ANN JILLIAN with SAMMY
SAMMY DAVIS, JR.
How an idol of his teen years later became a friend
By ANDY MURCIA
In 1954, I was a teenage boy, sitting at a lunch counter listening to Sammy Davis Jr. sing his hit song "Hey There" on the juke box. He was singing lyrics intended to lift the spirits of downhearted young lovers. It was just what I needed to hear right then because Sylvia, my first girl friend, had just given me the gate for an older football player.
That teenage memory is a great example of what strange and sometimes marvelous curves the road of life can take. How could I know, back in 1954, that someday I'd not only meet the singer of that immortal song, but also become his friend.
This is how it happened:
Jump ahead 27 years. It's now 1981. I've finished my career as a Chicago policeman and I'm now well-launched on my new profession as the manager of my wife, the actress Ann Jillian. I'm busy trying to get her singing career going. She was doing well with her acting on TV, but it was time to book her into the bigger show rooms with her singing act.
Our agent got a booking for Ann at the Sahara Hotel Casino in Lake Tahoe. She would be co-billed with Rich Little, the impressionist, who was very hot back then. As usual, I sat with the soundman in the booth, which was in the center of this gigantic show room that could hold a crowd of about 1,800. If he failed to mix Anns sound just the way I liked it, I could elbow him awake.
It was Anns second night and just that morning we had put her elderly parents on a plane for home. They had seen her perform on opening night and now we were settling in for the rest of the long engagement. We were just a minute or so from show time--or the down beat as the musicians called it. The house lights started to dim on the audience, Anns introduction music was playing and the curtain was about to open.
At the very last moment, the maitred hustled a well-dressed black man into a prime center booth. Whoever it was must be pretty important, so I looked at him closely--and blinked! Holy smokes, it was Sammy Davis, Jr.!
I spoke on my headset to the stage manager, who was standing next to Ann in the wings, waiting for her cue. I informed him Sammy was in the house and to hold the curtain a few more seconds while the waitress took his order. I told him not to tell Ann as I feared shed be a nervous wreck if she knew he was going to watch her perform.
Well, as Ann quietly neared the end of her show, singing Send In The Clowns, Sammy stood up in his booth and said: Lady, you are magnificent!
Everyone recognized his voice, including Ann, who immediately said, Ladies and gentlemen, I know thats Sammy Davis, Jr.s voice. Are you really here?"
Sammy yelled, Over here, Ann and stood up on the booth seat so she could see him right away. We put a spotlight on Sammy and the audience went wild! Once Ann spotted him she laid down flat on the stage as if she were in shock! With the mike in hand, staring up at the ceiling, she said; And I just put my Mom and Dad on the plane this morning! Oh, they wont believe that Sammy Davis, Jr. said that about me!
Sammy sent a magnum of some very expensive champagne back to Anns dressing room with a note that said: I mean it. Love, Sam. Ann returned the note saying, Can you come back after Richs show? Andy and I will wait for you. Love, Ann.
At left, Ann and Sammy share a serious moment. At right, Sammy Davis Jr. and Andy Murcia help bring an emotional Ann "down to Earth" after Davis cheered her act onstage at Tahoe, then paid her a visit in her dressing room backstage.
Sammy came backstage and found Ann and me and our entire cast and crew waiting for him. He could not have been more gracious. He posed for pictures, signed autographs and hugged everyone. He said he was a fan of Anns sitcom Its A Living and had followed her career ever since he saw her on Broadway in Sugar Babies. He had her TV shows taped and sent to him on the road. He invited us to his opening night across the street at Harrahs the following night.
This part you will not believe, but I swear it happened.
Because Anns show time overlapped Sammys by some 10 minutes, wed have to miss part of his show. Anns curtain came down and we literally ran to Harrahs. The maitred escorted us to what he called the star booth. Man, were we ever impressed! Sammy was in the middle of singing and as he finished the song he looked to the wings and he must have gotten the word that Ann had arrived. Sammy then tells the audience that he got into Tahoe last night, saw Ann Jillians show and invited her to see his. He goes on to tell them about their show time conflicts, and would they mind if he were to start his show all over again so Ann could see?
The audience broke into applause indicating their consent. Sammy said, From the top and left the stage. The curtain closed and then his opening music started and he did the opening of his show all over again for us, so we could catch up to where he was when we first came in.
When Ann and I first joined forces in hopes of getting her career going, I had only dreamed that one day important people in her industry would recognize her talents in some respectful way. But even in my wildest dreams, I never knew it would be like Sammy did it. I dug this very cool cat right away!
Between Sams schedule and Anns, we didnt get to see each other much for a period of time. But in 1985, when Ann developed breast cancer, Sammy was the first to call. He invited us to his home for his famous movie nights. These nights consisted of great company, hot chicken wings, drinks and a first run movie. Sams other guests--usually about a dozen--were friends from either the music or acting professions.
Let me name-drop a little here just for fun: Danny Thomas, Milton Berle, Red Buttons, Dionne Warwick, Cicely Tyson, Miles Davis, Steve Allen, Barry Gordy. Okay, I'm sure you get the point.
On our first visit Sammy, dressed in wash pants, slippers and tee shirt, minus the jewelry, gave us the tour of his estate. I had expected to see Sam wearing his show biz image of rings and jewels, but this was the real Sam relaxing at home. Ann and I eyeballed everything--his impressive presidential mementos, including the infamous photo of him hugging Richard Nixon; his gunslinger collection upstairs and so much more.
But we were most impressed with the giant record collection that included all the albums he had recorded. Here I told him about that teenager I used to be and how I sat at the lunch counter listening to him sing Hey There right after my first girlfriend had dumped me. I told him how those lyrics reminded me that love never made a fool of me. And suggested I'd better forget her, her with her nose in the air. At this point Sammy gave me that song album. He humbly high-fived me and said Always glad to help love roll on, baby.
Ann and I always felt that Sammy was the best entertainer in the world. He defined the term triple threat. There was nobody who could sing, dance and act as well as he could. The man was a star on the Broadway stage, on the screen, at concerts and in the record business. He was such a well-defined personality and gave us unforgettable lines like sincerely, man and here come de judge that impersonators still do him today, long after his death. Sammy Davis, Jr. was the single most talented human being God ever made--and, I might add, a very caring one, too.
He may have smoked to excess, but he certainly didn't over-eat. The man was very thin. He worked so hard on stage. I watched him put his boots on in his dressing room one night after a show and I was shocked to see how thin his calves were. Youd never know it when he tap-danced with such strength on stage.
That same night after his show, he invited Ann and me to walk through the casino with him and take some bows, as he called meeting the fans. He and Ann signed some autographs and chatted with the fans that were showering them with so much affection. Ill never forget that night as Sam showed us how good big time show business truly felt.
We got to hang out with Sammy in Vegas after his shows at Caesars Palace with Bill Cosby while Ann was working at the Sahara with Don Rickles. This was big time show biz. After the backstage well-wishers left, wed all head to Sammys giant suite for the party that went to the wee hours. Hed do another show there with all of us as his cast. What fun!
I never saw Sam drunk. He only sipped a little wine during those times. He loved people around him and we loved him right back. After a little wine, hed talk about Mai Britt, the statuesque blond actress who was his wife from 1961 to 1968. He told me, Your Ann reminds me a lot of her, not only because of their similar hairstyles, man, but also because theyre both very loving human beings.
Sam reminisced about Mai, their children and their life together. He told me things that I feel now should remain confidential. But overall, I thought Sam had deep regrets that the marriage ended. I think with a leading question or two he would have spoken much more about Mai, but I just silently touched my glass to his. Sam, with watery eyes, offered this toast: To yesterday. To Mai and the kids. I toasted him back, And to you, Pal, as we clinked glasses a second time.
We saw Sam again when he was working with Jerry Lewis at the first MGM Grand in Vegas but thats a long story Ill save for another column. But you know that nobody impersonated Jerry as well as Sam. It was so funny that it was "change your shorts" time!
Some years later when Ann became a headliner, I lucked out and got the great Anthony Newley to open the show for her at the Trump Plaza Hotel Casino in Atlantic City. Each night Id see the dapper Tony Newley getting ready to do his show. Wed chat lightheartedly about most anything funny. But one night Newley got serious on me and told me when he and Leslie Bricusse were writing What Kind Of Fool Am I that he had only one singer in mind: Sammy Davis, Jr. Of course, Sammy had a big hit with it and starred in the musical Stop The World I Want to Get Off. (Sam did a revival of the show at Lincoln Center about 1978).
So, nightly after that, Id stick my head in Newley's dressing room and do my terrible impression of Newley singing, What Kind Of Fool Am I. As hed head for the stage, hed smile and tell me, Keep practicing, Andy. Youll be well soon.
Sammy was a phenomenon from the age of four and all throughout his years with the Will Mastin Trio, which consisted of Sam's father, his uncle and Sam. His best-selling book, Yes, I Can, and his hit Broadway shows--Mr. Wonderful and Golden Boy--showed he was no fluke. But it was always his singing in showrooms that was his bread and butter. No matter what else he did to please his public, hed always return to the stage.
Sam had a great sense of humor. He could find the funny in just about any situation. I once made a deal to have Ann open the Hilton Hotel Casino Showroom in Brisbane Australia. She was at her hottest that year. The gig went great. At the Sydney airport we were waiting for our connecting flight home. We had our large cast of dancers, musicians and singers all traveling with us. At one point, everyone except Ann wanted to go and buy stuff at the duty-free store. Ann was tired, so she offered to watch everyones bags.
Picture Ann Jillian, no make up on, hair under a big apple cap, sitting on a bunch of luggage while wearing an oversized sweatsuit that looked like her PJs. She was really ready to get on the plane and sleep all the way back to Los Angeles. I took the cast to the duty-free shop. At one point someone came up behind me and said with a very affected English accent; Guess who this is, Copper?
I had no idea who it was. I could hear our cast kids laughing and they all sounded very excited. I guessed wrong and soon gave up. The guy turned me around and there he was: Sammy Davis, Jr.! No wonder the kids were excited! Sam asked where Ann was. I told him. He then planned his sneak attack. He purchased a ghetto blaster music box (as he called it) and headed towards Ann, who was still there, sitting on the luggage. Sam came up behind her and said in his best jive brother slang talk, If this be in L.A. Id say youd be that big star chick Ann Jillian and you should have music all around you baby!
Ann turned around and saw it was Sam handing her the ghetto blaster. She buried her face in her hands and said, No, no, its not me! I have no make up on and my hairs not done! Go away, please!
Sammy hugged Ann and she hugged him back. They truly held each other in very high esteem and with genuine affection. Sam told us he had just closed his show in Sydney and was on his way back to L.A. He had two first class seats in his deal so he asked Ann to sit, chat, and catch up. I was across the aisle stretched out in the sleeper. After we all ate, I went to sleep ,but Sam and Ann talked all the way home on that very long plane ride. And yes, he really did give her the ghetto blaster and we have it in our studio just to remind us of Sam.
Through Sammy, Ann and I become friends with Morton Stevens the famed arranger/composer who met Sammy early on. In fact it was Morty who arranged Sams rendition of Birth Of The Blues. Sammy killed them with that song in his Los Angeles debut at Ciros in 1950 that jump-started his cabaret career in big time show business. Before Hollywoods elite he did encore after encore with that song until he killed them all! Shortly after this date, Decca Records signed Sammy to record. Guess what his first hit was? Yes, Hey There.
Sammy respected his audience. He never gave them less then his all. His impersonations were flawless. When he did his Bogart, Cagney, or Cary Grant,youd look around to see if they were really there! I laughed loudest at his Brando and Jerry Lewis impressions. Dean Martin once said, Sam does me better then me!
Though Sam's friendship with Sinatra was well known to the public few knew that it was a bit of a love-hate relationship. Love because Sinatra generously helped Sammy early on and truly loved him, but when drinking Sinatra occasionally would refer to Sammy by a terrible racial slur. Everyone knew Frank wasnt saying it to offend Sam, he said it only to be comical. Sam publicly never complained about it for reasons known only to him. But privately Sammy once told me that, Its still wrong man.
I heard Sinatra say it once in Chicago while working as his bodyguard at the Ambassador East Hotel. He said it to Spiro Agnew, the former Vice President. Frank held a dinner party in the Pump Room and the liquor was flowing. Agnew asked about Sam and Sinatra said, What do I look like? The little (blank) keeper?
Sam didnt condone his black brothers and sisters using that word either. My own thinking on the subject is that there is no place for the "N-word," with or without affection, comical or not. Fact is, if it hurts one person, it should hurt us all. Sams mother had a Spanish surname Sanchez as did my own father with Murcia so we both knew of that other nasty word that starts with an S.
Mort Stevens conducted the orchestra on Sams last tour in 1988. It was the reunion tour with Sam's pals, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Mort said Sam was singing flawlesslyas if there were no throat cancer in him at all. We knew that Sinatra was missing some high notes and forgetting some lyrics, and Dean Martin was growing weaker and soon had to quit the tour. But Sam the Man was still doing his thing as if he were a kid again.
Few people remember that Morty Stevens was actually Sams first and last conductor. Chicagos great George Rhodes was his conductor during those fantastic middle years when Mort was busy scoring television and movies. I was lucky to get Mort to be Ann's conductor in between his dates with Sammy. In fact, in May of 1990, when Sammy was terminally ill with throat cancer, Mort was conducting Anns show in Atlantic City. That's where he got the call that Sammy had died on May 16, 1990 at 5:59 a.m.
Ironically, that was the time Sam usually went to bed in the old days, after working and partying. Frank Sinatra was opening at Radio City Music Hall on May 16, 1990 and sang his entire show without mentioning that Sammy had died that very morning. Those attending said Frank put his grief into his singing selections that must have been for Sam. Frank also postponed the rest of his New York engagement out of respect to Sams passing. He said later that he had lost a brother.
We were all devastated, to say the least, in Atlantic City. Ann paid high tribute to Sammy in her show and of course Mort headed back to Los Angeles to be a pallbearer at Sammys funeral. Sadly, we had to stay and finish the Atlantic City gig using our piano player as a sub conductor in Morts absence. I later visited Sams interment.
Because I married Ann Jillian, the girl of my dreams, I know well that Love never made a fool of me as it says in that Hey There song Sammy sang.
I can honestly say that my times with Sammy Davis, Jr. are among my lifes greatest treasures. This gifted man, who happened to be Afro-American by birth and who became Jewish by choice, once called me a mensch, the Yiddish word for "person of integrity." But he'll always be "the main mensch to me.
©2005 by Andy Murcia. The caricature of Andy Murcia is ©2003 by Jim Hummel. The photos of Sammy Davis, Jr., with Ann Jillian and Andy Murcia are the property of the author. This column first posted March 28, 2005.
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