There is an entire industry now built up around what is called “Vulnerability”. Brought to the forefront by researcher Brene Brown, now a legend, the concept is that deep inside all of us are fears that need to be managed. Left unchecked, they can get in the way of our best Performance, and often are topics that I work with leaders to understand and reframe – the coaching word for turning Lemons into Lemonade. The paradox often is that by not showing vulnerability in your early career, you appear to have it all figured out… which, to those of us later in our career, we can remember those days… and how Performance changes….
Sammy was well on his way now as a solo act, with praise for all areas of his Performance – singing, dancing, impressions, even acting. He was offered a TV program about the trials of struggling musicians on the road, including the Will Mastin Trio, but also Frances Davis (the first black ballerina to perform with the Paris Opera), Ruth Attaway, Jane White, and Federick O’Neal who founded the American Negro Theater. ABC spent $20,000 on a pilot in 1953… and as you heard with Nat King Cole before, was unable to manage to find a sponsor so it never launched.
No matter – he was still a hot 29-year-old Performer and playing shows in Las Vegas regularly. Booked to record back in Los Angeles on his first Album of songs the next day, he decided to drive back with his valet Charley Head overnight. Leaving the Frontier Hotel after the midnight show, he climbed into his brand new 1954 Cadillac Eldorado. They headed out into the starlit desert and headed west, and after Charley managed the first stint, Sammy took the wheel in the predawn hours of November 19, 1954. Almost home in San Bernardino, a woman who was lost, was backing up to make the turn on Route 66 East…
“The grinding, steel-twisting, glass-shattering noise screamed all around me,” Davis wrote in his 1989 Why Me? “I had no control. I was just there, totally consumed by it, unable to believe I was really in an automobile crash. I saw the impact spin the other car completely around and hurl it out of sight, then my forehead slammed into my steering wheel.” There were no seat belts in cars… and the steering wheel had a nice stylish point right in the center. Sammy jumped out and ran up to the other car, and only when they screamed did he realize his eye was dangling…
He would spend nearly a month in the hospital, and at first was afraid his career was over. Listening to a great podcast on him, he talked about it all being in pieces out there in the road… until, all of his friends came to his aid. His story managed to be on the front page – unknown to him, and telegrams from stars around the world poured into his room. Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Frank Sinatra visited. Before you knew it, he was back on his feet, he finished the album, which was his first (and only) Number 1 record – making him the first African American to accomplish this.
He returned to the stage in a one-man show in January 1955, performing for a crowded house that included Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Donna Reed, Liberace, Dick Powell and Ricardo Montalban. As I found in this story, he said “This is more than wonderful,” he told the applauding audience. “Only in show business could it happen.”
I am not suggesting that you take such drastic measures, but I can tell you that in your early career you try to appear you can do it all. Eventually, with the right situation, you understand that management is about getting OTHERS to Perform at their best, and that requires overcoming a very basic human instinct that we hate to admit: asking for help. You can deny it, you can avoid it, but honestly, it is the path forward. As you go through this week, think about how enlisting the help of those around you can help you succeed … with their gifts and talents. And, how does asking for their help manage to get that Performance best? If not, well, as Sammy sings on his first and biggest album, you will discover… The Birth of the Blues.