With Obamamania taking over the country (or at least most parts of it) and everyone tap dancing around the subject of racial identity (pun slightly intended), I've been thinking a lot about my own confused relationship with race. It stems largely from my own confused relationship with music while growing up n late 1970's Hollywood.
1977 was the whitest year in music. In July of that year, the Billboard Top 5 looked like this:
#1 Barry Manilow "Looks Like We Made It"
#2 Andy Gibb "I Just Want To Be Your Everything"
#3 Shaun Cassidy "Da Doo Ron Ron"
#4 Peter Frampton "I'm In You"
#5 Barbra Streisand "My Heart Belongs To Me"
That's a whole lotta white tunes. Not a soulful bone or a bent note to be found. It was lonely being a black kid in 1977. Here's what you need to understand: Before middle-class white kids had rap to make them feel black, black kids had nothing to make them feel black. Your best chance was to try and find the inner soul of the Bee Gees or turn the clock back. I turned the clock back. I went digging through my parents' record collection to learn what it meant to be black. What I found was the whitest black dude I ever saw: Sammy Davis Jr.
Close your eyes and listen to these facts about Sammy. He was a member of the famed Rat Pack along with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. He was Jewish. He married Swedish movie actress May Brit. He recorded a song called "The Candy Man." He even voted for Nixon. Who do you see? White dude, right? Now open your eyes. THE DUDE IS BLACK!!!!!
But here's the other thing about Sammy: he married that Swedish actress in 1960 when interracial marriage was illegal in 31 states (the Supreme Court didn't overturn the laws until 1967). Even though Sammy was a huge star, fought for civil rights, and supported John F. Kennedy, he was removed from the guest list of Kennedy's inaugural ball (hosted by his buddy Frank Sinatra) because no one wanted a black dude showing up with his white wife. Snap! That's what led Sammy to support Nixon next time around. After Nixon screwed up, Sammy went back to supporting Democrats again.
Sammy was a rebel. He was breaking down walls and wearing gold chains LONG before Public Enemy, Ice-T, or any other old school "social conscious" hip-hopper. Sammy sounded white if you closed your eyes, but his life had all the hard realities of black folks living in 20th century America.
Sammy's life looked a lot like my life. In the late '70s I was the whitest black dude you knew. I was a seventh grade Sammy: attending this fairly elite private school in West Los Angeles, running with a junior high Rat Pack that included Brad Katz, Danny Mazursky, and Eric Suddleson. I didn't convert to Judaism, but I was definitely an honorary member. My first junior high girlfriend, Wendy, was white but not Swedish. Her dad, a West Los Angeles lawyer, was not happy. Brad would act as my beard on dates, picking her up at the door so lawyer dad would be none the wiser. But lawyers are smart. Wendy's dad found out about our interracial junior high tryst, and I was uninvited to the proverbial inaugural ball -- the school dance. I still get a little uptight around lawyers.
Sammy was living my life. Sammy was someone who knew my pubescent '70s L.A. black pain. God, did I love the contradictions of his life. I still do. A black Jewish dude singing the theme to Baretta in Vegas. Come on, what's more American than that?
I'm living on Sammy's shoulders. So is Barack. We all are. From Prince to Gnarls Barkley to Will Smith. The color line is blurry now thanks to Sammy. As I write this, I'm wearing my "Yes We Can" t-shirt while my iTunes library brings up an ABBA tune on shuffle. There's a picture of my interracial family on the desk. Thank you, Sammy.
Sammy was beyond black or white. He was colorblind. Sammy had more balls than any label manufactured gangsta rap thug and more soul than Justin Timberlake's white Memphis butt.
...even though he sung some pretty white tunes.
Shawn listens to white and black tunes at GetBack.com