ShareThis Page
Ben Vereen honors long-time friend |

Ben Vereen honors long-time friend

Mark Kanny
| Thursday, June 8, 2006 12:00 a.m

There’s more to this weekend’s Pittsburgh Symphony Pops tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr., than one song-and-dance man honoring another.

For Ben Vereen, it’s personal.

“I have a loyalty to this man,” says the 59-year old entertainer. “We hung together. I wanted to be like Sammy Davis Jr. Of course, he was an inspiration not only to me, but to everyone in show business. Sammy was the quintessential performer who brought joy to millions and millions of people.”

Vereen sang his first solo in church when he was 4 years old. After graduating from New York City’s select High School of Performing Arts, he entered the Pentecostal Theological Seminary, but left after six months. He made his New York theatrical debut when he was still 18.

The young performer was touring in the Bob Fosse-Neil Simon show “Sweet Charity” in 1968 when he met Davis after a performance in Los Vegas. The next year, they both performed in the film version starring Shirley MacLaine, beginning an all-weather friendship that lasted until Davis died in 1990.

Vereen’s star continued to rise after “Sweet Charity,” including award-winning performances in “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Pippin” — for which he won a Tony Award.

His television career, which included the role of Chicken George in the 1970s miniseries “Roots,” blossomed in the ’90s in shows such as “Touched by an Angel,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” A TV special, “Ben Vereen: His Roots,” won seven Emmys.

When Vereen ran into hard times, Davis was there for him, he says.

“Sammy was a friend you could rely on,” Vereen says. “He gave jobs to people. He gave me jobs when I was down and out and couldn’t find work. He even paid me out of his own pocket because the (production) company wouldn’t pay.”

Many of the arrangements in the Davis tribute are in swing-band style, but the program also includes samples of rock ‘n’ roll that Davis liked to perform.

“I selected some songs that are really hot, romantic and singable,” Vereen says.

While he does includes dance in this show, he acknowledges he doesn’t move the way he used to because of a 1992 stroke and broken leg.

“I saw (dancer) Chita Rivera when I was in the rehab center and was in tears,” he says. “I was trying to pull my body together and asked her, ‘Will I ever dance again?’ ”

She told him: “You’ll dance again. But you’ll dance different and vive la difference.”

His positive attitude is reinforced by the pleasure he anticipates in returning to Pittsburgh and working again with conductor Marvin Hamlisch.

“I love Pittsburgh,” Vereen says. “I love Heinz Hall, where I played in the beginning of my career. With my buddy Marvin on the podium, it’s going to be a wonderful evening.”

Additional Information:

‘Ben Vereen salutes Sammy Davis Jr.’

What: Pittsburgh Symphony Pops and Ben Vereen, conducted by Marvin Hamlisch

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $19.50-$59.50

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown

Details: 412-392-4900

Categories: News
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.