Was Sammy Davis Junior the Best Mimic Ever?

That’s the conclusion I’m slowly coming too after watching some youtube footage of him at work. I always knew the man was a multi-talented entertainer, but I was never aware that impressions were part of his repertoire, until now. Oh, ad as a bonus, if you watch the video below, you will also get to see Julie Andrews sing “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.”

Vocal mimicry has always been an interest of mine, although I don’t know exactly why. I like to do voices and impressions myself, but I don’t know if that is the cause of my interest of simply a result in it. Nevertheless, it’s part of the reason I enjoy old radio programs so much, and why I always enjoy meeting someone with a new accent (Dr. Van Nieuwenhuizen’s class has finally helped me work up a passable Dutch).

Anyway, the list of great impressionists always include Rich Little (who I actually think is a bit overrated), and the current great, Frank Caliendo, whose range of is not as large as some others but who really does an incredibly job with whatever he attempts. Kevin Spacey isn’t known for it, but he’s one of the other real great ones I’ve ever heard, and of course, there are a whole host of others (Pablo Francisco as Don LaFontaine and Dean Edwards as Denzel Washington come to mine) who can do one impression so well that it’s okay if some of their others are a little off. So it’s hard to say just who’s the very best; it depends on how you measure it. But I would submit that if you are looking to see who can do the largest number of seemingly “perfect” impressions, it might just be Sammy Davis Jr. His Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Frankie Laine impressions are just about the best I’ve heard, and I say “just about” only because his Nat King Cole surpasses them all.

It could be argued, I suppose that a lot of these guys have fairly similar voices, but to me, that just accentuates the challenge of doing them all well enough to make them sound distinct and identifiable. But hey, if you’re not convinced, here’s a couple more clips I submit into evidence: Have you seen Robert Preston in The Music Man? Well be prepared to see him again. I dare you to watch the clip with your eyes closed and convince yourself that you’re not actually listening to the man himself.

UPDATE: It is the man himself, unfortunately. This clip only proves Sammy is great at pantomime mimicry.See below.

And just in case I haven’t sold you on the idea yet, here’s a few more, including Bogart, Cagney, Cary Grant, and Marlon Brando

Okay, so the Brando’s not great. But my point is, the guy deserves to be known for his impressions just as much as he’s known for his singing, dancing, and comedy.

YIKES! UPDATE NUMBER 2: It seems I posted the wrong clip, so if you were wondering how I confused Jerry Lewis for Marlon Brando… well, I promise I’m not that foolish. Here’s the video I meant to include, and you’ll notice, his Cary Grant (which is actually somewhat poor in the clip above, I think) is much, much better. He must have been working on it.

FIRST UPDATE continued:

Although several of the commenters on the youtube clip claimed that it was mime and lip synching, I was reluctant to believe it because I compared the audio track to the one from the Music Man movie and in fact the two are plainly different (note for example how the word “well” is articulated at the beginning of the song). However, the documentation of the footage here describes it as pantomime, and indeed Sammy describes it as a pantomime himself at the beginning of the act; I don’t know how I missed that. I still don’t know how they got different audio to use (it must have been an alternate take, or a cast album?) But nevertheless, it’s still pretty impressive and must have been even more striking live. Don’t forget, after all, that back when he was doing this as part of his shows, there was no way for people who had seen The Music Man and loved it to “go back and watch their favorite scene on the DVD” whenever they wanted. So is must have been a treat to see this scene re-created .

Seriously, isn’t it odd to think that there was a time when people would see a movie and then, when it finished it’s theater run, assume they would never encounter it again in their lives? Thank goodness for pantomime cabaret acts, I guess.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

5 Responses to Was Sammy Davis Junior the Best Mimic Ever?

  1. Moominmamma says:

    Some of those are amazing, indeed. His Nat King Cole is truly spot-on, and I had my head down while listening to the part of the first one where he starts his Bing Crosby imitation, and I swear my first thought was that Crosby had walked on stage. I was startled to see he wasn’t there when I looked up. His Jerry Lewis is good, too, especially some of the physical characteristics. It’s a little painful to see, since I could never stand to watch Jerry Lewis in the original! I think the Robert Preston must be a lip-synch, though. I think they’re just using the original music (complete with orchestra and background singers) and Davis is doing a superb job of synchronizing his lips and impersonating Preston physically. I tried to watch the lips, but he’s too often away from the camera for me to see enough. Thanks for posting these. I’d actually forgotten about some of these singers (Anthony Newley’s physical contortions were always painful for me to watch, too), and this was a fun way to think back to my childhood days of watching black-and-white variety shows!

    • Colin West says:

      You know, you’re right about the Robert Preston clip. I wanted badly to believe it but I did some checking and it seems that it was a standard part of his act for a while to do it as a pantomime. See the update above.

      I really love the first clip. It looks a little ridiculous nowadays probably, but I sure wish things like that still happened on TV these days. :-)

  2. Colin West says:

    Also, the third clip I posted is the wrong one. The impressions are much better in the new one I added, if you’re not sick of them by now.

  3. Moominmamma says:

    With TV shows, you had more luck than movies, in the I-sure-would-like-to-see-it once again category. With TV shows, you had summer reruns.

  4. Moominmamma says:

    “Reruns”: now there’s a word that could even today be described, linguistically, as archaic.

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