FRANK SINATRA, SAMMY DAVIS JR… AND ME
In the comedy mockumentary Spinal Tap there’s a scene where one of the band members is reading the Sammy Davis Jnr Autobiography Yes I Can and the chauffeur turns to him and says, ‘That book should be called, ‘Yes I Can… if Frank Sinatra says it’s okay!’
Theirs was a unique friendship to say the least, and under the lookout of ol’ blue eyes this tiny light entertainer found himself a mainstream platform from which he could shine both light and laughter on the racial issues America was facing. The lesson was ‘kill it with kindness,’ and as a British-Guyanese-Indian actor (born in London), it very much resonated with me.
Since I was a child, my eyes were always drawn towards this cool, bejeweled Candyman clown. His spontaneity thrilled and captured my imagination. Sammy was awkward, playful, deadly suave and potent beyond compare. ‘Sinatra’s phrasing?’ Whatever! This guy had dynamite feet and sang in every style, from theatrical ballad to Soul/Funk. He was an accomplished musician, impersonator and comedian par excellence. He wasn’t tall, good looking or white - but this star sure shone bright!
If Sammy was allowed to venture places that other black performers could not it was down to three things: humour, talent…and Sinatra. Sammy could only dream of the freedoms Frank had, but having him fighting your corner was a good second option. Frank always did, but it came with a sense of ownership and ‘Sam’ - knowing whose world he was living in – for the most part played his role accordingly. Sure there were bust ups and makeups a plenty, but a forty year friendship is a lot of bourbon under the bridge.
I saw a Russell Peters Stand up show recently, and this Anglo-Indian Catholic Canadian has the most mixed audience I have ever witnessed. They sit together and laugh together (at themselves). That is the fruit of a movement initiated by the likes of Sammy Davis Jnr. The first black artist to impersonate white celebrities in front of a white audience he ran the risk of pillory - and worse - but his talent bypassed the bigotry, and another wisecrack appeared in the racial dam. When Sammy was ordered to remove the controversial gags it was Sinatra who told him to, ‘Put ‘em back in the act!’… and who would argue with the ‘chairman of the board?’
Frank’s liberal views strongly encouraged integration, and Sammy’s refusal to be confined by the traditional black boundaries didn’t end once he had miraculously managed to ‘make it.’ Instead, he married a blonde Hollywood bombshell and adopted children from different backgrounds as well as raising his own biological daughter of mixed race. Under the shadow of death threats and hate mail this African-American, Puerto-Rican who converted to Judaism would joke on stage, ‘When I move into a neighbourhood, I wipe it out!’ He could dine with the Caucasian elite and march with Martin Luther King… but the trailblazing carried a heavy price.
The Black Panthers called him an ‘Uncle Tom’ and of course there were many in the white community who regardless of his talent would never accept his seat at the top table of American society. Apart from big brother Frank’s hand on his shoulder, Sammy stood on a lonely platform - but one that provided a much-needed springboard for the likes of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey… the list goes on and all acknowledge his struggle in particular. Two weeks before Sammy died, at the 60th anniversary of his life in show business, a host of stars paid tribute to the inspirational path he had tapped his way along. And he was still tapping, sharing one last jam with Gregory Hines.
When asked to make a comparison between the racial climate in the U.K. and U.S.A, Sammy said the U.K. was far less toxic than America on a daily level. He loved visiting what he considered to be a friendly warm culture. However, he also knew that the opportunities he was fortunate to galvanize upon were ones only America could have offered him.
Back in ‘Blighty’ we had no legendary counterpart to Sammy Davis and still our BAME performers find themselves journeying to the States in search of work. After the success of smash hit Bend it Like Beckham the lead actress Parminder Nagra, who co-starred with Kiera Knightly, received no phone calls until the U.S. producers of ‘ER’ came with an offer.
In his day, Sammy challenged the lazy assumptions of studio executives, producers (and, perhaps, audiences) with his talent and his humour. He would play along with the gags for a time, but he’d slip in some barbs of his own. Tapping out a simple rhythm on stage while singing ‘2,4,6,8, we don’t want to integrate,’ he got the laugh and a spoonful of banter helped the medicine go down.
Is it still necessary for BAME performers to be playing this role? The admirable work being done by Giles Terrera or Danny Lee Wynter’s ‘Act For Change’ campaign, along with Sir Lenny Henry and many others, has recently raised awareness of the issues in an important way. Yet the content seems to be slow at catching up. The 70’s sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum saw Michael Bates black up to play an Indian character who got a laugh every time he cleared his throat of phlegm - and in 2015 we have Citizen Khan getting a laugh every time he clears his throat of phlegm. Meanwhile, L.A. has green-lit shows like ‘Master of None’ and ‘The Mindy Project’ that are written by, produced and starring Indians and feature a diverse cast playing characters defined by far more than their skin-deep identity.
So what will be needed to make a difference? Let me be Frank, its going take more than a cough and a spit…