What do Sammy Davis Jnr and Donovan have in common? This is how my mind works…
It was too hot to take Bruno for a full 3 mile walk today. The poor soul was slow, breathless and not enjoying being out in the 25 degree heat. And Bruno wasn’t very happy either. So I cut the walk short and finished listening to “Revisionist History” in the garden with a cup of tea when I got back.
I’ve never really paid that much attention to Sammy Davis Jnr before and just dismissed him as someone in the oeuvre of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and hence, not interesting. How wrong could I be? He was born in Harlem in 1925 and, after his parents split when he was 3 years old, his tap dancing father took him on tour with him. He was drafted into the Army in 1943 and got in so many fights that his nose was permanently flattened. At one point, his white colleagues painted the word “coon” in white paint on him. He campaigned for Kennedy in 1960 but was not allowed to participate at his inauguration because of his marriage to the white actress May Britt. He participated in the Washington march for freedom and jobs in 1963 at which Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. He took part in the marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
By contrast, his most infamous moment was in 1972 when he hugged Richard Nixon as an endorsement for his candidacy to be re-elected president. He later said he regretted supporting Nixon, accusing Nixon of making promises on civil rights that he did not keep. He was a long-time donor to the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH organization. In 1975 Sammy Davis Jnr appeared on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast on national TV. This was a terrible programme but acted as an initiation into the “club” that Sammy Davis Jnr aspired to. It seems to have been an hour’s humiliation in which various members of the celebrity elite poke fun at the guest which in this case means that there is an hour of racial abuse. It’s so terrible, I hesitate to even write about it but here’s one example. “Last year Sammy had an operation on his throat. They had a problem so they rolled him in flour to find his mouth.” Unbelievably there are lots of even more offensive comments than these.
Sammy Davis Jnr came from a poor background and accumulated huge wealth in his lifetime. He demonstrated sound political beliefs whilst at the same time showed that he was prepared to compromise those beliefs in order to succeed.
This was fascinating to me and so I looked up the songs that Sammy Davis Jnr had performed and was astonished to see that in 1972 he got to Number 1 with “The Candy Man”. This is a song that I love by Donovan, I thought. I was wrong. Same name – different song. Sammy Davis Jnr’s song is from the film “Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory”. I listened to it sitting in the garden and it is truly terrible.
Interestingly, “Candyman” is also the name of a film. Here’s what “Rolling Stone” said about this film. “Racists of every stripe have been telling Americans that they should be afraid of black men for as long as there’s been an America. It took a 1992 horror movie, however, to the turn the embodiment of that fear-mongering into a literal bogeyman that appears out of nowhere to violently murder people.” Strangely irrelevant.
When I went to Royal Holloway in 1972, I quite liked Bob Dylan but I only really knew the singles. Paul’s room mate, Pete, loaned me his Dylan cassettes over Christmas 1972/73 and I was converted. Later, I went to stay with Pete and Rose in Stoke-On-Trent and one of his favourite non-Dylan records was “The Golden Hour Of Donovan” which he also loaned to me. Again, I knew the singles but most of these songs were new to me. The compilation was released by the Pye label using Donovan’s 1965 recordings which were released on the budget Marble Arch label. “The Golden Hour Of” was a strange concept because it was a greatest hits series which, unsurprisingly, had half an hour’s music on each side, forgoing hi fidelity; I was always under the impression that cramming much more than 20 minutes onto one side of a record made for a poor quality sound. I’m very tempted to by a second hand vinyl copy of this now. Listening to it on Spotify, it’s utterly brilliant.
When Bob Dylan toured the UK in 1965, the British music press attempted to stir up a rivalry between Dylan and Donovan. Dylan plays up to this on the film of the tour “Don’t Look Back”, constantly referring to Donovan who appears later in the film (see below). This is what Donovan said about this in 2001: “The one who really taught us to play and learn all the traditional songs was Martin Carthy – who incidentally was contacted by Dylan when Bob first came to the UK. Bob was influenced, as all American folk artists are, by the Celtic music of Ireland, Scotland and England. But in 1962 we folk Brits were also being influenced by some folk Blues and the American folk-exponents of our Celtic Heritage. Dylan appeared after Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez had conquered our hearts, and he sounded like a cowboy at first but I knew where he got his stuff – it was Woody at first, then it was Jack Kerouac and the stream-of-consciousness poetry which moved him along. But when I heard ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ it was the clarion call to the new generation – and we artists were encouraged to be as brave in writing our thoughts in music . We were not captured by his influence, we were encouraged to mimic him – and remember every British band from the Stones to the Beatles were copying note for note, lick for lick, all the American pop and blues artists – this is the way young artists learn. There’s no shame in mimicking a hero or two – it flexes the creative muscles and tones the quality of our composition and technique. It was not only Dylan who influenced us – for me he was a spearhead into protest, and we all had a go at his style. I sounded like him for five minutes – others made a career of his sound. Like troubadours, Bob and I can write about any facet of the human condition. To be compared was natural, but I am not a copyist.” My only comment is that Bob Dylan is the last person who could accuse someone else of being a copyist. Not that he ever has done.
I’m finding it hard to ascertain the background of “The Candy Man” by Donovan. There seems to be agreed that the original was by Mississippi John Hurt; I’ve listened to this and it’s quite different. It was also recorded by Sleepy John Estes but I can’t find it – Spotify doesn’t have everything, you know! The credits are “traditional – arrangement by Donovan”. What is almost certainly true is that Donovan learned this song from John Renbourn, who went on to collaborate with Bert Jansch and was a member of Pentangle. The song is on John Renbourn’s first record. The Mississippi John Hurt song is about sex whereas the Donovan has added lyrics which makes it a song about drugs.
There are some brilliant songs on this compilation. Most people know “Colours”, “Universal Soldier” and “Catch The Wind” but there are some other excellent songs here too. One of my favourites is “Ballad Of Geraldine”. The Dylan comparisons are inevitable and they are not unfair but neither do they invalidate the loveliness of the music. This song tells the sad story of Geraldine who falls from naïve optimism to failure via a capricious lover. “Oh, we could go to the land of your choice where the false shame won’t come knocking at our door. I’ve a feeling in my heart and it’s crushing all my hopes I think I’m gonna be hurt some more”.
“Sunny Goodge Street” is also lovely and is remarkable as it gives a romantic setting to a stunningly dull London Underground station. It features a lovely cello, flute, trumpet, guitar and Donovan’s gentle, emotional voice. “On the firefly platform on Sunny Goodge Street a violent hash-smoker shook a chocolate machine involved in an eating scene.”
“Turquoise” is a beautiful atmospheric exercise in hippy dippy loveliness which most people will abhor but I love. “In the pastel skies, the sunset, I have wandered with my eyes and ears and heart strained to the full. I know I tasted the essence in the few days. Take care who you love, my precious, he might not know”
That’s a rather tenuous connection between Sammy Davis Jnr and Donovan, connected only by the name of a song but it’s been a very interesting morning for me, learning more about these two.