December stars impact music
December 25, Christmas Day, is celebrated by Christians worldwide as the birthday of Jesus Christ, their saviour. For non-Christians and revellers, it is a time for merrymaking, strong-drinking, belly-fulling, and just having a grand time at the numerous festivities and musical events centred around this one day. Overall, it may very well be the most important day on the music calendar for most. As far as the Music Diaries is concerned, the date is also of particular significance, as it marks the inaugural date of these articles in 2011.
Sharing a birthday with Jesus Christ, as the Music Diaries did, would perhaps be one of the most elated and fulfilling experiences that anyone, or, for the purpose of this article, any entertainer could have. Unfortunately, there have not been many documented instances of this in popular music. The month of December is, however, decorated with the birthdates of several outstanding entertainers whose careers make for very interesting studies.
Retracing our steps as far back as 1915 and 1925, we note that Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr, respectively, two of the greatest entertainers ever in the history of the entertainment business, were born in December of those years. It is also interesting to note that both gentlemen, apart from being good friends, were members of a clan or group known as 'the rat pack', and performed in several outstanding movies during the early 1960s. They were not the first to use the name, as earlier, a Humphrey Bogart-led group, exhibiting similar characteristics, operated under that title during the 1940s.
It was Bogart's wife, Lauren Bacall, who, after seeing her husband and his friends return from a rough night in Las Vegas, commented: 'You look like a goddamn rat pack', and somehow the moniker stuck. The American Film Institute, at the time, rated Bogart as the greatest male star in the history of American cinema. But perhaps the biggest coincidence of all, which provoked evidences of irony, was the fact that Bogart, the man relegated to a 'rat pack', was born on Christmas Day 1899, making him perhaps one of the few outstanding entertainers in early popular music to share a birthdate with Christ.
Sammy Davis Jr, born on December 8, 1925 in Harlem, and the only black member of the rat pack, exhibited during his lifetime traces of brilliance never before witnessed by anyone: An exceptional impressionist, a fantastic tap dancer, an excellent drummer who played other instruments. He was a singer, an actor, a dancer, a Broadway musical entertainer - more like a variety artiste who kept audiences on the edge of their seats before hysteria sets in. In short, Davis was the greatest entertainer of all times. Yet, he never won a Grammy, an Oscar, or an Emmy.
Singing and acting
Frank Sinatra, some 10 years Davis' senior, and a December-born man on day number 12, was the consummate crooner, who would reduce a wartime generation of bobby-soxers to hysteria after joining the Harry James Band in 1939. Moving to Tommy Dorsey's big band a year later, Sinatra groomed himself for a solo career, developing a vocal style highly attuned to dance rhythms and swing music. He entered the movie world about this time, which saw him appearing in dozens, while simultaneously, his recordings were of such that he was branded by many as the finest American popular singer of our time. He narrowly missed a date with destiny, after a vocal cord haemorrhage all but ended his career, but he bounced back to win a lead role in the 1953 film, From Here to Eternity.
Numbered among December-born entertainers is superwoman Britney Spears - recording artiste, songwriter, actress, dancer, record producer, television producer, fashion designer, director and businesswoman, who saw the light of day on December 2, 1981 in Mississippi, USA. She had acting roles as a child on stage and television before joining Jive Records in 1997. Later, her first two albums gained international recognition, with the former, Baby One More Time, becoming the bestselling album by a teenage soul artiste. Her follow-up albums and a starring role in the film, Crossroads, in 2002, established her career as the bestselling teenage artiste of all time.
But while millions were celebrating Christmas, and thousands reminiscing on their birthdays in December, millions were also mourning the passing on Christmas morning 1995 of Dean Martin, a third member of the rat pack; James Brown, the godfather of soul; and Eartha Kitt, a versatile American female singer and actress, who mesmerised audiences and thrilled moviegoers worldwide for over six decades. She died Christmas Day 2008. Her outspokenness on matters of injustice led to a self-imposed exile in the 1960s and '70s after her stinging critique of the Vietnam war. She won two Emmy awards, and was nominated for two Tony awards, and a pair of Grammys.
Dean Martin, whose career was as varied as Sinatra and Davis, enjoyed great success in music, television, the cinema and on stage, all at the same time. Coming from a strong Italian background, Dino Crocetti (his name at birth) spoke only Italian until age five, but learnt English by his teenage years. A somewhat shy individual, his friends, knowing his ability, pushed him on stage one night in 1934 and the rest is history. Martin had the Italian flavoured hits Amore, An Evening in Roma, and Volare. But his most outstanding successes were in the movies, where he acted alongside the crazy comic, Jerry Lee Lewis. Together, they did no fewer than 13 movies between 1949 and 1956, with Martin accomplishing an amazing 51.
James Brown, who died on Christmas morning 2006, was the earliest and most important catalyst in the development of soul music. He literally revolutionised rhythm and blues (R&B), taking it from doo-wop to soul. His irrepressible, second million-selling single - Try Me, in 1958, was cast in the R&B mould, but one can hardly resist the soul-tingling effect, as Brown sings:
'Try me, try me, darling tell me,
I need you and your love will
always be true.
Hold me, hold me, I want you
Right here by my side
and your love, we won't hide'.