This album has somehow taken on the status of a legendary disaster in Sammy Davis, Jr.’s career, which may not be entirely a fair assessment based on its actual contents. It is admittedly the only one of his MGM album releases that is even still remembered today, but it nonetheless gets consistently treated like the red-headed stepchild of his discography.
Despite producing at least one song that has become an inescapable staple of Davis’ ‘best-of’ compilations, the album has never gotten a re-release of any kind in its original form, and consequently is only available for those willing to hunt down (and able to conveniently play) the original vinyl. As a result, most of our information about the album’s quality comes from then-contemporary reviews, which invariably paint it as a horrifically garish and tacky disaster. But I wondered if there was actually any truth to that assessment, so I did some research, listened to the actual contents of the album, and I present my findings here.
Of course, part of the problem is that the big hit from this album was “The Candy Man”. This song was widely despised when it came out, but for reasons that aren’t really relevant today. Remember, this was the era when Rock’n’Roll’s hatred and scorn for the genres that proceeded it was reaching its zenith, and the fact that such an obviously non-Rock song from a musical children’s movie was a Number One hit in that era filled most of the popular critics of the day with completely irrational rage. But now that multiple generations have grown up since that acknowledge the movie this song comes from as an immortal classic, I think we’ve outgrown the antipathy this song used to receive, and that most of us can acknowledge it for what it is—a gloriously sunny and delightful classic. (It’s also worth noting that the same songwriters who contributed this song, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, were responsible for plenty of Davis’ earlier signature hits from the Sixties, including “What Kind of Fool am I?” and “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)?”).
There was one other Leslie Bricusse song included on the album…the triumphant, inspirational “I’ll Begin Again”. Written as part of Bricusse’s score for the movie Scrooge, which was a rather poor film but did feature fine songs, it sounds much like the songs Bricusse wrote with Newley in the Sixties, and provides a fine opportunity for Sammy to provide the same kind of warm, dramatic performance he had favored on his earlier hits by the songwriter.
Many of the complaints about this album have to do with the producer, Mike Curb. Davis himself didn’t care for Curb’s production, but, at least on this album, the results sound quite good, alternating between unashamedly lush Seventies Easy Listening and reasonably convincing attempts at Funk that still don’t go too far to sound credible when sung by Sammy.
I don’t really see the problem with Curb’s production, and the two songs he and Mack David wrote for this album are excellent. Particularly good is “I’m Over 25 (But You Can Trust Me)”, a wise and compassionate song about the idealism of youth seen from the perspective of an older person. “Take a Ride” may have originally been intended to be part of Donny Osmond’s risible attempt to reinvent himself as a Pop-Soul singer, but it sounds perfectly respectable in Sammy’s rendition,and is actually a lot of fun as a composition.
Particularly lovely is “Willoughby Grove”, a touching narrative from the perspective of a man who spent his childhood in the titular poor country neighborhood. He reminisces about the beauty and innocence of that time, then tells of how,because he wanted to “see the world”, he “hitched a ride” and “never found a reason to return”. The song turns heartbreaking as he finally comes home for his mother’s funeral and sees the neighborhood has been modernized and gentrified and the innocence he prized destroyed (“and in our yard, there’s a factory”). Davis gives this sad narrative especial weight with his solemn, deeply felt reading, and the track is one of the album’s utmost highlights.
“This Is My Life” bears a certain resemblance to a less grandiose, more vulnerable version of “My Way”. Like that song, it is a translation of a foreign hit with the lyrics translated into English, but here those lyrics are significantly superior to those in “My Way”, and it serves as an effective counterpart to that song, expressing the essence of Sammy’s persona just as eloquently as the former song did Sinatra’s.
“Take My Hand” may be a pretty standard, predictable Gospel pastiche, but Davis sells the Hell out of it, and the result is actually quite stirring. And a funk-blues arrangement of the Great American Songbook standard “I Want To Be Happy” serves as a perfect emblem of this album’s attempt to modernize Davis’ sound without contradicting his rich musical legacy.
Even the famously cheesy Easy Listening standard “MacArthur Park” comes off surprisingly well here. There’s only so much you can do about the embarrassing lyrics on the song’s chorus, but Davis’ performance is beyond reproach, taking the song seriously throughout and offering a particularly eloquent delivery of the song’s haunting middle section (which is easily the best part of the song in any case).
The only track on this album where it seems to remotely merit its bad reputation is the final one, where Davis offers an incredibly ill-advised and awkward rendition of the “Theme from Shaft”. Isaac Hayes himself helped with the arrangement and even contributed some new lyrics to this version, but the result is still every bit as embarrassing as it sounds. Indeed, this song seems to embody the reputation that the whole album has acquired, which seems a bit unfair given that it’s really only based on one track at the tail end of the album.
Overall, this album comes across today as one of Davis’ classics, and if they would actually give it a CD and/or digital release so modern audiences could hear it, I would bet good money that its reputation would be vindicated in no time.