SAMMY DAVIS, JR.
Sammy Davis, Jr. was unique in every sense of the word. Singer, dancer, actor, author, comedian, director and producer with a fierce will to give back to his community — he did it all and did it all extraordinarily well.
Born in Harlem in 1925, Davis began performing in vaudeville when he was three with his father and uncle as the Will Mastin Trio. During his World War II Army service, Davis was assigned to a Special Services unit and entertained the troops. It was there he learned he had a built-in defense against the ever-present racism of the day. “My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking,”
After the Army he began to achieve more and more success as an entertainer, working mostly with his father and uncle. He had his first major break doing a performance in the Los Angeles club Ciro’s after the 1951 Academy Awards. His fame grew exponentially.
He began to record albums, ultimately doing more than 30. In 1956 he made his Broadway debut in Mr. Wonderful.
On the road from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on November 19, 1954, Davis lost his left eye in a car accident. He was visited in the hospital by entertainer Eddie Cantor. They discussed the similarities between Cantor’s Jewish and Davis’ black cultures. Later reading Abram L. Sacher’s A History of the Jews, Davis was struck by the quote: “The Jews would not die. Three millennia of prophetic teaching had given them an unwavering spirit of resignation and had created in them a will to live which no disaster could crush.” He ultimately converted to Judaism. Years later while playing golf Davis was asked what his handicap was. “Handicap?” he replied. “Talk about handicap — I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.”
Sammy Davis, Jr. co-starred with Eartha Kitt in Anna Lucasta, in 1956, the first of his almost 40 films.The following year, he joined with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop in the Rat Pack. They played The Strip in Las Vegas but Davis, as the only black member of the group, was barred from staying in any Strip hotel. As he had from the time he first played the city — and as did all black entertainers — he stayed on the “west side” of town in the black section and could enter the hotel only via the kitchen.
In 1960, the Rat Pack was booked at the Sands Hotel and Casino. Sinatra told those in charge that “If Sammy can’t stay, I won’t play” and Davis became the first to integrate Strip hotels.
Davis was back on Broadway in 1964 doing the musical version of the Clifford Odets play and film Golden Boy. He was at the same time starring in a TV talk show and in 1966 had a primetime variety show that lasted 15 episodes.
Sammy Davis, Jr. had an instantly recognizable singing voice and it gave him almost 40 songs that charted in the USA and /or the UK. His biggest hit was the 1972 release The Candy Man. He also charted well with What Kind Of Fool Am I? In 2002 Davis was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for the latter song.
On February 4, 1990, Davis and his wife Altovise sat in the audience as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston, Clint Eastwood, Goldie Hawn, Bill Cosby, Stevie Wonder, Mike Tyson, Richard Pryor, Gregory Hines, Gregory Peck, Bob Hope, Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Allen, Magic Johnson, Tony Danza, Jesse Jackson, Quincy Jones, Diahann Carroll, Dionne Warwick, Nell Carter, Lola Falana, Eddie Murphy and Anita Baker paid tribute to him in the Sammy Davis, Jr. 60th Anniversary Celebration on ABC-TV.
At that point in his life, Davis was in the last stages of a battle with throat cancer and couldn’t talk. He died on May 16, 1990.
Still today, more than two decades after his death, Sammy Davis, Jr. is the standard against which a multitude of performers are measured.
by Ellen Sterling