In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. Wil Haygood. Knopf.
Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. Gary Fishgall. Scribner.
Sammy Davis Jr. was far more than just one fifth of “The Rat Pack,” which both of these fine biographies make clear. Starting as a child in the days of vaudeville he worked his way up to become a top club entertainer, Broadway star, movie actor, and TV host. While he was more successful at some things than at others, he always gave 200% and was a literal bundle of talent. Sammy could sing, emote, play the drums, dance (including classic tap-dancing), and do dead-on impressions of a host of celebrities (not just saying the lines most associated with them but singing). These books both detail Sammy's hungry early years when he traveled with his father and “uncle” as part of the Will Mastin Trio. His relationship with Frank Sinatra is analyzed, as well as his relationships with JFK (a bitter disappointment) and Richard Nixon (a bitter disillusionment). Both books do an excellent job of unveiling the demons that drove Sammy, and why he made the decisions – and many mistakes – that he did. His affect on and interaction with the black civil rights movement and its leaders also comes in for scrutiny. Haygood's book perhaps places its subject more in the context of the times as they pertained to black Americans, providing some fascinating details about the attitudes of, and toward, black Americans during the different periods of Sammy's career. On the other hand, Fishgall provides much more information on Sammy's army career, making the point that in all likelihood he would have been segregated from white soldiers and many of the things he wrote about his Army experiences in his memoirs have to be taken with a grain of salt. Haygood provides a highly interesting look at the writing of said memoirs, Yes I Can, although he seems to take Sammy's clearly ghost-written book Hollywood in a Suitcase at face value (Fishgall reveals that the book was actually written by Simon Regan). Sammy was a fascinating, influential character with a fascinating life. These books are both recommended for adult readers.
Verdict: Good stuff. ***1/2 each.
NOTE: For teen readers I immodestly recommend my own I Can Do Anything: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, currently available on ebay.