I come across people all the time that only know Sammy Davis Jr from his popular performances of “The Candy Man” and “Mr Bojangles”. This is indeed sad — like trying to appreciate a fine single malt scotch by taking a quick swig of ethel alcohol.

Those songs were indeed wildly (and weirdly) popular toward the back end of Sammy’s career. But they were overexposed on radio and TV; so much so that I believe they tainted Sammy in the minds of a generation of Standards listeners.

Those too popular “hits” of the 70’s type cast Sammy as a kitschy pop performer even though he’s arguably the most talented ENTERTAINER of the three headliners in the Rat Pack. Wow … did I actually say that out loud? I’m sure to catch hell for it but before you load your up your comment cannons and let me have it, hear me out on this. (Then you can hammer me!)

First, let’s be clear … I said “entertainer” not singer. And I also said “most talented” not “most successful”. There’s no doubt that Frank Sinatra stood alone on the top rung of the success ladder — and not just within the Rat Pack. In Frank’s prime he was THE biggest star in music and Hollywood … politics. Hell Frank was arguably the most powerful guy on the planet behind Kennedy for a few years there. Dean was a pretty darn close second, making a score of top records, 10’s of money making films and a couple of very popular TV shows.

Even though Sam also experienced great success on stage, screen and records, for some reason SDjr doesn’t get the same top tier consideration today as his contemporaries — especially by folks relatively new to the Standards genre. Putting together his stage presence, amazing dance prowess, vocal range and dexterity, Sammy Davis Jr. has my vote for the best overall entertainer of the Rat Pack

Hey, there’s nobody smoother or cooler than Dean Martin — even Frank thought he was the best singer of the bunch. And Frank … what can you say about Sinatra beyond the fact that he was a singular vocal talent for an era … maybe for the ages — Frank, with his swinging style and a wicked timing all his own was truly unique . I love both these guys and they were massively successful because they were the real deal … genuine and fundamentally a part of their music

That said, if you need to put just one guy on stage for a couple of hours to entertain a crowd, you can’t do better than Sam. The guy was as comfortable singing a cappella as he was out in front of a big swing’n band. In fact some of Sammy’s most interesting work is with a simple guitar (Sammy Davis, Jr. Sings and Laurindo Almeida Plays — a great but sadly out of print album) or just a bongo drum accompaniment! He did amazing impressions, danced like Gregory Hines and rolled it all together with a self effacing style and genuine stage presence that just seemed to come naturally to him. He made it look easy and the audience loved him.

So what happened to Sam’s legacy?

Back in the day, Sammy had to overcome severe racism to attain the success he ultimately achieved as headline artist. But that has little to do with his back seat position today. Artists like Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horn, Nat Cole, Eta James etc… also plied their success through the nasty racist backdrop of that time in America. But all of them are highly respected today for their contributions to the collective Vocal Standards arena (as well as jazz and even country genres for Ray).

I’ll tell you what happened … the freaking “Candy Man” is what happened. Other performers did regrettable songs later in their careers (even Frank), but Sammy’s were just too damn popular! Granted, “Mr. Bojangles” is actually a pretty cool melancholy ballad that speaks to individual struggles and societal pain. Taken on it’s own it’s a nice number, but the hyper exposure “Mr. B” garnered from overplay on radio and TV didn’t do Sammy’s legacy any favors.

To a bunch of folks, SDjr has been forever typecast by some of his least interesting, and kitschy numbers … and that’s just wrong for a talent like Sam … man. It’s not really fair for any artist to be too strongly associated with one or two songs. I mean Etta James HAD to get tired of being asked to sing “At Last” … but at least “At Last” is a cool song. Sammy’s stuck with “The Candy Man”?! Oh, man … I just threw up in my mouth a little.

I know many of you are reading this and baffled by the whole “lack of respect for Sam” notion. It’s foreign to you because you’ve probably tread deeper into Sammy’s catalog and appreciate the talent and range you found there. It only takes a bit of exposure to songs like “My Romance”, “Someone Nice Like You”, “Change Partners”, “Birth of the Blues” and “Too Close For Comfort” to realize in full measure what you have in Sammy Davis Jr. — the guy is simply an incredible talent.

So it’s up to us to fix this…

The Sammy dissing stops here — no further! Let the Sammy Davis Jr. legacy restoration project begin now. If you count yourself among the Friends of Sam, that’s extra cool. However if you’ve been “Candy Maned” and need an assist to get across the SDjr appreciation line, pick up (download…) the compendium album Yes I Can* and dive in! I guarantee the aforementioned songs, the great Broadway numbers (“My Boy Bill”, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”) and the other ninety+ great titles on those four discs will blow you away and over spray the unfortunate graffiti left behind on Sammy’s image by an overdose of “The Candy Man” and “Mr. B”.

* Yes I Can is a great collection of Sammy’s best — hitting on all the styles and variety of his long career with a mix of live performances, jazz interpretations, Broadway numbers and a large slice from the tenderloin of the vocal standards songbook. Sadly it’s a tough album to find these days, and pretty expensive when you do find it. Snag it if you can but don’t bust a gut; there are scores of SDjr albums out there that can knock that nasty “Candy Man” coating off Sammy Davis Jr’s tasty and satisfying career catalog!

Share