Book Recommendation: ‘Deconstructing Sammy’ by Matt Birkbeck

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A few weeks ago, I finished reading a great ‘autobiography’ by one of the, if not ‘THE’, greatest all-round entertainers of the twentieth century, the legend Sammy Davis Jr. (co-written by Jane and Burt Boyar):

The (auto) biography takes the reader ‘behind the scenes’  –  to a degree, it’s a warts ‘n all picture of Sammy. ‘Mr. Entertainment’ tells us about his suffering and torment in racist America, about the motivation which drove him towards the stardom he craved and the price he paid  –  he is open about his failings and weaknesses, character flaws which cost him dearly.

‘Deconstructing Sammy’ takes the reader a lot deeper into the darkness….we see in this examination, in the mess left behind after Sammy’s death, the tragedy that was the life of this legend, we see the train wreck that was Sammy’s life. It is painful, tearfully painful, to read about the life of a man who brought us such joy and happiness whilst he himself suffered so horrendously, partly as a result of happenings outside his control (e.g. racism) but also as a result of bad decision after bad decision after bad decision.

An incredible guy, Sonny Murray, tried to rescue Sammy’s legacy and his widow, Altovise (I’m not sure which of those two tasks Sonny would say was more difficult). Sonny was constantly out of pocket and I very much doubt that he was ever fully paid for all his work (Sammy dies broke). It was a labour of love. Altovise Davis was, at times, drowning in the quicksand of her own failings, flaws and addictions and ten Sonny Murrays probably couldn’t have rescued her (although she was a tragic figure, worthy of our sympathy, in my opinion).

Sonny uncovered a disaster scene when he walked into, and through, what was Sammy’s life. Sammy was not just the entertainer we saw and enjoyed but he was a business, a money making machine, and it was that aspect of his life, as well as his family life, which was such a mess. Sammy made so many bad decisions, he got his priorities wrong (he could have had the stardom, money and a great family life), he trusted the wrong people, his addictions  –  the alcohol, the drugs, the money, the spending, the fame and stardom  –  the boredom which led to more bad places, it was an explosive mix with tragic consequences.

I loved Sammy Davis Jr. before I read these two books and I still do  –  perhaps more because I now know much, much more about the sadness, tragedy and disasters in his life. Sammy’s life is a study of the wondrous heights that can be reached, the dreams that can become reality with determination, commitment and drive but it is also a study of how important it is to remain grounded and balanced, how important it is to keep life in perspective, to keep an eye on healthy priorities, how important it is to repel the magnetic field which draws so many stars and high achievers into the abyss of excess.

Two great books  –  I highly recommend them.



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