Friday, May 20, 2011

Show Tunes: I've Gotta Be Me

Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me

“I’ve Gotta Be Me” was a surprise #11 hit for Sammy Davis Jr in early 1969, while it still featured in a not excessively triumphant Broadway musical titled Golden Rainbow, starring Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. The musical ran on Broadway from late December 1967 to February 1969. In between, Lawrence released a single of “I’ve Got To Be Me”, followed shortly after by Sammy Davis Jr, who tweaked the title for his more successful record.

Davis performed “I’ve Gotta Be Me” in 1972 at the black consciousness concert PUSH Expo, co-organised by the Rev Jessie Jackson. The line-up of the concert, which was made into a documentary film titled Save The Children, was hip and impressive. It included Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, The Main Ingredient, Gladys Knight, Jerry Butler, The Temptations, Ramsey Lewis, Zulema, The Jackson 5, The O’Jays, Cannonball Adderley and more. In that line-up, Sammy Davis Jr was a contradiction and an anachronism.

His scene was Vegas, the Rat Pack and “The Candy Man”, not socially hip soul music and the funk; he had recently endorsed Richard Nixon, not the on-going fight for civil rights and against urban decay (even Sammy’s recent cover of Elvis’ “In The Ghetto” had been a drug-fuelled joke). He did not follow Jesus, but had converted from the Puerto Rican Catholicism of his grandmother to Judaism. And he didn’t even like black Sisters, going for Scandinavian types instead. He was regarded by many as a sell-out, an Uncle Tom (poor, tragic Uncle Tom, the fictional character who has received a bad rap for being a collaborator with the oppressor, which in Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s anti-slavery novel he most decidedly wasn’t).

Now Sammy, a man who never was confident about who he was, stood in front of a potentially hostile crowd with whom he had no apparent cultural, political, religious or even social connection. He did not launch straight into song. He addressed the crowd, slowly and purposefully – a little like Martin Luther King Jr when he used to begin a speech. “I am not here [long pause] but as only one way. I am here, because I have come home as a black man.” Polite applause. Sammy’s voice rises: “Disagree, if you will, with my politics, but” – and now with slow, precise deliberation – “I will not allow anyone take away the fact that I am black.” Huge cheer. The piano starts, and Sammy’s diffident stage act kicks in: “I would like to sing – if you would like for me to sing [cue Sammy lapping up the approving bonus cheer]… ‘Whether I’m right, or whether I’m wrong…’.”

What better song could there have been for Sammy to sing at that moment than the anthem for self-acceptance?

blog comments powered by Disqus