“Why Me” is a fascinating, in-depth autobiography, penned by the greatest popular entertainer the world has ever known, and will ever know, the incomparable legend, Sammy Davis Jr. (co-written by Jane and Burt Boyar). It is a fast pace, entertaining, inspiring, emotional, heart rending, oft times desperately sad, roller coaster of an autobiography, an examination of stardom.
This is not an autobiography reflecting SDJ’s own airbrushed self-portrait. It’s a “warts ‘n all”, tell-it-as-it-is life story.
This autobiography encapsulates so much of what I find utterly fascinating.
SDJ is (yes, ‘is’, even though he passed away in 1990) a STAR.
What is stardom?
What is a star?
Is it recognizable at birth?
Can it be learnt?
How does it blossom?
What circumstances are needed to create the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly?
How does stardom survive?
The downsides (often more numerous than the upsides!)
When does a star become a legend?
SDJ acknowledged that there have been greater dancers (I don’t think many!) and greater singers but that whilst he couldn’t put his finger on why and what it is, he knew what we all know, that he is a star – FACT – a superstar (as was evidenced by the packed houses he played to and the money that rolled in….and in….and in…)
(“Why Me?”) “You go from new boy on the block to a star to a superstar. Those are plateaus you can see. Then there are invisible plateaus. When do you become the so firmly established superstar that nothing can take it away?”
SDJ asked so many similarly-natured questions on the theme of stardom and talent…which he couldn’t answer and he just forwarded the question to G-d to answer.
If G-d hadn’t sent this personification of stardom to us and we’d tried to model, to create, it, I don’t think anyone could have got as close to the real thing as was SDJ. SDJ was a miracle. Even he didn’t understand why he was imbued with the intrinsic talent – he refers throughout the book to G-d – SDJ never came to terms with his talent, he couldn’t reconcile the person he felt he was with the gifts he had. He could only explain it as G-d-given. SDJ, it’s no secret, wasn’t an angel, however – he was human, loaded with failings and weaknesses, he was a PERSON with G-d-given gifts and talents (and a big heart – his work on behalf of the Civil Rights struggles is also legendary).
(“Why Me?”): SDJ – ‘ “How do you be a Sammy David Jr.?” I’d have trouble answering. Obviously it starts with being given talent. But there are dozens of better dancers than I am and dozens of better singers – who remain unknown while I’ve become a star. There are better impressionists than me and I guarantee you that Buddy Rich plays better drums than I do. A painter can mix four colors together and come up with a great blue, that’s an exact science. Mine is not. When I walk out onto a stage and say, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” I know that part of what the people see is the figure of perpetual motion, the little guy with the dazzling energy….They also see ‘the swinger’ (then a list of other things)…….they see my clothes……(the list goes on). Yet I wouldn’t know how to evaluate each of those elements……What I do know is that I don’t dare lose a single facet of whatever it is that creates ‘Sammy Davis, Jr…” ‘
There can be no denying his shortcomings, his failings, but I, and millions of people, love the guy.
“I got where I am by single-mindedness, by 100% involvement: I ate, talked, breathed, slept, lived show business.”
“Why me? Not just the talent to entertain but the drive to work as hard as I’ve worked. Why was I not made to cave in, accept anonymity, poverty, second best. They seemed to go together, the talent to make it and the need to make it, so that the hard work was the only road and not to have done it would have been harder still. G-d put those pieces together. Why? I knew that I was never really going to get an answer but I also knew that I’d better be aware that whatever it was, and whyever it was, I dared not just keep that gift for myself, because there is no way it was meant for me alone” (SDJ thinking about there being a connection between his losing an eye in an accident and being in the hospital for a check-up and a nurse asking him to go to see a basketball player who was in the hospital for an operation to remove his eye).
Talking about the difference between being a movie star (Clint Eastwood) and a stage performer:
Clint: “Sam, what does it feel like to have all those people out there and everybody loves you?”
SDJ: “…not being a down-front performer he would never know the feeling of standing dead centre on the stage in the spotlight, having that love come at you in waves that make you feel good-looking”.
Whatever star quality is, SDJ had it, of that, there can be no doubt. Even those out there who don’t enjoy Sammy’s brand of entertainment, surely they wouldn’t argue with that statement. The question for me is what brought it to the fore? There must be a lot of people who have star quality, talent etc but who never know it, who go through their lives in ignorance of the fact of their talent, who might, in other circumstances, have been stars but who, in the absence of those circumstances, live ‘ordinary’, anonymous lives.
