Yes I Can
by Sammy Davis Jr.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 612 pp., $6.95
How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
by Lenny Bruce
Trident, 188 pp., $5.00
Before he became the Dreyfus of the nightclubs, the comedian Lenny Bruce often officiated as Lord High Chancellor of show business. In a typical sketch, “The Tribunal,” Bruce arraigns before an imaginary court the most famous entertainers in show business. He orders them to divulge the amount of their weekly earnings and then to demonstrate talents equal to such enormous salaries. The stars are all found guilty of fraud. Minor offenders are let off with light sentences. Frankie Laine’s wig is burned; Sophie Tucker’s sweat-stained gowns are confiscated. But when the court comes to the case of the man called “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” Sammy Davis, Jr., the magistrate shows no mercy. “Mr. Junior” is explaining how he earns $40,000 a week mimicking Jerry Lewis (“Hey Dean, I gotta booboo”) when the outraged judge breaks in, “Strip him of his Jewish star, his stocking cap, his religious statue of Elizabeth Taylor—30 years in Biloxi!”
Lenny Bruce’s scornful caricature of Sammy Davis, Jr., is intended to epitomize dozens of famous performers whose success is wholly out of proportion to their talents and whose moral pretensions are absurd in view of their private lives. Davis is an especially inviting target because he commands one of the highest salaries in the night-club business for one of the most routine acts. His singing is nondescript, a mixture of the styles of at least half a dozen other performers, including his hero, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Eckstein, Billy Daniels, Tony Bennett, and Anthony Newley. His dancing combines familiar routines from vaudeville and musicals; his comedy derives from Jerry Lewis (as does his Catskill tumler’s stage presence); and even his “impressions,” the strongest part of his act, are for the most part borrowed from a handful of relatively obscure Broadway comics. Only his versatility, his energy, his fanatical desire to please, are wholly Davis’s own.
In another performer this all-inclusive embrace of the going thing might simply indicate a lack of talent, but in the case of Sammy Davis, Jr., it means something more. One notes, for example, that in all his work there is not a single expression of that racial identity (still potent in performers as different as Ray Charles and Dick Gregory) that has traditionally given the Negro entertainer his power. Thus Davis seems to be refusing the label “Negro entertainer”; he is taking his “color” from his professional milieu rather than from his ethnic origin. He might even be called the first “colorless” Negro performer; for like Diahanne Carroll and Bill Cosby, later embodiments of the same idea, what Sammy Davis, Jr., offers his audience above everything else is the opportunity to “prove” that they can respond to a Negro without consciousness of his race.
Yet his prosperous middle-class audiences are torn by conflicting feelings about this highly successful Negro. For some of them Sammy Davis, Jr., is the butt of a considerable number of defamatory and obscene jokes, some turning on his physical …