Sammy Davis, Jr. in "A Man Called Adam," (1966), directed by Leo Penn. Music by Benny Carter.
Featuring Cicely Tyson in her first film role, Louis Armstong, Ossie Davis, Frank Sinatra, Jr., and (not shown here) Mel Torme and Peter Lawford.
I watched "A Man Called Adam" for the very first time in 2020 on TCM during Black History Month. This rarely shown film is notable for its amazing cast of talented artists, and for its stark, unsparing portrayal of racism in America. And though the film is bleak and its hero deeply troubled, there are some wonderful musical treasures to be found in it as well.
Adam Johnson (Sammy Davis, Jr.) is a gifted jazz trumpet player, plagued by ill health, racism, alcoholism and a short temper, as well as guilt over the deaths years before of his wife and child. Driving drunk after a confrontation with a White police officer, Adam caused the accident that killed his family.
The result is a caustic personality that wears even on those who care the most about him, such as his best friend Nelson (Ossie Davis), Vincent (Frank Sinatra, Jr.), a young White trumpeter whom Adam mentors, Adam's older musician friend Willie (Louis Armstrong) and Willie's granddaughter Claudia (Cicely Tyson), a prominent Civil Rights Movement worker. After a rough start in which Adam makes a drunken pass at Claudia, a romance with Claudia slowly begins. She cautions Adam that from that point on, she will not allow him to be any less than he is. Nelson warns Claudia against a relationship, saying that although he understands what she sees in Adam, he will still ultimately only hurt her. But she is not dissuaded, saying she is determined not to let Adam destroy himself. Full plot summary on Wikipedia.
It is nothing less than extraordinary. Here are some clips featuring original tunes written for the film by saxophonist/composer Benny Carter (Sammy's trumpet part is actually played by Nat Adderley).
And here's Mel Torme, playing himself entertaining at a private party.
INSPIRATION FOR ME
The first time I heard "Whisper to One" in the movie, I was transfixed -- and motivated to take a swing at it myself! Here it is, accompanied by guitarist friend Rick Keena. I fill in Sammy's "trumpet" with a scat approach.
January 20, 2021, Inauguration Day, marked a historic moment -- of new beginnings, of healing words and songs. We heard from Garth and Gaga and JLo. And the amazing young poet Amanda Gorman.
Look back to 1946, when a triumphant and battle-weary America was just beginning to recover from fighting a long, existential war against hatred, intolerance, and totalitarianism across the globe. America was home to a young, hugely popular singing star who had teenage girls everywhere swooning (including my Mom!). Frank Sinatra had something that he really wanted to sing about.
It's a song called "The House I Live In" in a short film of the same name. It was created to help battle anti-Semitism, and intolerance of all minorities, here at home in America. Sinatra was no stranger to intolerance. He grew up poor in Hoboken, NJ, and was the target of anti-Italian bigotry. He became an early champion of equal rights, insisting on equal pay and treatment for the Black artists who toured with him.
The action is set at a recording studio where Sinatra has been putting down tracks. The first 2 minutes, 45 seconds are skippable -- it's kind of a lousy, unmemorable ballad. Finished with the first song, he pops out to the alley for a smoke break, and something happens that sparks a different song. For their efforts on "The House I Live In," the filmmakers were honored with a special Academy Award. Skip to 2:45.
Juel and I chose this song by George and Ira Gershwin for the first dance at our wedding. It probably is a first dance at a lot of weddings— or at least it used to be. There’s an awfully good reason why.