David Hadju is a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Living in New York City he is surrounded by action, and his essays reflect his intense passion for the passing scene. One senses that he is not looking from his window at his subjects but jumping into their milieu, whether it be music greats and lesser-knowns (from Elvis Presley and his minder, the scurrilous Colonel, to the Beatles, to Starbucks muzak) or culture chameleons like Alan Lomax, about whom, I believe, he has captured the zeitgeist in this one damning wrap-up:
“Alan Lomax deserves recognition, even gratitude; but so does my paperboy, and that doesn’t make him the author of the stuff.”
Hadju reviews albums, books, even whole genres with wit and wisdom.
His scathing examination of the “Colonel” (actually an Eastern European con artist and ex-carnie) who leeched onto and possibly increased the fame and fortune of Elvis Presley makes us wonder where we were all along. And where was Elvis? Did he simply feel more comfortable being lied to by the Colonel than being lionized and possibly ripped apart by the press? With the Colonel at his back, Presley was invulnerable – yet he was also declawed. Would Presley have made it as a Nuevo-Brando if the Colonel had not brokered deals for him so that he “made one movie thirty-one times” – the aw-shucks hero beats up bad guys, gets girls, sings bland songs among waving palms or under harvest moons? Or was the wily Colonel, eye to the main chance and the big bucks, cleverly keeping Presley from disastrous downfall?
The essay that leaped out at me was “Sammy Davis Jr: Two Lives.” It will be impossible to read this now without drawing heavy lines between the tormented life of one of America’s greatest song-and dance men and – well, one of America’s other greatest song-and dance-men.
For it seems that Davis, who was the darling black step-child of the Rat Pat, the beloved entertainer across all boards, rich, successful despite his intractable non-conformity, had within him an “inner white man” yearning to get out. Frustrated at even the smallest whiff of prejudice, correctly recognizing that people could hate him on sight for no other reason than his color, Davis longed for a non-stigmatizing whitewash. In that he could never be satisfied. Hadju quotes Davis as revealing that only his performing allowed him to step out of his skin:
“While I was performing they suddenly forgot what I was and there were times when even I could forget it…”What I was…what a sad encapsulation of how prejudice leads to self- hatred. Davis had no way out of his cage of color; in a later generation, with the culture changed just that little bit and with overarching wealth and ambition to pad the enterprise, another legendary American entertainer almost succeeded where Davis failed….