race. After all, he doesn't ground his act in the shuck 'n' jive of minstrelsy, the way the old-time black performers did. Sammy wants to be judged, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. The trouble is, no matter how hard he tries, that pesky skin color keeps on getting in the way. I've gotta be me, he thinks, but how can I be, when I'm treated just like every other black man? The problem, he concludes, is that he still isn't famous enough. After each racial insult, he tells himself yet again: "I had to get bigger, that's all. I just had to get bigger." If I were a greater star, he reasons, they wouldn't dare keep me out of the Copacabana. If I were important enough, and powerful enough, they would have to accept me for who I am. Sammy seems to think that, if he becomes enough of a star, his blackness will disappear. His personality will float free of all circumstance. And indeed, something like that is what actually happened. The greater the celebrity Sammy attained, the whiter and emptier his character became. Finally, he was nothing but pure charisma, without an object. Having no personality was the price he paid to cross over and be accepted by white America. And for all that, the pain never left him, not even for a moment.
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