John McWhorter on Sammy Davis Jr’s now-forgotten talent for mimicry:
Davis’s singing was fine and his dancing was better, but it was as the black kid who imitated white stars that he attracted national attention. This has been easy to forget because there are no filmed records of the nightclub appearances on which he rode to stardom and because he largely stopped doing the imitations after the 1960s.
But the scattered recordings that catch him at the craft reveal a Rich Little times two. On an album recorded at a Chicago club in 1962, Davis captured Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart, and Louis Armstrong so precisely that you’d swear they had walked onstage. He dazzled as well with spot-on renditions of Cary Grant, James Cagney, Billy Eckstine, Nat “King” Cole, and Jerry Lewis. Once, while he was performing on Ed Sullivan’s show in the 1950s, the picture feed went out temporarily and left the audience with only sound. Davis was so good that some people thought the celebrities he was mimicking were actually appearing on the show.
And brings up one of the Great Mysteries of Life:
Watching a similar case, Al Jolson, strutting and bellowing through his films, we strain to comprehend why he was once billed—as Davis often was—as the World’s Greatest Entertainer.