“I have to be a star like another man has to breathe.” – Sammy Davis Jr.
Perhaps this is heaven. Assuming heaven has green walls the shade of hospital Jell-O.
Plus a wall of mirrors. See that spinning reflection? That’s the guy for whom this spare, Sahara Avenue rehearsal room might be the pearly gates—where they apparently dig mambo, given the propulsive Latin beat leaping off the backing track as he performs “That Old Black Magic.”
Yes, it has him in its spell. And, yes, judging by his wide grin—four-lane-highway wide—this is heaven. Anywhere Eric Jordan Young works a Sammy Davis Jr. number is, by definition, heaven.
“Why not?” says the 42-year-old, whose qualities—passionate singer, energetic dancer, performer of timeless classics, and on his way to becoming a signature Vegas entertainer, not to mention being ebullient, compact (5 feet 7 inches tall) and black—has earned him more comments than he can count … You know who you remind me of?
That was as true 30 years ago—as a black kid in a largely white Buffalo, New York, neighborhood—as it will be tomorrow.
“After I’d do a performance at school, someone would give me a big hug and say that. I perceived that as, ‘they’re just saying that because I’m black,’ the burnt Rice Krispie in the box. I never felt my talent was special. It took me many years to realize that people did see something special in me and I just shared some characteristics with Sammy Davis Jr. Will I ever be him? No. But as an entertainer, there is no greater template to learn from.”
As a student of the late legend and Las Vegas icon, Young is borrowing one Sammy-ism—“yes I can,” which doubled as the title of the autobiography of the frequently underestimated Davis—to crystallize his Time-to-Be-a-Star moment.
Armed with credits bouncing from Broadway (Ragtime, Seussical) to national tours (Dreamgirls) to small TV roles (Ugly Betty)—and infectious enthusiasm radiating off him like a sunray—the ex-lead vocalist of Vegas! The Show turns headliner on October 4 when his creation, Shakin’: Classic Vegas Remixed with a Twist, opens at Planet Hollywood’s Sin City Theatre.
On a modest stage, aided only by two dancers and four musicians, this shaven-headed tornado plans to deliver a contemporary take on a genre that once kept a nation vastly entertained—TV variety shows of yesteryear. Think: Donny & Marie. The Hollywood Palace. Sonny and Cher. The Captain and Tennille. Dean Martin. Even those vintage Bob Hope specials, with “Ol’ Ski Nose” lampooning it all with a smirk into the camera.
Few people remember them as hip. Most remember them as fun.
“None of those sketches were the height of comedy.” Young admits. “But they were goofy and made you smile. I do a bunch of zany characters, inspired by Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson’s Geraldine. And I’ve chosen people to work with who are my friends and aren’t afraid to look foolish. And I’ll move through different levels of entertainment, sometimes just singing a ballad or a cabaret type of thing.”
Yet Young plans to straddle eras. Don’t be surprised to hear a Taylor Swift or Nicki Minaj tune sneak in. “What would Sammy Davis Jr. be doing today if he was here and 42? He’d probably be singing Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ or ‘Stay With Me’ by Sam Smith or a Justin Timberlake song,” Young says. “I’m approaching this show as if Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars created a project for a modern-day Sammy Davis Jr.”
No Vegas newbie, Young earned his top-billing shot, given that a sizable swath of his résumé—and his heart—belongs to this town. Gigs in musicals repeatedly brought him here, including Starlight Express at Las Vegas Hilton, Chicago at Mandalay Bay and Dreamgirls at the Aladdin, which eventually netted him a four-year stay—and by his count, more than 2,300 performances at a dozen shows a week—in Vegas! The Show.
“There’s something about the energy here that fueled the entertainer in me,” he says. “But it’s time to give myself permission to be brave enough to say I do have something to offer and share. I hope there are people who would love to share it with me.”
First comes sharing with Mom and Dad, who today infuse this sparse space with a wave of family warmth. The bond is tight. The love is deep. And the help is production budget-friendly.
“We’ve been here three months, and he’s already got us working for him,” says a chuckling Alice Young, barely a Las Vegan after more than 60 years in Buffalo, with a script in hand, feeding lines to her boy in rehearsal. Nearby, dad Sam clicks on a laptop music file, at his son’s cues. Which he does, unleashing the foot-tapping funk of Joe Tex’s “I Gotcha.”
Limbs swirling in smooth turns and pivots as he dances—as if he removed pesky bones and joints so as not to impede his bodily flow—Young launches into the rhythmic classic, counting off the beats.
You promised me the day that you quit your boyfriend/I’d be the next one to ease on in/you promised me it would be just us two, yeah/And I’d be the only one kissin’ on you.
“No, it’s ‘man—I’d be the only MAN kissin’ on you,’ not ‘ONE,’” Alice corrects.
“Man. Man. Man,” Young repeats. “That right. Only MAN kissin’ on you.”
With lyric course correction made—and his instruction to “take it from the top, Daddy”—we’re on to the Petula Clark ’60s hit, “Downtown.” And for all of them, it might as well be the ’70s, back in Buffalo.
“When we go to a show, and people ask how he got started, I say, ‘He came out dancing,’” Alice says. “But really, he’s been singing and dancing since he was 3. He wrote his first play when he was 5 years old. He recorded it with four or five voices. He had the bunk bed as a stage. We knew right then.”
Through it all, his parents have been more than the wind beneath his wings. They’ve been the drivers on his auditions. “Right after he graduated Ithica College, we drove him down to New York City to get him settled,” Sam recalls.
“I was leaving to go home and he was on an audition. He came back and was all excited. He got Dreamgirls, the national tour—after two and a half days in New York. Driving home I don’t even think my wheels touched the road, I was so excited.”
Later, after reaching New York’s Big Street in ensemble and standby roles, Young stepped in when opportunity showed up. Understudying George Hamilton as slick lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago on Broadway, he was bumped up to top dog when Hamilton hurt his knee, taking over for eight weeks. One of those nights, Hamilton caught his substitute’s performance. “We were walking in Shubert Alley and he grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me dead in the face,” Young says.
“He said, ‘You remind me of someone’ and I said, ‘Please don’t say it. I’ve heard it all my life and I’m not sure I want to hear it from you.’ And he said, ‘Sammy was one of my best friends in the world, and you share something he had. Either it’s the twinkle in your eye or the energy you exude. This is the moment you need to embrace that and accept that greater things are possible.’ That’s when I thought, I’m going to step out of myself and see what happens.”
One thing that happened—after wholeheartedly embracing the Spirit of Sammy—was a regional one-man musical titled Sammy & Me. Written by, and starring, Eric Jordan Young.
“His goal was to entertain people and make them feel good, but he did so much more than that,” Young says. “He created social change. He changed the perception of people of color. He changed humanity. All I can do is honor what came before me and put it on a pedestal and preserve at least a sliver of that greatness. There is nothing greater than bringing history with you into the future.”
Professionally, they share Las Vegas. Spiritually, they share something bigger. Consider the lyrics to the Sammy classic, “Once in a Lifetime”—and hand them down to Eric Jordan Young, starting Oct. 4:
Just once in a lifetime/a man knows a moment/one wonderful moment/when fate takes his hand …
Shakin’: Classic Vegas Remixed With a Twist