For just under one hundred years The Apollo Theater has catered, shaped and determined African-American cultural trends. Absurd, yet hardly surprising in the context of American history, is the fact that from 1904 to 1934 the Apollo was a whites-only establishment.1 There are many notable Apollo legends, some true and some apocryphal. Ella Fitzgerald, it is said, was one of the first African-American performers to perform on the famous amateur night after the Apollo finally opened its doors in 1934 to those who made up the majority of Harlem's population. One fascinating event however hasn't been told in thirty years and is pretty much forgotten.
Google the name Dick Davy and the only information you're likely to find is the article you're currently reading. Davy was a New York born East Village folk singer in the early nineteen sixties. Davy says he was "much more soulful and quiet [than the average folk singer] ... intimate ... and I wasn't making it. But I'd be talking in between and people would laugh at things I said. So I'd start out like very traditional ... Barbara Allen ... about forty seven verses of that. And people weren't listening for a while. And because nobody was paying attention, I'd just start talking and they'd laugh. And eventually whatever I'd say, they laughed at. And I really felt bad that I didn't have more things to say because I really had 'em with the first few things I said and they were ready ... and then I'd go back to singing another song, and they'd go back to bedlam. So I started writing down whatever they were laughing at." Dick Davy didn't know it then, nor could anybody have predicted, that this white folk singer would be, in just a few years, taking Harlem by storm.
The between-song-banter anecdote told by Davy is typical of many musicians turned comedians.2 The musicians found themselves talking to the audience in between sets, and quite unintentionally, discovered their crowd was often more receptive to the monologue than the songs. The reason Dick Davy is special, however, is quite simple. He was the only white comic to headline the Apollo after it had turned into an exclusive venue for African-American acts. No small feat.
There are surely any number of reasons to explain why Dick Davy isn't famous ... but I don't know any of them. His act belongs to that loose genre of progressive political comedians such as Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Mort Sahl, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. It was the man's political consciousness, disdain for the escalating Vietnam War and devotion to fighting on behalf of civil rights issues that found him in favor with a larger African-American following than any other white comic of his time.
As described in The Last Laugh by Phil Berger (1975, William Morrow), "Davy
was a strapping six-two son of an orthodox rabbi. It made him in his
phrase 'a sad miserable little Jewish Portnoy kid,' the worst aspect
of which was with women. With the guitar this changed some. He made
wages and women both - and did it with a between songs character, a
cracker-barrel type who spoke with a Southern drawl. The first time he
was asked where he was from and said New York, he saw it was not what
people wanted to hear. After that he told them Texas." If you
follow the links below you'll be able to listen to the voice of Davy
and it does seem strange that this Jewish New York bohemian would
the vocal mannerisms of a Southern Hee-Haw type yokel. But just like many comedians who would follow (Emo Phillips, Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait etc.), Davy found that adopting the persona garnered
more laughs than without, and that it acted as a type of security
blanket, making him more
fearless and able to shed his own real life
awkwardness. The persona itself is neither here nor there, as the
strength of the material could easily carry the act alone. Berger: "Born and raised on New York's Upper West Side,
Davy began to cultivate the dialect. He knew a North Carolinian with a
rich drawl, a fellow he personally found grating. In spite of it, he
ran around with him to get the accent down. In the Village, he did a
hillbilly that could have played The Grand Ole Opry. The laughs came
from the naiveté he had with big city ways. He began to phase
out the Village gigs (due to lack of proper pay) and instead did mostly civil rights
benefits ... to Harlem, to Brooklyn, all over the city he went, his material
beginning to deal with racial issues and in mixed company."
In 1964 Dick Davy was in Mississippi. He went South "to be in the mass meetings and rallies and the churches and the living and the sharing and the terror. They were trying to open up voting in sixty-four. You know, there was the three guys killed ... Andrew Goodman and James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in the beginning of June. I went there in July. At one of the benefits in sixty-five though [in New York] a little humpbacked guy comes up to me afterwards and says, 'Who represents you?' I said nobody. He was crippled with arthritis of the spine. He says, 'Where you working?' Y'know people come up to me after they've all been laughing and they think I'm a big shot. And I told him I'm not working anywhere. He says where would you like to work? I say the Village Gate. He says - okay he'll get me in there next week. I say, yeah sure." The 'crippled' man was Art Steuer who was both a confidant of Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce. Steuer was a collaborator with Lenny on his book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Once Steuer took over Davy's career things started moving up. Now realizing that Steuer was no flake, he supplied him with a new answer to his question of "where would you like to work?" and suggested the Apollo. Steuer said forget it because they wouldn't be able to make any money in the Black scene. Davy figured differently. Prior to meeting Steuer, he showed up to perform at the legendary Apollo amateur night. He won third prize and master of ceremonies Honi Coles told Davy he'd book him on a regular evening to open for an appropriate headliner, one that would draw an intellectual crowd. Impatient, Davy took to phoning Coles on a regular basis, haranguing him for the promised spot. His persistence didn't pay off. Coles kept saying it would happen soon, but the sound of his voice now seemed wary about the possible reaction to a white performer taking center stage where a performer from the African-American community would normally be.
