Box Sets

Record Reviews

December 17, 1999:

Sammy Davis Jr.

Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story

(Rhino/Warner Archives)

As a Rat Packer, Sammy Davis Jr. was never the star. He could sing, but not as well as Frank Sinatra. He could act, but not as well as Sinatra. After all nobody ever said, "It's Sammy's world. The rest of us just live in it." Davis could dance, though, and better than the lot of them: better than Frank, better than Dean Martin, better than Peter "brother in" Lawford. So, it's no surprise that before you hear him sing a note on the first disc, you hear the sound of him tap dancing. Still, Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story is ultimately about the music, and as such it alternates between novelty and documentary, and it doesn't split the difference particularly well. After some early swingers on Disc 1 -- "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile," "Love Me or Leave Me," and "Something's Gotta Give" -- most of the performances are uneven, as Davis sounds more often than not like he's working through the songs. His version of "Begin the Beguine" is as overbaked as "Guys and Dolls" is overwrought. And maybe he should have never even sung "Soliloquy," although in his defense, nobody should ever sing that song. There are hits ("I Married an Angel," "I Gotta Be Me"), but there are more misses ("My Funny Valentine," "Unforgettable," "People," "Once in a Lifetime"). He even labors through a beautifully effortless arrangement of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles." But after the inconsistencies of the first three discs, the last one is a bit of a joy. Disc 4 consists entirely of live performances, with its 22 tracks pulled almost exclusively from four different shows. Some of the material is silly, some serious, other puzzling, but all of it is breezy. It's Sammy doing what he was best at: entertaining an audience. He sounds at ease and it translates into consistent and unconstrained performances. Even an odd percussion-only work up of a West Side Story medley comes out with a bit of élan. And the live disc almost redeems the whole endeavor. Almost. The set is well-packaged, and the text of the obligatory booklet is the usual hyperbole and standard fellating fare, but the photos and the artwork do breathe an abundance of personality into Davis. Overall, it's a nice testament and a better gesture, but it ain't no essential.


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