Growing up in Williamsville, Eric Jordan Young looked up to Sammy Davis Jr., the entertainer who rose to greatness in a world that was mostly white.
“He was always the gentleman of color I would see on TV. I fell in love with him and what he was all about,” he said on the phone from Las Vegas, where he lives. “I was so touched by him that I got that entertainment show biz bug and decided to go into this industry.”
Young got his start in musicals at his high school, Williamsville East. One was “Guys and Dolls.” He played Benny Southstreet and still owns, and plays, the souvenir vinyl record.
And when he became a theater professional himself, he decided to start giving back to his childhood hero.
A two-time Broadway World Award winner, Young has paid tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. in Las Vegas and in New York City. He is the author of a one-man show called “Sammy and Me” and, 10 years ago, brought it to Buffalo and performed it at MusicalFare Theatre.
The News, on that occasion, took notice. Reviewer Jana Eisenberg wrote: “Eric Jordan Young is a one-man force of nature, using every inch of his lithe body, his dance training and innate artistry to bring the audience into his world.”
On Saturday, at Kleinhans Music Hall, Young will be again be spotlighting the art of Sammy Davis Jr., this time with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. The evening will explore songs that figured in the journey of Sammy Davis Jr. – and with the journey of Young himself.
“It is about the music of Sammy Davis Jr., and also how basically his presence as an entertainment giant in America inspired so many, including me,” Young said.
“My perception has gotten deeper. I’m in my 40s now. I’m a different person,” he reflected. “I have a different perspective on the choices we make and why we make them – heartbreak, rebirth, personal growth and the pressures we put on ourselves, let alone the meaning of family and friends. It really is quite a journey. You have to embrace those that inspire you, even though there may be flaws.”
While he doesn’t agree with every choice Sammy Davis Jr. made, he admires him for doing the best he could, under the circumstances.
“He was famous for five decades, and he faced controversy over every single one of those decades. He was the world’s greatest entertainer because he was able to sustain a career, having been thrown into it at such a young age, he was still able to have a love for what he was doing. It wasn’t like he kept entertaining because he had to do it as a job. He did it because it was part of his huge heart.”
This spring, the BPO has welcomed a couple of top-notch tribute artists to Kleinhans Music Hall. Recent shows devoted to John Denver (featuring Jim Curry), and to Elton John (featuring Brody Dolyniuk), were hits with the audience.
In both cases, the performer did not try to duplicate the artist to whom he was paying tribute.
“I try to throw in a taste of the spirit of an artist without going there 100 percent,” Dolyniuk has told The News, explaining his craft.
Young, too, is not trying to “be” Sammy Davis Jr.
“I will never try to impersonate him or be him,” he said. “I will possibly embody the essence of him.”
The show at Kleinhans promises to be joyous for Young on a number of levels.
“It’s a very important homecoming,” he said. “I’ve never performed at Kleinhans as a solo artist. I’ll have to take a really deep breath and drink in the moment, ‘cause I’m really excited. It’s huge. It’s a dream come true.”
His appearance will be a kind of family reunion.
“I have an older brother, some family in Buffalo,” Young said. “My grandmother, unfortunately, passed a year ago, and on my mom’s side, that part of my family moved to Atlanta. Some of them are coming back to the concert. It’s a family and friend reunion. I hope to see friends I’ve known since high school. I missed my last reunion. I was stuck on a plane and couldn’t get there.”
He has a clear affection for his hometown. It was in Western New York, after all, that he cut his teeth as an artist.
“My mom likes to tell one story – ‘He came out dancing from the moment he was born. His legs were going,’ ” he laughs.
“My parents loved Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, really good musicians who had a lot of jazz influence,” he added. “The house was always filled with good music. My older brother, I learned a lot from him. He loved listening to Brahms and Mozart, then he would switch it up and be listening to the Police, John Williams. Amazing, amazing stuff.”
Young was in seventh grade when he watched his brother sing on stage.
“I just remember going, that’s so cool, that’s what I want to do.”
As it turned out, he did that – and more.
Young is as close as we come these days to the old school song and dance man. He embraces all aspects of showmanship.
His dog is named Keely, after Keely Smith, Louis Prima’s wife and deadpan sidekick. He has paid tribute to Prima in big Vegas shows, and he has also stepped into the shows of other unique show biz personalities as Sonny Bono.
Young’s other current projects include “Rock of Ages,” a popular Vegas tribute to 1980s rock at Rio Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. He also plans and performs shows for Norwegian Cruise Line.
“I have my hand in a lot of different things,” he confessed. “I’m a producer, I produce a lot. I did a big party with original music and dancers, for Google. I have that ‘Yes, I can’ drive.
“When you choose Sammy Davis Jr. as a marker, you just do it. If you’re inspired, you go ahead and do it.”