American Masters – Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me - Sammy Davis, Jr.: The Music That Made Him Dance

Sammy Davis, Jr. floats on air in a photo from the documentary American Masters – Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me. Photo Cr: Photographed by Milton H. Greene © Joshua Greene www.archiveimages.com

By Cindy Y. Rodriguez

Sammy Davis, Jr. was one of America’s greatest entertainers of the twentieth century. He could do it all: dancing, singing, acting, impressions. What’s more, he did this at a time when it was difficult to be an African-American in the United States—during a period where even the entertainment industry provided as many obstacles as opportunities. Davis was a champion of civil rights, and he constantly pushed against the boundaries of segregation on- and off-stage. Even though he could have made a fortune playing clubs all over the country, he starred on Broadway in several shows—and shared the first interracial kiss in a Broadway musical. Among his many attributes, he performed for the civil rights movement in Selma and was an avid and gifted photographer. The list goes on.

Because of that we took an even deeper dive with Broadway musical theatre expert Laurence Maslon, the writer of Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, into which songs inspired and resonated with Davis, complete with a curated Spotify playlist below.

“‘Waiting for the Robert E. Lee’” was exactly the kind of “flash act” that black tap dancers performed on the Chitlin Circuit in the early part of the twentieth century; this is where Sammy Davis, Jr. got his start—at the age of five!—with “The Will Mastin Trio,” according to Maslon.

Then, when Davis was a teenager, Maslon said he met the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, singing “Doin’ the New Low Down” (see the playlist below), backstage in Boston. Robinson’s sense of style was a huge influence on Davis.  

One of Davis’ most famous covers is “Mr. Bojangles” and yet, Maslon says, initially, it wasn’t a song he was ever enthusiastic about.

“He thought it was a downer and hit too close to home. Nina Simone was the first black artist to record the number that eventually became a signature tune for Davis,” Maslon adds.

Davis opens up in the film about why, as time passed, he saw a deeper resonance for himself in “Mr. Bojangles.”

Maslon says Al Jolson’s all-out, 100%, performances were immensely influential to Sammy’s style.

“Sammy often used this particular song as a jumping-off point for his many and varied impressions of other singers and movie stars,” he says.

Davis idolized Billy Eckstine, who Maslon says represented a new kind of black singer after World War II, one who could sing popular romantic ballads, not just rhythm songs. After watching the film you will learn that Davis’ impressions were spot on and wildly entertaining.

Sammy idolized Eckstine,” he adds, “and—by the way! —did a dead-on imitation of him.”

Jazz singer Carmen McRae’s “Summertime” song is on Davis’ playlist as, Maslon says, “she was beloved by Sammy and one of the few female artists he recorded with on Decca.”

As Davis grew older, so did his experience in the entertainment industry deepen, as Mr. Wonderful—sung by Peggy Lee—was the first Broadway vehicle for Davis in 1956. Below is Lee singing the title song about his character which was, coincidentally, the first musical Billy Crystal (who is interviewed in the film) was ever taken to see.

What many people might not know is that one of Davis’ deepest regrets was that he never got to play the lead in Phantom of the Opera. However, he did perform this number on the concert stage up through the final performances of his career; so the song makes it onto the playlist: “Music Of The Night” by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Probably no singer—with the possible exception of Tony Bennett—recorded more songs from the post-World II Broadway repertoire than Sammy; here is another idol, Alfred Drake, conveying sex appeal and humor from Kiss Me, Kate,” Maslon says.

Sammy Davis, Jr. with Peter Lawford, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in the 1960 film Ocean’s 11. Credit: Everett Collection, Inc.

Even with idols like Billy Eckstine and Alfred Drake, Maslon says no one was more influential to Davis’ career than Frank Sinatra.

“His singing style, off-stage manner, and immense success were all elements that cast a long shadow over Sammy’s own artistry,” he says.

According to Maslon, Davis also shared a kinship with Michael Jackson, whose tribute to Sammy you’ll get to see in the film.

“Sammy and Michael Jackson were, in many ways, two sides of the same coin: child stars who grew up to maximize every inch of their immense talents. They admired each other, too; Michael used to ask Sammy for advice and he did a knock-out imitation of Michael,” he adds.

It’s no surprise that the entertainer, who Maslon calls Davis’ British avatar, Anthony Newley, was one of Davis’s favorite songs on the list: “What Kind of Fool Am I?” is on the list of Davis’ favorite songs.

“Anthony Newley was short, cocky, emotionally invested—and Sammy saw his performances on the London stage in the early 1960s, then became the first American to record them,” he says.

The final song on the Sammy Davis, Jr.’s playlist was introduced originally by singer and actor Steve Lawrence from the Broadway musical Golden Rainbow in 1967, according to Maslon.

“He gave the song to his pal Sammy because he felt the song could be much more resonant sung by a black artist in the civil rights era,” Maslon adds.

Sammy Davis, Jr.’s undeniable talent and willingness to break down racial barriers is just one of the many ways his complex life story will inspire anyone who watches Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me. Enjoy this special playlist curated by the writer of the film, Laurence Maslon.

Premieres Tuesday, February 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) with exclusive bonus performance footage. Available on DVD February 19 via PBS Distribution. Streams Wednesday, February 20 via pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS apps.