Natalie Douglas: Tributes: Sammy

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Natalie Douglas

Tributes: Sammy

Birdland, NYC, July 17, 2017

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Natalie Douglas
Photo: Bill Westmoreland

There never has been a greater entertaining talent than Sammy Davis, Jr. An exaggeration? Not if you had ever seen this energy-packed singer, dancer, impressionist, instrumentalist, actor live, on TV, or heard his recordings.

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A 5’5” dynamo who learned his craft from the ground up, joining his uncle in the Will Mastin Trio, Davis stretched his diverse performing skills in every direction and, with shoot-the-moon energy and interpretations, gave you your money’s worth.

As his tombstone reads, “Entertainer. He did it all.”

Kudos to Natalie Douglas who began her monthly Tributes series at Birdland with a well-crafted and heartfelt salute to the entertainer who rode a roller-coaster of a career, with a broad musical catalogue and he was always impressive, always one of the greats. Douglas recognized, respected and communicated her respect with information about Davis and a solid selection of what he did. She brought out the essence of the man behind the music, and talked about the racial barriers he had to overcome. (No, Douglas did not do interpretations, dance, or play the drums and trumpet.)

A charismatic mix of chatty joy and authority, Douglas renders her own musical passion, strong and dexterous with powerful vocal control. Selecting songs from Davis’ career-making jazz standards Decca recordings of the ’50s through The Rat Pack era, Broadway, and beyond, she sang the songs that he loved, and one, “Candy Man” (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley) that he never wanted to record. Ironically, it became his biggest hit. With musical director Mark Hartman’s creative arrangement, Douglas delivered a more appealing rendition.

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Opening with a signature song, “The Birth of the Blues” (Ray Henderson/Buddy DeSylva/Lew Brown), Douglas began an easy swing, loosening into commanding exuberance with the stress, phrasing and indelible Davis musical twists. Continuing with “Born to Be Blue” (Mel Torme/Robert Wells), Douglas’ flexible, rich alto eased down into a smoky lower cocktail-room register. She knocked “Gonna Build a Mountain” (Bricusse/Newley) and “Sing, You Sinners” (W. Frank Harling/Sam Coslow) out of the park, belting with gospel fortitude. She gave a sentimental standard, Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” a nuanced sensuality, and wrapped her warm voice around “Hey There,” Davis’ first hit, in 1954.

Davis’ first Broadway appearance in Mr. Wonderful yielded “Too Close for Comfort” (Jerry Bock/George David Weiss/Larry Holofcener). It was a show designed to show off his talents and the second act, a nightclub act, did exactly that. Later, Golden Boy gave him the quirky “Stick Around” (Charles Strouse/Lee Adams).

The highpoint was a heart-breaking segment beginning with “Mr. Bojangles” (Jerry Jeff Walker), a song Douglas absorbed and often delivered over the years, yet it has never reached the profound intensity it does here. Davis himself took years to agree to record it, but it became one of his major hits. She went on to Bricusse and Newley’s “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” bringing a personal and layered emotion to this song often thought of as a “power ballad.” The pinnacle was Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Ol’ Man River,” Douglas giving it masterpiece status as an anthem defying racism.

Natalie Douglas’ first superb Tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr., the man and the entertainer, was supported by a consummate rhythmic sextet: musical director/accompanist Mark Hartman, Jerome Jennings on drums, Endea Owens played bass, Danny Hall on trombone, Stantawn Kendrick on reeds, and Tim Wendt played trumpet.

Natalie continues her Tributes series August 28 – Linda Ronstadt, September 25 – Nina Simone, October 30 – Shirley Bassey.

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.