Ben Vereen honors long-time friend
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.”
‘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
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown