As a performer who’s won awards for acting on Broadway and in television shows and is a notable singer and dancer, there’s no one who understands the incredible diversified talent of the late Sammy Davis Jr. better than Ben Vereen.
Indeed Vereen, who’ll appear at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s Laura Turner Concert Hall Thursday through Saturday in a program billed “Ben Sings Sammy” along with the Nashville Symphony orchestra conducted by Albert-George Schram, credits Davis with inspiring him to pursue a varied career.
“All of us kind of walk in his shoes,” Vereen said. “I remember watching him as a young boy and here was someone who could sing, dance, do impersonations, act, even play the drums — and do them all so well. He was an inspiration and someone whose example taught me that you really can do different things and excel, and that you don’t let anyone restrict you. That’s always been the way I’ve worked and the philosophy that I have.”
Over an extraordinary five-decade career that’s seen Vereen win both Tony and Emmy awards, he’s distinguished himself by being a champion of black history and achievement while also performing in everything from Shakespeare to Funny Lady and All That Jazz.
Though his film career dates back to an appearance in 1969’s Sweet Charity, things really accelerated for Vereen during the ‘70s, when he was a regular on Broadway. He got his first Tony nomination for Jesus Christ Superstar, then won the award for Pippin in 1973. But it was epic performance as Chicken George in Roots in 1977 that forever vaulted Vereen into the national spotlight.
“We knew going in that this was going to be a great experience, but none of us knew back then that it would last this long or have that type of cultural impact,” Vereen said of his participation in Roots. “There were some tough moments during the filming. I remember one scene that involved Richard Roundtree and a whip and he told the director, ‘You’re only getting one shot at this, so you better get it right the first time.’ The crew was very respectful through the whole process, and we were all thrilled by the quality of the writing. But we certainly didn’t know all these years later that people would still talk about it and still remember it.”
Another television role he remembers fondly, though it didn’t have anywhere as much exposure, was his portrayal of Louis Armstrong in the 1976 television film Chicago Style.
“I was in Las Vegas and Miles Davis walked over to me, looked for a while, then he bent over and gave me that whisper of his,” Vereen recalled. “He said ‘Thanks man, you did a great job on Pops [Armstrong’s nickname]’. I had other musicians calling to tell me thanks for caring about the music and our history.”
The most recent entries on Vereen’s lengthy resume include being a judge on last year’s Your Mama Don’t Dance, guest shots on episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Law and Order: Criminal Intent and the completion of a project that will tell the story of his long journey from his hometown of Laurinburg, N.C., to the Broadway stage and Hollywood film and television sets. He also often lectures on African-American history and motivational topics.
“I always tell anyone who wants to be in this business that you can’t let yourself be stopped,” Vereen said. “I remember many years ago going to an audition for a Neil Simon play. He saw me and said, ‘Ben, there’s no part for you in this.’ I told him, ‘Well, I can play a Jewish guy, too, if you need me.’ I didn’t get that part, but then he cast me in something else. You’ve got to go out there and take chances. Don’t listen to the people who tell you that you can’t do this or that because of your race or your age or your looks or anything else. Just get out there and keep plugging away.”
What: Award-winning singer, dancer, actor Ben Vereen in a program titled “Ben Sings Sammy”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s Laura Turner Concert Hall, One Symphony Place
Info: 687-6500, nashvillesymphony.org