Thursday, June 4, 2015

Do what you do do well

Sammy Davis, Jr.
I get a daily feed from, which sends interesting snippets from interesting books every day. The other day, it was a section from Paul Shaffer's autobiography, "We'll Be Here For the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin' Show-biz Saga." And the story concerned Paul's effort to get Sammy Davis, Jr, booked as a guest on the Letterman show, to sit down and listen to the arrangement of "Just Once In My Life" that Paul and his band had worked out.

By this time in his life, Sammy was getting older, and was frail, and busy, and tired, yet he finally gave in and listened to a cassette recording of the tune after Paul begged him time and again.  When the tune was over, Sammy had this to say:
"It's swinging, man, but think of how much more fun we could have had if I hadn't heard this tape."
What was Sammy, in his wisdom, saying, ever so gently? Something like, "If I don't know how to sing 'Just Once In My Life' by now, then grits ain't groceries."

Sammy Baker Davis, Jr.
Now, Sammy was not a modest man. Rarely are people with his level of talent and achievement self-effacing and overly humble. I often quote him saying, "It's gotten to the point where there are only three important people in the world:  Sammy, Davis, and Junior."  So he was not shy about his many gifts, but one gift he surely had was the confidence to do what he did with those gifts, such as get out in front of an audience and perform.  He knew that song, and unless Paul had planned to have the band playing the tune to "God Save The Queen" while Sammy sang, Sammy was going to do just fine.

I bring this up because I just finished reading an excellent book, "Man In Profile," by Thomas Kunkel.  It's about Joseph Mitchell, the great writer for The New Yorker who has been one of my favorite authors for years.  He wrote about people who didn't get written about...saloon keepers, vagrants, fishermen, movie ticket ladies.

His writing style was, in a word, thorough.  Mitchell came to New York from his native North Carolina and found work as a newspaper reporter in the heyday of that medium, and there was a lot to write about in the 1920s, and he batted out three or four stories per day back then.

When The New Yorker hired him to write Profiles - long biographical sketches - he slowed down the pace of his writing, and first spent long periods of time with the subject of his story, getting to know them, and then writing and re-writing and editing dozens of times.  And this was in the days before the computer, so he typed and cut with scissors and pasted with glue and did so over and over before finally finishing.  From three or four completed stories in a day, he was down to three or four per year.  And then, after he wrote of how he was bamboozled by a man named Joe Gould, who claimed to have written a long and detailed history of our times, but who had, in fact, not written any such thing, Mitchell went behind a writer's block.  That was 1964, and he still went to work every day until his death in 1996, and never finished another story.  He typed and he thought and he planned new works, but nothing bore fruit.

Joseph Mitchell at his favorite restaurant
So there you have them. Two ways of approaching one's life work: do it on the fly, or do it over and over and over and never get anything done.  I have to believe that even Mr Mitchell would give it up to Mr Davis, Jr, and let it fly, had he another chance.

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