The following is a guest post from Processing Technician Pam Murrell.
In 1957, showbiz journalist Burt Boyar contacted Sammy Davis, Jr. with the hopes of acquiring information for a feature story. The two men immediately developed a camaraderie and discovered that they shared similar roots despite their different racial backgrounds. Born just two years apart during the Roaring Twenties, the native New Yorkers both had fathers in the entertainment industry. They also commenced their own show business careers as children and served in the United States military. However, due to their births on opposite sides of the color line, the impact of these similar milestones had drastically different effects on their lives. And it was this stark contrast that Boyar wanted to explore and expound upon in a book based on Davis’ journey to success.
Yes I Can was initially intended to be a novel that related the pinnacles and pitfalls of a black entertainer in Jim Crow America. “We really should let people know what’s happening,” Davis told Boyar, “They don’t know, they don’t understand.” Thus, the book was to serve as a social primer to inform a mainstream audience of the appalling realities of racism. Eventually the concept developed into an autobiography. And since Davis, by his own admission, wrote like a “third or fourth grader,” Boyar served as his Boswell. Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr. was published in 1965 and its title was derived from a song Davis performed while in the Broadway production Golden Boy. In the Burt Boyar Collection, there are multiple annotated drafts of the volume bearing such preliminary names as Everybody Else Had a Raincoat and Yes I Can: The Story of a Negro in a White World.
Davis’ first-person narrative was quickly met with critical acclaim. Maurice Dolbier, book editor for The New York Herald Tribune, deemed it “one of the most candid, engrossing and important American autobiographies of our time.” In addition to topping the New York Times’ bestseller list for 28 weeks, it was short-listed for the 1965 Pulitzer Prize. It also earned Davis the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1968 for his contributions to the social advancement of black Americans. Before long, the book began appearing on the academic curricula of middle schools and universities around the nation. Within five years of its publication, it sold over two million copies. Given its rousing success and the fact that its narrative concluded in 1961, a sequel was inevitable. Consequently, Boyar began conducting taped interviews with Davis in 1985 to obtain new material. These cassettes, which now reside in the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, became the basis for the book Why Me?In 1989, the year Why Me? was published, Davis explained the ambiguity of its title. “I’d get up every morning and there would be another bomb threat or another death threat… And I’d look up at the heavens and go, ‘Why me?’ And then many years later, as wonderful things happened to me… and I finally found peace and happiness… I would look to God and say, ‘Why me?’” Unlike his first autobiography, this one heavily chronicled the artist’s self-abuse as opposed to the abuse he suffered at the hands of others. An appetite for stardom which resulted in the neglect of his children and the breakdown of his marriage, a compulsion to gamble which left him millions of dollars in debt, and a debilitating addiction to drugs and alcohol are only a few of the topics which Davis broaches within the book. Researchers can also listen to him discuss these issues at length on the thirty-five audio cassettes within the Burt Boyar Collection.
On May 16, 1990, Davis died of complications from throat cancer. A decade later, Boyar released Sammy: An Autobiography, the third volume of Davis’ memoirs. Although it incorporated material from unpublished interviews, it was largely an abridged combination of Yes I Can and Why Me? The condensed format enabled a new generation of readers to ingest the story of the quintessential showman’s fight for racial equality in one book. Jane, Boyar’s wife, was an author in her own right. And this marked the third and final Davis-centered work on which she would collaborate with her husband before she died in 1997 of heart failure. Proofs and cover mockups of their composition are housed in boxes three and four in the Burt Boyar Collection.
Nine years before he passed in April of 2018 at the age of 90, Boyar donated his Sammy Davis, Jr. book material to the Library of Congress. The bulk of the gift included drafts, proofs, and galleys of their two major works Yes I Can and Why Me? Another sizable portion of the collection comprised the interview recordings which address everything from Davis’ friendship with Frank Sinatra and support of the Vietnam War to his opinions of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and his embrace of President Richard Nixon. Additional material on Davis can be found within the Music Division’s Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon Collection as well as The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records which can be referenced in the Manuscript Reading Room.