SDJ was born into racially segregated America and one doesn’t need to be a psychologist to conclude, with no more than a cursory scan of his early life history, that he saw showbiz and entertainment as his ticket to ride, that he was determined to be loved and adored and that that would be his key to acceptance. Of course, he later discovered that it wasn’t, that however much the crowds and audiences loved his act (with the Will Maston Trio when he was a child ‘on the road’ with his adoring father and uncle, and even when he first became a superstar), he was not ‘one of them’. Only when society as a whole changed was he allowed ‘in’.
SDJ was addicted to his life as a superstar:
(“Why Me?”) “My London scene was: Mama (Cass), Jimi (Hendrix), ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’, Evie and Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, Georgia Brown, and the actors Olivier, O’Toole, Finney, Dudley Moore”
(At a party at Jack and Mary Benny’s house):
“Jack and I would love to have you and your bride come to dinner on Thursday…Milton Berle was standing near the front door…Lucille Ball came straight over as we walked in…All of that level of Hollywood society was there, George (Burns) and Gracie (Allen), Mary and Swifty Lazar, the Nivens, Loretta Young, Georgie and Ricardo Montalban, and Frank (Sinatra)…”
All that came before his children, or rather before his duty and responsibility as a father (though he saw the errors of his ways later in life):
(“Why Me?”) To his son: ‘ “I can’t make it tomorrow, but you’ve still got my box (at the ball game stadium), and Sy and Molly (friends) can take you. It’ll be more fun, they’ll bring their kids….
It didn’t mean that someday I wouldn’t love to take Mark and Tracey and Jeff to a ball game and yell and scream and have a beer…but I had other priorities (in this case, having a weekend at Frank’s place in Palm Springs)…The camera landed on my box and I saw Mark and Tracey. They were having a good time. And I was where I should be. But I wasn’t much of a father. No buts…f**k it.”
…and the booze, the drugs, the shopping, the porn…
Blake Edwards’ “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” comes to mind:
In the taxi, when Paul is telling Holly how much he loves her, he says to her, “…no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself”.
One can argue whether SDJ kept running into himself: I don’t think he ever actually managed to escape from himself. I guess the euphoria that he felt on stage, the camaraderie he felt in the company of ‘Hollywood’ and his New York and London ‘sets’, the ‘disneyland’ life he created for himself, that that was all an escape that he managed to achieve but he kept popping up in front of himself. Perhaps if he’d spent more time getting to know himself, if he’d come to terms with who he was instead of trying to recreate himself in a parallel world, he would have been happier, that he would have had a happier life.
It is utterly tragic that a man who gave so much pleasure, who made millions of people happy, was, himself, a self-destructive, unsatisfied man. Tragically, this is so often the case in the world of entertainment.
‘They’ say that you can only join up the dots later in life, that only then does it all make sense!
(“Why Me?”) ‘Nobody ever said that life is supposed to be a smooth road. There’s no way that life’s supposed to be a freeway. You’ve got to hit some dirt roads, hit some rocky roads, detours. Sometimes when you’re on that side road you have fun, you find a great diner and you go “…waaaaaggghh, this is fun!” or when you’re bogged down in the mud you curse and yell and you want to lie down exhausted but after a little rest you know you better get yourself back on that highway. I watched them build this freeway, and helped build it a little myself, so I want to ride it to the end.’
“I didn’t hate being sixty as much as I had fifty…What I’d hated, really, was the lack of time to do what I should have done by then.”
“During that ceremony (his daughter’s graduation ceremony), watching Tracey, I didn’t feel that I had wasted my own youth by never having a traditional one (he was on the road as a kid). It served to get me from there to here. I regretted only never feeling I had time to pause to appreciate and enjoy what I’d achieved before I’d begun to fear I was losing it.”
…and I wasn’t going to bring in Mr. Bojangles because SDJ hated it – Sammy was frightened that he’d end up like Mr. Bojangles, he felt that it was bringing his fears too close to home. However, he knew later in life, when he got himself onto a more even keel, that he was a star and that his legendary status was set in stone. He knew that he’d never be Mr. Bojangles: