Isn’t that sweet? After being a star for three decades and being dubbed “Mr. Show Business”, Sammy Davis Jr. finally had a #1 hit song this day in 1972. A song he hated. “The Candy Man” was on top of the charts 50 years ago.
By then Davis was an entertainment rarity in every way. He was a movie star and popular singer, a Las Vegas fixture and a household name sort of celebrity in an era when such people were few and far between. To top it off, he’d risen to the top as a Black man during the tumultuous times of the Civil Rights protests. He was a member of the so-called “Rat Pack”, hanging with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and starring in movies like Oceans 11 with them. And like them, he’d been recording for years, his first album coming out in 1955. He spent most of the ’60s recording for Sinatra’s Reprise Records, though by the early-’70s he’d been lured away by MGM Records. He’d scored some popular songs with his takes on mostly Broadway-style standards, but by ’72 his star was falling, musically at least. His last taste of success had been 1968’s “I Gotta Be Me”, which hit #11in the States.
Perhaps that’s why he was persuaded to record this song which he clearly disliked, considering it “too saccharine.” The song had been written by the team of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (who’d co-written “Goldfinger”) . They wrote “The Candy Man” for the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the bizarre adaptation of the Roald Dahl kids book featuring Gene Wilder. Which in the context of the story, makes the song make total sense. In the film, it’s sung by candy store owner Aubrey Woods.
However, almost no one liked the way Woods sang it; it’s said Newley had requested to record it himself instead at his own expense but was refused. So there was a catchy, if silly, singalong ditty from a hit movie but one no one figured could sell on its own. Enter MGM who somehow got Davis to do it.
Davis sang about making everything he bakes satisfying and delicious with a satisfied gusto, backed by the Mike Curb Congregation, about as easy-listening and vanilla-sounding group of voices as one could find. When it was done, apparently it left a bitter taste in Sammy’s mouth. “This record is going straight down the toilet,” he told friends, “and it may pull my whole career down with it!”
That it did not, even though at least a few naysayers probably thought it would have had just cause to do so. The song rocketed up the charts like nothing else he’d sung, and spent three weeks at #1, ending up winning him a gold single and it finishing in the top 5 of the entire year. It’s popularity extended to Canada and Australia as well, where it got to #2 and #3 respectively. It even got him a nomination for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Male; we’re glad to announce he ended up losing to Nilsson and his “Without You” though. Perhaps in the long run Davis was right with his bathroom prophecy though; he never again had a hit song.
“The Candy Man” lives on in a number of TV shows and movies, sometimes in the original Davis version, sometimes in goofy parodies…with a song that made the Osmonds sound punkish by comparison and lyrics about eating the dishes, it’s easy to see why that happened. One of the more noteworthy remakes was by Barry Manilow who sampled Davis’ voice in 2013 to make a duet with the by-then deceased Vegas star.
Interestingly, it was one of the things scrapped when it came time to remake the movie in 2005. Danny Elfman who did the soundtrack for the Johnny Depp-starring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chose to come up with all new music for the film. “I had no trouble divorcing myself from those songs,” he said when asked why it didn’t make a reappearance behind Depp.