As the media frenzy wanes following his untimely demise, pundits continue to exalt Michael Jackson, ad nauseam, as “the greatest entertainer” of all time. In fact, Jackson may have been the most popular entertainer of all time, but to call him the “greatest” is a stretch.
Jackson was a mesmerizing song and dance act, who relied on back-up dancers and singers to enhance his performance, not to mention sound equipment that wasn’t yet invented in days of yore. Beyond that, Jackson did little else. He was one-dimensional. He didn’t act, he didn’t impersonate, he didn’t have a wide vocal range, nor could he classically dance beyond his own unique style. Had an unknown Michael Jackson auditioned as a bare solo in the initial phase for today’s American Idol show — minus instruments, dancers, chorus or sound machines — I doubt he would have made it to the next round.
Young folks unfamiliar with the entertainment industry beyond the years of Madonna should be forgiven, for they simply don’t have a frame of reference for “all-time.” Show business has been around for eons during which we have seen many who could be tagged “the greatest” in terms of raw talent and spellbinding entertainment.
Vaudeville gave us Bob Hope, Berle, Ray Bolger and Rudy Vallee. Later came Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra and Carol Burnett all of whom could do just about anything, and do it better than well. Liza Minnelli’s one-woman show was unparalleled by anyone. And, of course, there was Elvis.
But one man stands alone like no other. He was not only great, he was multi-dimensional, bursting with raw talent in a myriad of genre in which Michael Jackson — and most others — could not come close. Another great performer once knelt on hands and knees before an packed audience to kiss his feet.
This entertainment giant overcame discrimination during the heights of segregation. He could not sleep in a hotel with white people, nor eat at their tables, nor walk in the front door of the very night clubs he was performing in. Yet the show went on. He fought against the Las Vegas and other establishments for black’s rights. He was a remarkable impressionist. He was an accomplished actor, appearing in thirty-six movies, one of which he sang the memorable Gershwin song, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from in Porgy And Bess.He also starred with the original “rat pack” in the 1960s. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway performance in Golden Boy. He sang with a wide vocal range and a variety of style, including blues, jazz, popular and Broadway songs, selling multi-millions of records — via 48 albums – in a genre that was not considered his best forte.
That was reserved for his sheer power as a stage performer, singing and dancing with moves that Michael Jackson later emulated, including the earlier version of the now-popular “moon walk.” The hat, the legs, the poses, the leanings, the spins, the look…they were all his long before Michael Jackson was but a notion in his father’s mind. His tap dancing routines have been used on teaching films for young dancers. More than anything, his connection with an audience was personal, loving, intimate and caring. He reached out and touched, not from afar but up close and personal. He looked people directly in the eyes, though he only had one of his own.
Besides his on-stage accomplishments, he served his country in the U.S. Army during WW II. He wrote a book. He was politically active, respected and adored by both sides of the aisle. He was the first African-American to be invited to sleep in the White House. (by Richard Nixon) He actively fought on behalf of the civil rights movement. His only public controversy brewed from marrying a white woman in 1960, considered risque in those days. The list goes on.
Controversy? We’ll not even mention Jackson’s issues of questionable behavior, his crisis with racial identity, his known payoffs of hush money to accusers of sexual misconduct, not to mention criminal charges for which he was acquitted. That is another story by itself.
Yes, this little man was a true giant of a human being, on and off the stage. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to span the eons of stage, screen, radio and music, there can be no comparison in terms of sheer diversity of talent. That was graphically personified during a 1990 televised tribute, when one of show businesses most eminent stage performers, Gregory Hines, dropped to his knees and gave professional homage to “the greatest,” of all time – Sammy Davis Jr.
Sorry, all you young folks, that you didn’t have an opportunity to see how greatness is truly defined.
Set aside a few minutes, and enjoy a few tidbits:
For a sample of his impersonations
In the first 6 minutes of the next video, Davis shows his tap dance skills, then he sings Old Man River.
Davis doing Bojangles:
Can you even imagine Michael Jackson ever being roasted:
Google YouTube for Sammy Davis Jr., there’s much more.
It’ll be a long time before we see the likes of him again.