Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday Dance Party: Bojangles In A Jumpsuit

This week's Dance Party comes from this variety show
phenom. Flip Wilson's show topped the ratings 2 of its 4
year run; it tanked as quickly as it succeeded. But it
afforded many black entertainers national attention;
Sammy Davis, Jr., was a frequent guest.
I confess to never being a big fan of any of the Rat Pack.  This is somewhat surprising for someone who grew up loving all things "show bizzie", and the Rat Pack of the 1960s and 70s were steeped in all that glam.  (When Eydie Gorme died a while back, I wrote a bit about my fondness for the old school Show Business which I observed from my TV screen as a kid.)  I just never felt that those guys who seemed to rule Show Business were very versatile performers. 
The Rat Pack dominated Show Business, so
why didn't I like them more?

It's sacrilege to admit, but I thought Frank Sinatra was an overrated performer: a talented singer and not a bad actor, but certainly not the electrifying presence everybody claimed he was.  Joey Bishop was strictly a comic of the old "take my wife, please" school, and he could not sing nor dance. Dean Martin was a solid crooner, but he bored me to tears, and I could never get through a full hour of his long-running variety show (and I LOVED the variety shows of that period). 

It bugged me that Dean Martin took his celebrity for granted so much that he never even rehearsed his show, he simply showed up to get his blocking and to tape the thing. (The Dance Party featured one of his show's numbers here, where it's obvious that they were just tossing songs up on the screen. Lee J. Cobb and Charles Nelson Reilly in a musical number together?)
Peter Lawford wasn't a bad actor, but again, had no musical talent, and ultimately became more famous for marrying a Kennedy than for anything he did on stage or film.

This week's star was the only Rat Packer whom I felt was an all-around Entertainer.  Sammy Davis, Jr. has appeared on the Dance Party before, go here for a charming clip of his hoofing at age 6.  I can't claim to be a great fan of his, as he always seemed to be pushing his talent at us relentlessly, rather than letting us enjoy it effortlessly.  Still, he was the only Rat Packer who continued to try to entertain as he grew older, the others seemed to sit back and rest on their celebrity.
As a frequent guest on Laugh-In, Sammy helped popularize one of the catchphrases created by the show, "Here Comes da Judge."
Davis was a constant presence on TV when I was growing up.  He was a favorite guest on all the variety shows of the day as well as on all the talk shows.  He even showed up on a sitcom or two, most famously in the second season of All In The Family.
Everybody remembers this moment from the second season of All In The Family, which featured a cameo appearance by Davis.  Seems he was a passenger in the cab which Archie Bunker drove, and left his wallet behind. He arrives to pick it up and soon discovers Archie's racist tendencies.  This surprise smooch brought down the house.
Sammy performed several songs which became signature tunes for him at various times in his career.  In the early 60s, his version of "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" from Stop The World - I Want To Get Off had major success. 
Davis decked himself with lavish jewelry
decades before bling became fashionable.

A decade later, just as his celebrity was fading, he had a surprise smash with "The Candy Man," from the film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.  Though Davis disliked the song immensely, it was his only #1 hit, and he was forced to include it in his concert performances.  This week's Dance Party is the third of Sammy's signature tunes, and he never failed to sing it during live shows.  His recording of it never made the charts, but his fondness for it overcame its lack of commercial success. 
His early Vegas career was marred by
racism. He was not allowed to stay at
the hotels where he was the headliner;
he packed the house at the Sands
 but slept at a boarding house.

I remember seeing him perform it at least half a dozen times on the various variety and talk shows on which he regularly appeared.  Something about this song, which describes a night spent in the drunk tank and an encounter with a washed-out hoofer, spoke to Davis, and while his interpretation has a little too much razzle-dazzle for my taste, it clearly means a lot to him.

This version comes from one of the "hippest" variety shows in TV history, The Flip Wilson Show
It was the first successful variety show to be headlined by an African-American artist, and Time magazine called Flip Wilson the first black TV superstar.  Flip's show was appointment television for me every Thursday night (until The Waltons came along on another network.  Flip Wilson may be cool, but John-Boy Walton was dreamy. At that age, hormones took precedence over hipness).
One of the most unusual aspects of Wilson's show was the performing stage, which was in the round.  You will see from this week's clip that the audience was seated all around the performer. 
When Lily Tomlin's Ernestine hooked up with Flip Wilson's Geraldine, it was variety show magic.
You can also see, in this clip, that Sammy Davis, Jr., was not afraid to wear the outlandish styles of the early 70s. 
Nobody looks good in a onesie.
I clearly remember seeing this performance when it first ran on a Thursday night in the early 70s, before Richard Thomas's overalls distracted me from The Flip Wilson Show.

Davis continued to work for many years after this appearance, but was ultimately struck down by the throat cancer which resulted from his omnipresent cigarettes. Today is the anniversary of his death 24 years ago.  In his honor, here's Sammy's favorite song: