2. A Musical Weekend With Sammy Davis Jr.
When I think of this “sandy” period of my life, in Malibu, I always think of the craziest scavenger hunt that ever happened! I promise you, that’s a crazy story that I think you’ll enjoy. But, that’s for another time… Right now, I want to talk about Sammy Davis Jr. and some exciting time I spent with this musical legend.
Awhile ago I saw an article that said it was Sammy Davis Jr.’s birthday. Some great memories came flooding back and I decided I wanted to jump ahead, on the blog, from the 70’s to the mid 80’s.
A Move to Australia and Meeting Sammy Davis Jr.
In 1979 I signed a fantastic, one-year contract with Yamaha/Australia (Rose Music) to move to Australia from Los Angeles. My job in Australia was to go all around the country demonstrating Yamaha keyboards and synthesizers. As it turned out, that one year contract turned into staying in Australia for ten years. My wife and I lived in several places – mainly in Melbourne. Later we lived in my favorite city in Australia, Sydney.
Dave consulting with his Australian therapist…….
My job with Yamaha was to travel around staying in first-class hotels with all expenses paid plus, of course, my salary (for having all of this fun…?). It was the kind of job, I think, that a lot of musicians would have almost done for free! Part of my job was to get to know the Australian musicians (they call them “musos” over there.) I partied with them, played music with them and basically had a ball being a muso. My main job was to do demonstrations of all of the new synthesizers and keyboards. I knew how to do this because of all my experience working at The Guitar Center, in LA, and doing a lot of recording sessions in LA and Hollywood. I traveled all over Australia including the little island of Tasmania. Tasmania could be an interesting story by itself – and, YES, they do have Tasmanian Devils……and they aren’t very nice.
Anyway, I was asked to go to Japan for two weeks to see some new keyboards that Yamaha was releasing, very soon, in Australia (and shortly thereafter, in America). They had a new digital synthesizer called a DX-7. The Japanese told me that I was the second Western person to see this keyboard. Steve Pacaro from the group Toto was the first. I had never been to Japan and everything was different. It was the first time I ever felt tall!.
By the way, I know a lot of my musician friends will remember the famous Yamaha DX-7 – it soon became the most popular synthesizer in the world. Yamaha was also releasing a series of little, tiny keyboards….keyboards small enough for five-year-old kids to play. And they were releasing them to Australia first and, then, to the USA.
And oddly enough, it was those tiny little keyboards that led me to meeting, and having some great times, with Sammy Davis Jr.
Swapping MGM Stories, and, Drum Solos with Sammy
When I returned to Australia I went to Sydney and got a phone call from the president of Yamaha. He told me that they received a phone call from Sammy Davis Jr. He’d had just seen an advertisement for those little keyboards that I’d had seen in Japan and he wanted to have someone show him how they worked. The president wanted to now if I’d be available to show him these new keyboards. Of course I could. This was wonderful – I’d always wanted to meet Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy was appearing at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney and staying in the penthouse suite on the top floor, overlooking Sydney Harbor. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to go to his suite and demonstrate one of these “Little Wonders”.
I was riding up the elevator to his suite. I was really excited to meet him. I had always thought he was so versatile and talented. His voice was not my favorite of his many talents. It was his rhythm that I loved…..and he could play any instrument. He was also a great voice mimic – and he was actually one inch shorter then me. So what’s not to love about Sammy?
The elevator stopped, I got out and sitting in front of the penthouse door was a huge black man. He must have weighed about four-hundred pounds and he was not smiling. He said, ”What do you want?” I said that I was looking for Sammy. He said,”What do you want him for?” I said, ”I have gifts from Musicland for him.” Finally, he cracked a smile. He said, “Oh, you’re the guy from Yamaha “I said, ”Yea.” He said, “Just knock on the door.” I was really excited. I knocked three times and the door opened and there he was, especially his face. I couldn’t believe how much he looked like himself. He put out his hand out to shake and I took it and said, “Goddamn, you look like Sammy Davis Jr.”. He actually looked like a caricature of himself. We shook hands and he smiled at me. His face had so many smile and laugh lines that it was, yet, another caricature of himself.
He looked at the three little keyboard cases that I was carrying and said, in a “gangsterish” kinda tone, “You got the stuff?” It was as if I was delivering drugs, or, guns or something. I said, “Yea, should we go to the back room?” He laughed and his face once again turned into another familiar smile that I knew first from the T.V. and, then, from the movies. I gave him a keyboard in it’s case and he opened it. I pushed the button and he started playing “Mary had a Little Lamb.” His face lit up again. “How do they work? What’s inside of them? I said,”Kryptonite.” He really laughed at that. As the afternoon unfolded every once in a while he would look at me, smile, and shake his head and laugh and say,”Kryptonite….??”
I did a lot of TV shows in Australia, demonstrating various Yahama keyboards. It was a great gig. This is from old VHS tape, not the greatest quality, but still a fun memory. Here’s me demonstrating a small, portable Yamaha keyboard on the Mike Walsh show:
It turned out that Sammy was an artist on MGM when I was an artist there, but we never crossed paths. We compared stories about the president of MGM. He was the youngest person to ever be president of a record company. His name was Mike Curb and he was California’s Lieutenant Governor when Ronald Reagan was the Governor (before he became the President). After Sammy left MGM he finally had a number one hit record with “The Candy Man” from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”.
Like Sammy, I play multiple instruments – I actually started out on drums. I play the piano, the drums and the guitar. He had a drum set up in his suite and he was a great drummer, in addition to his many other talents. After we talked music and the music business for awhile we played a double drum solo together. What a blast. Swapping drum solos with Sammy Davis Jr, in his penthouse suite, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and experience – it’s a precious memory, now.
After we got done playing around and playing the keyboards he said, “David, I would like to buy one of each of them and take them back home to the USA and give them to my little grand daughter, “How much are they?”
I pondered for about one-nano second and replied, “Sammy, I think if I could get a picture of you holding one of them, Yamaha would give them all to you for free”. He said, “Oh no.” and I thought I had overstepped my bounds. He continued, “I don’t want them for free. You can have your pictures but I need to be dressed better”. I thought he looked fine…plus he had about 25 rings on his fingers. Sammy said, “David, have you ever seen my show?” I said, “Unfortunately, no.” He asked me, “Would you like to?” “Sure”, I said. “Well”, Sammy said, “Come back tonight and there’ll be a ticket waiting for you….front row center. And then after the show we’ll go in the dressing rooms and take those pictures.”
It was so exciting to be personally invited, by Sammy, to come sit in the front row and watch his show. I don’t know why, but at that point I recalled some rumors I’d heard about how Frank Sinatra had really helped blacks in the fight to integrate hotels in Las Vegas. I asked Sammy if that was true. Sammy said, “Ask me about Frank tonight, after the show, and I’ll tell you a true story.”
A Memorable Performance
Well, this is getting pretty long. So I won’t go into detail, except to say that seeing Sammy Davis Jr. in person is so much better than seeing him display a snippet of his talents on the Johnny Carson Show. He spent almost two hours dancing, singing, being funny, doing impressions – and he played 5 or 6 instruments. He recreated he drum battle that, earlier in the day, he and I had had in his suite. The last song, his encore, was a tear jerking version of Mr. Bojangles. He struck a famous pose in shadows for the ending. That show…..just so much energy!
When he was finished he walked through the crowd like a prize fighter. This little man was dripping wet, drenched in sweat and surrounded by his entourage – which, that night, included me at the end of his procession making it’s way to his dressing room. We all walked into his huge dressing room. He saw me and said, “Hey David, I should have gotten you up there to play a drum solo with me.” I said,” You did just fine….great show, Sammy.” He said, “Show those little keyboards to the band.” And we all sat down on the couch and had a quick, mini jam session. The problem was that Sammy’s keyboard player was a huge man and his huge hands were too big for the piano keys. It was like watching a big, Polish weight lifter trying to dial a cell phone.
Sammy told me to follow him into another room where he took out a wad of money and paid for the three keyboards. Then he said, “You asked me about how Frank Sinatra helped the black entertainer in Las Vegas…..well, let me tell you a story…” This was too much…..having Sammy Davis Jr. telling me a story. He said when the Rat Pack started at the Sands in Las Vegas, Frank and Dean and Joey and Peter checked in and they all had beautiful suites. Sammy had been told that he would have a similar suite, but, that it would have to be down in the black section of town. Sinatra spoke up and said, “No – either Sammy gets a suite here, like the rest of us, or none of us goes on tonight.”
Sammy’s piano player had walked in, and he offered another fascinating story about the relationship between Frank and Sammy. He said Sammy Davis walked into a hotel in Las Vegas and was told by the manager, “We don’t have Negroes here”. Frank Sinatra walked up behind Sammy and said to the manager, “Well, you do now…because I just bought this place.” Frank was earning $52,000 a week. This happened in 1959.
I am sorry to say that that was the last time I saw my new/old friend. He died 5 years later. When he passed away, I thought of him and wrote this song…called “Peaceful Passing” (press the “Play” button, under the dove image, to listen).
PS Sammy had a strange quirk that I think I have, as well. In the middle of our conversation he turned on his big screen TV, though he never really watched the television. I saw him walk into several rooms in his hotel and his dressing rooms, and, in each room he did the same thing. He’d walk into the room, turn the TV on wherever it was and never watch it. I think he just liked to hear noise in the room…..especially talking. I wish I could have spent more then two days with this kind and talented, gentle giant.
See you next time…,,,,we have a blind genius musician who gets to meet his heroes…Frank Zappa, Jonie Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder
3 thoughts on “2. A Musical Weekend With Sammy Davis Jr.”
Great stuff. Keep it going and you will end up with a great book. Jim Smith
Dave – fantastic reading – I loved the Mike Walsh Show excerpt – you were always one of the best demonstrators for Yamaha – they were great days in the music retail industry! Keep up the blog – I will be reading from now on – Cheers mate 🙂
Great stories. Sammy DJr was a great guy. I never met him, but I heard a podcast and it was full of praise. He lived in a different time and had to fight hard for his success.