When folks talk about the great Jazz singers, we hear about Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Shirley Horn, Joe Williams, Nat "King" Cole, Little Jimmy Scott, Billie Holiday, and so on. But why not Sammy Davis, Jr? I've wondered this for a number of years. Is it because he's thought of as an "entertainer?" Or is it because he was part of the "Rat Pack?" Is it because he had some hit songs which I suppose could be considered "corny" such as "The Candy Man" and "Mr. Bojangles?" All of that being true, Sammy Davis could play instruments and it was legend that Davis used to sit in with the Count Basie band on every instrument. I find Davis' phrasing, intonation, and interpretation to be marvelous.
This version of "Who Can I Turn To?" is not the "jazziest" version, however, it's impeccable. Now, let's look at Sammy Davis Jr. side by side with the great Ella Fitzgerald....
Ok, so he's got a great voice, great stage presence, great phrasing, AND he can scat sing his butt off. If you still aren't convinced, check THIS out:
WOW! He's a jazz drummer! And he plays great blues on the vibes! How many of the aforementioned jazz singers could do THAT! And yet, Davis is rarely mentioned as a jazz anything. In fact, if you look at this list of 100 greatest jazz singers, Davis isn't even on the honorable mention list! I would take Davis over MANY of those mentioned on this list. In terms of hipness and depth of artistry, check this amazing interpretation of "Maria" from "West Side Story":
I'm enthralled! He doesn't need any harmonic accompaniment to bring the song to life. Here's another example of Davis and drums:
The rhythm, the vocal sound, the "jazz" phrasing, the freedom with the song, the enunciation, is without reproach, in my humble opinion. Even when he goes into some British accent for comedic effect(this was for the BBC), it's still amazing. He is an entertainer, after all. But within that ability to "entertain" lies a great jazz singer, one of the greatest. ( I like how he introduces the drummer at the end. What a mensch thing to do.)
Someone might say, "Well, he isn't really an improviser!" Lot's of jazz singers don't do a lot of scat soloing, and we've already proven that Davis actually can do that as good as or better than other jazz singers. But he is so free with his interpretation of these melodies, it's so conversational and effortless.
The story of Sammy Davis Jr. is pretty remarkable: Born in Harlem, raised by his grandfather, joined his father in their vaudeville act at age 3, was shielded from racism until serving in the army during WWII, began his singing and film career in the 1950's, converted to Judaism after a car accident took one of his eyes, was active in the Civil Rights movement even when African Americans did not embrace him, and died at 64 of throat cancer with millions owed to the IRS and others due to excessive gambling and overspending. There's more to it than that, of course. As for his place in musical history, I believe Sammy Davis Jr. should be on that list of jazz singers. If not because of everything I just said, just out of respect for his talent.
Did I mention he could tap dance? Can Diana Krall tap dance?