The world's greatest entertainer died -- 19 years ago. His name is Sammy Davis Jr.
At Michael Jackson's memorial, Motown founder Berry Gordy called the late, incredibly talented Jackson "the greatest entertainer that ever lived." Someone once said that Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire's famous dance partner, did everything he did -- except backward and wearing high heels. Well, Sammy Davis Jr. did everything Michael Jackson did -- and more, much more -- except during Jim Crow and with one eye.
Davis sang. He danced. He acted. He played piano, drums and trumpet. He did impressions of the popular celebrities of his time. Gifted with excellent timing, Davis wove comedy into his act, always writing or improvising his own material.
Davis, like Jackson, became the focal point in a group of entertainers -- except Davis started on the stage when he was 3 and fronted the Will Mastin Trio as a teen. He never attended school -- not even elementary school -- and grew up on the road, without his mother.
Jackson came up hard. Davis came up harder. Try reading Davis' best-selling (15 million copies) autobiography, "Yes I Can," written with his longtime friend and confidant, Burt Boyar. It tells the journey of an astonishingly gifted and successful performer, a highly intelligent, self-educated, voracious reader, a man both confident and insecure -- in an era of segregation, lynchings and civil rights marches.
Davis worked hard. Davis played hard. His personal life and decisions and excesses attracted and repelled both blacks and whites. Yet however Davis' audience may have felt about him, it could never question his unparalleled talent.
"Yes I Can" describes some of the horrific racism endured by the legendary performer. For example, during World War II, Davis served in one of the Army's first integrated units. Once, some white members of his unit surprisingly invited Davis, sitting alone in a bar, to come over and join them for a drink. One of the guys handed him a beer. Suspicious, Davis refused to drink it. Good thing. The liquid in the mug was not beer, but urine.