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Dave Hoekstra
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Friday, December 27, 1996

 


"There's a little bit of 'Bojangles' in Davis Impersonator."


0ne of the defining concert moments of my life was seeing Sammy Davis Jr. dance to "Mr. Bojangles" in 1987 under a faithful spotlight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. I rank it up with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band at the Uptown Theater and watching the Who with a beady-eyed Keith Moon on drums in March, 1976, from the first row at Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wis.

It was wintertime on the strip, and Davis was recovering from major hip reconstruction surgery. Before the show we spent an hour talking about the Rat Pack. Davis limped around his dressing room. He was 61 years old. He was in pain. But when Davis went on stage, the hurt went somewhere else, to a place where the songs are forever sweet and the steps are always soft.

"Bojangles is one of the closest things to getting there," said Lonnie Parlor, who portrays Sammy straight ahead in "The Pack is Back" musical-comedy at Piper's Alley. "You almost feel you are the individual. Bojangles is something everybody in' entertainment goes through. If you don't get to that certain spot, you starve. That's what Bojangles is saying. When I'm doing that song, it's not so much I'm singing Sammy. I'm singing myself."

The Jerry Jeff Walker ballad has profound meaning for Parlor.

Parlor nearly died in 1991 after suffering a stroke in Lake Tahoe, Nev. He was impersonating Sammy in a "Legends in Concert" revue. Between shows, Parlor was preparing for his show-closer, the sterling Sammy send-up of Bing Crosby's "Birth of the Blues."

"During the first show, I was doing a spin - I felt strange and I almost fell over," said Parlor, 46. He tried to regroup between shows. "But after a trip to the bathroom, it was like someone plugged me into 220 (volts)," Parlor said. "It was all over."

"Every muscle in my body would not respond, down to my ability to speak. I had a silk suit on. You would have thought someone had dipped me in a pool, I was sweating that much. Everything shorted out."

Parlor was airlifted to a San Francisco hospital where it was determined he had an artery vessel malfunction, a serious stroke caused from a birth defect. His right side was paralyzed. "They said I'd never walk again," Parlor recalled. "And it would be unlikely I’d be able to speak correctly again. I went down from. 145 to 110 pounds."

Parlor was scheduled to go on a rehabilitation program at the hospital, but with an independent spirit befitting Sammy, he split.

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Lonnie Parlor

"They kept telling me what I couldn’t do," Parlor said. "I was taught. as a child that so much of what happens to you is mental. It's your attitude, what you can and cannot do."

Parlor was discharged from the hospital and returned to Lake Tahoe. He developed his own program largely based on mental healing.

He had to be him.

Parlor was bom on a ranch in Ft. Gibson; Okla. At 13 he began singing rhythm and blues in nearby Muskogee, small town of Okies made famous by Merle Haggard. Parlor has worked in Vegas and Puerto Rico, and spent a couple years on the road with the DeCastro Sisters of "Teach Me Tonight" fame. Parlor has the will of a cowboy.

"I got back to Tahoe and ripped the [tracheotomy tube) out of my neck," Parlor said. "I slowly started to talk again. I began to jog." Parlor faithfully commuted to San Francisco for Gamma Radiation Treatment.

"They shot about 200 laser beams on to where the rupture occurred," he said. "Over a five-year period of time it was supposed to dissipate the blood near my brain. It didn’t quite happen that way, but I compensate for it. Everything's worked out."

Five years later, Parlor is brilliantly recreating Sammy as part of the fantasy Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra reunion at the "Phantom Sands" at Piper's Alley. His right side remains stiff, and sometimes Parlor feels unbalanced. "My dance movements are maybe a fifth of what I was doing before," said Parlor.

"Sammy had a certain spark," he continued. "I try to be very authentic and respectful. It's hard to not slip over into that Billy Crystal thing and fall into exaggeration. And the first thing to remember is attitude."


 

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