Again, Phil Berger picks it up, "What Dick Davy had to say was a giant step ahead of what Black audiences heard ofay comic cats tell them on TV. And Davy knew it. It was why he was not afraid to do the Apollo. White comics had been there in the past - [Milton] Berle and Red Skelton had done benefits - but long before the racial situation had heated up. Now in Harlem - never mind the Apollo - the white man entered at his own risk. Davy had given up calling Honi Coles but when Steuer became his manager, he decided to try one last time. It was September 1965. He'd just finished at the Village Gate and urged Steuer to secure the Apollo." Finally it was to be. Davy's manager simply dropped Dick Gregory's name and that was all it took. Davy performed for sixteen hundred patrons that night, opening for 'Rainy Night in Georgia' crooner Brook Benton. The announcer introduced him using a boisterous voice, "The Apollo Theater takes great pleasure in presenting a wonderful guy. He came all the way from Arkansas and has no intention of going back. He's a very shy guy, so don't frighten him. Here he is - the Arkansas fellow traveler - DICK DAVY!"
On Dexamyl at the time of his performance, Davy described the feeling he experienced, courtesy the combination of "killing" the audience during his professional Apollo debut and the affects of the discontinued anti-depressant, as "like a damned warm bath." His success on that evening lead to a series of steady gigs at the venue, opening for all sorts of acts, and eventually as a stand alone headliner himself. Davy soon had a record contract with Columbia that spawned two excellent albums. You're A Long Way From Home, Whitey, was recorded at the Apollo and released in 1966 (you can hear it in its entirety here) and by the end of 1967 his second and final LP, Stronger Than Dirt, recorded at a night club in the Watts section of Los Angeles (you can hear that record in its entirety here).
As the sixties wore on and militancy in all walks of the left hardened, Black audiences started questioning the need for a white Dick Gregory when they already had a Black Dick Gregory. This was bad news for Dick Davy since his form of political comedy was not exactly fodder for the television networks. They already had enough trouble with The Smothers Brothers and what they felt were guests far too outspoken (or in the opinion of network executives anti-American) on The Dick Cavett Show. Davy was soon left with nowhere to go. He made the lily-white tourist crowds uneasy. In the places where he managed to win them over, according to Davy, it was for the wrong reasons. "[they] thought I was funny as hell - when they'd see how I really felt, they were pissed off. I found out that they didn't even realize I was putting down the things they believed in. They thought I was just a sweet funny kid." Occasionally he'd get booked on shows as the only comedian on a rhythm and blues or soul music revue. At the Regal in Chicago he was pelted with popcorn boxes as the crowd of teens screamed, "Get the fucking whitey off the stage!" Being caucasian was probably only a small part of the problem. Kids who went to see their favorite Chess or Stax Records star were not going to be happy when some comedian hit the stage instead, regardless of race.
Davy marks the turning point for his career as the day Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968. Frank Schiffman of the Apollo, who had fingered Davy as the next big thing, now refused to book him. "It just wasn't funny anymore," explained Davy a couple years after the fact, "A white guy talking about race? The only thing that's funny is ... is like Flip Wilson. See, suddenly there's a big rush to give Black comedians a push on television. To keep Black people from rioting let's put them in commercials, let's put them on television. But not controversial Black faces. Not Dick Gregory. And if they wouldn't put Dick Gregory on, they certainly would not put me on ... Flip Wilson - I'm not saying he's not funny, but he benefited from this whole scare thing among the whites ... It's not dangerous. Cosby was the first ... he was good ... but not talking militant."
Since that time period little has been seen or heard of Dick Davy. Not on YouTube, not on Wikipedia, not in Richard Lamparksi's Whatever Became Of ... not in the phone directory. The only successful white comedian to headline the Apollo has vanished from the face of the earth. His albums have never been reissued on CD, his name seemingly omitted from all books and documentaries about the history of American comedy. I have no clue to his whereabouts today, or if he is even alive. Wherever he is and whatever he is doing, I imagine it is something noble.
1In the past year it has been in the process of refurbishment at an absolutely incredible financial cost. It is hard to tell whether this has anything to do with a devotion to preserving history and culture or is merely another phase in the corporatization of ... everything. The three key note speakers at the launch event announcing the project were Mayor Bloomberg, Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons, and sometime Harlem resident Bill Clinton - three outrageously wealthy men - two of which are white - and by most accounts - all slimy.
2The Smothers Brothers, Jack Sheldon, Milt Kamen and far less successfully, Eddie Harris are all examples. Harris, a great horn player and his Atlantic comedy LP The Reason Why I'm Talking Shit is legendary in its awfulness but not without extraordinary novelty value.