One Cool Cat
Sammy Davis Jr. was one cool cat. We know him mostly as a Vegas saloon singer, and charter member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, whose dwindling film and stage career of the 1960s and early 1970s experienced a surprise comeback in 1972 with the #1 hit single, The Candy Man (from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory).
What we know less, is that Davis was performing since he was three, studied dance from the legendary Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, played numerous instruments, and was a toast of Broadway in Mr. Wonderful (1957), Golden Boy (1964), and a 1978 revival of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. Socially, he broke race barriers in 1960 marrying white Swedish-born American actress May Britt, when inter-racial marriage was still illegal in 31 states. He also fought to desegregate the "whites only" venues he played in Miami Beach and Las Vegas. Both Alice Cooper and Michael Jackson paid tribute to the man in song. Now one of Boston’s most vibrant emerging cabaret talents, Lynda D’Amour will pay her own tribute in her upcoming show, One Cool Cat: the Songs of Sammy Davis Jr. on Sunday, May 7, at The Club Café.
The road to this tribute for D’Amour was circuitous, at best, and not initially what she had in mind. "I was originally going to do the songs of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, notes D’Amour, "but my non-theater friends would say ’who?’ whenever I ran the names by them." Even with popular songs like, What Kind of Fool Am I?, Talk to the Animals, and Pure Imagination in their songbook, Newley and Bricusse are not household names. While researching their music, however, D’Amour discovered that Sammy Davis Jr. did cover a lot of their songs, and would provide the name recognition her show would need. Getting into the show made her realize how much more depth a Davis Jr. show would have.
"He’s very under-rated for what he did to open doors for the black community in entertainment," D’Amour declares. In addition, like Davis Jr., D’Amour began performing when she was three, and has her own Bojangles link, learning first to dance to the song, "Mr. Bojangles. D’Amour and Davis Jr. are even the same height.
If her road to a Sammy Davis Jr. tribute was circuitous, her path to cabaret performing was even more so. The very youthful and vivacious D’Amour talks of her childhood, ferreting out her parents records in the basement, to listen to Connie Francis, Jim Nabors, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Liberace, and even Roy Clarke from Hee Haw. Montevanni, Herb Albert, and Englebert Humperdink were always on her parents’ turntable. She integrated this music into the more contemporary music scene of her teens, like Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Donna Summer, and Patti Smythe.
"I used to stand up a carpet sweeper in the middle of my bedroom, and use the handle as a microphone as I belted out Rollin’ On A River," confesses D’Amour. In no fewer than four cover bands, D’Amour performed everything from Motown and rock, to pop and Pat Benatar, but little American Songbook or musical theater material. "[My other band members] thought it was too much of a production to cover old tunes," grouses D’Amour. When her last band fizzled out, due to dwindling friendships, and relocating musicians, D’Amour began performing with local community theater and reviving her interest in the American Songbook. "It’s easy to fall in love with this kind of music, because its so easy to understand, and therefore so easy to connect with," explains D’Amour. "I listen to some of today’s pop music, but I don’t always understand what it’s saying," continues D’Amour, "but the American Songbook composers and Sondheim, they were right in my head when they wrote this stuff."
D’Amour forged her way into the Boston cabaret community by going to open mikes, where her beaming personality and big Broadway belt got the attention of such local cabaret luminaries as John O’Neil, Jan Peters, and Carol O’Shaughnessy, the latter of whom took D’Amour under her wing, and helped nurture D’Amour’s budding cabaret career. In her debut show, All About Love, performed a few years ago at the Club Café, D’Amour focused on more contemporary songwriters, such as Andrew Lippa, John Bucchino, and Jason Robert Brown.
"I did that on purpose, because when you do recognizable American standards, people just always compare you, like comparing Linda Eder to Streisand," explains D’Amour. "I didn’t want people to be preoccupied by comparing me with someone else. I wanted them to hear my story." D’Amour has further distinguished herself making guest appearances in other performer’s shows, and appearing recently in a musical revue directed by Bill Castellino, performed at Jimmy Tingle’s Off-Broadway this past March, where she stopped the show with a hysterical musical theater send-up, Here Comes The Ballad, (Davis/Vinaver), reminiscent of Sara Ramirez’s Spamalot star turn during The Song That Goes Like This.
D’Amour is now comfortable returning to standards from the Great American Songbook, especially to explore the real texture of the Newley/Bricusse oeuvre. "Newley is underappreciated as a lyricist," proclaims D’Amour. "What Kind of Foll Am I is just such a raw song. I’ve loved it since I was 13 or 14, but only now as an adult do I fully understand the depth of the lyrics." Other Newley/Bricusse hits like Who Can I Turn To?, On A Wonderful Day Like Today, and Talk to the Animals may find their way into the show, but D’Amour is being coy about the song list. She promises the opening number, a suggestion by her uber-talented musical director Tom LaMark, will take you off guard. LaMark will bring Mark Carlson on bass, and Bill Kane on drums to round out his trio. "You have to have drums in a Sammy show," exclaims D’Amour, "since he always played drums at some point in his shows."
Coming full circle from Newley to Davis, Jr., D’Amour describes how similar they are, and why this show comes from so deep within her. "Anthony Newley is one of those performers whose voice I couldn’t decide whether I liked or not, but I couldn’t stop watching him," D’Amour reveals. "Sammy’s the same way. Every single time I watch his DVD’s, it’s like the first time. It’s so very rehearsed, but the magic happens every single time. Pulling off that kind of performance is the epitome of a really great performer."
Lynda D’Amour performs One Cool Cat: The Songs of Sammy Davis, Jr., with The Tom LaMark Trio, on Sunday, May7, 7:00 PM, at Club Cafe Restaurant & Lounge, 209 Columbus Ave.,¯Boston, MA. Tickets: $20. For Reservations, call 978-741-7901.