When singer/songwriter Clint Holmes appeared with the Palm Beach Pops last year, he mentioned in passing that Sammy Davis, Jr. was one of his heroes and that someday he would love to do a tribute. Knowing a sure-fire hit when he saw one, Maestro Bob Lappin made the informal booking for the next season right then and there onstage. ? Fast-forward to Monday night at the Kravis Center, when Holmes returned to pay homage to his idol in a well-balanced program that was as close to a perfect match of subject, guest artist, material and performance that the Pops has delivered in recent memory.
The first act focused on two iconic songwriters, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, with a dollop of Gershwin on top. After opening with a Berlin medley book-ended by Top Hat and Cheek To Cheek (and featuring trumpeter Scott Melamerson), Lappin sat in on piano for Berlin’s beautiful How Deep Is The Ocean?, accompanied by Dante Luciani’s tasty trombone solo.
Holmes then came out with a preview of what was to come, delivering a short medley of Sammy’s signature tunes, including two gems from the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse musical, Stop The World, I Want To Get Off. The Vegas veteran instantly commanded the stage, easily holding his own against the large ensemble on the classic Once In A Lifetime and getting the orchestra and the audience to join in for a call-and-response section on the gospel-tinged Gonna Build A Mountain. This brief appearance really helped the pacing and balance in the first half and served to not only give the guest star a proper nod, but also build anticipation for the second half.
Rounding out the opening set was Kern’s gorgeous Long Ago and Far Away and the Gershwins’ I Got Rhythm, both Pops standards. The latter tune started with the basic trio, Lappin on piano with veteran bassist Ranses Colon and the great Frank Derrick on drums, and slowly opened up to allow for a string of solo turns by various Pops members, each stepping out front to take the lead. Among those featured were sax man Jim Hayward, Luciani and Concert Master Mary Rowell, whose violin solo took on a refreshing country-swing feel against the jazz trio.
The second half was all about Sammy, with Holmes kicking off the festivities with a solid take on That Old Black Magic. Ably assisted by pianist Jeff Neiman, Holmes showed more polish, vocal power and sheer versatility than he displayed last year — which is not an easy task — as he worked his way through a well-thought-out program of all the numbers you would expect, sprinkling in anecdotes and other back stories along the way.
But even though the approach to the program was admittedly one of an unabashed fan, Holmes put his own mark on the material, singing the songs his way (with the obvious Sammy influence allowed to run free), but without getting in the way of the interpretation process. The result was very satisfying for both the audience as well as the performers onstage.
Among the highlights were two twin-spin double plays: Newley’s Who Can I Turn To? matched with the optimistic For Once In My Life (with the uptempo Stevie Wonder tune juxtaposed nicely as a slow, emotional ballad) and Davis’ 1973 hit Candy Man played alongside another child-like pop smash from that same year, Holmes’ only Top 10 hit, Playground In My Mind. The audience happily sang along on the bouncy choruses of both songs.
Next came the first in a series of goosebump moments: the classic I Gotta Be Me, quickly followed by a big, hankerin’ swagger on There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York, from Porgy and Bess, that was reminiscent of Bobby Darin.
The hits just kept on coming with a touching reading of Bojangles and a knocked down, dragged out, call-the-fire-department version of The Birth of The Blues that started slowly with a cool intro improvised between Holmes and trumpeter Steve Ahern, and then built to a fever pitch, as did the obvious encore, What Kind of Fool Am I?
In all, a near-perfect mix of a great guest soloist who appeared to thoroughly enjoy a dream assignment, an orchestra at the top of its game and a well-loved subject made for an exceptional night at the Pops. What’s not to like?