Sammy Davis Jr

Samuel George “Sammy” Davis, Jr. (December 8, 1925 – May 16, 1990) was an American entertainer.

Primarily a dancer and singer, Davis was a childhood vaudevillian, and became known for his performances on Broadway and in Las Vegas, as a recording artist, television and film star, and the only black member of Frank Sinatra‘s “Rat Pack“.

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At the age of three Davis began his career in vaudeville with his father and “uncle” as the Will Mastin Trio, toured nationally, and after military service, returned to the trio. Davis became an overnight sensation following a nightclub performance at Ciro’s after the 1951 Academy Awards, with the trio, became a recording artist, and made his first film performances as an adult later that decade. Losing his left eye in a car accident in 1954, he converted to Judaism and appeared in the first Rat Pack movie, Ocean’s 11, in 1960. After a starring role on Broadway in 1956’s Mr Wonderful, Davis returned to the stage in 1964’s Golden Boy, and in 1966 had his own TV variety show, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show. Davis’s career slowed in the late sixties, but he had a hit record with “The Candy Man“, in 1972, and became a star in Las Vegas.

As an African-American, Davis was the victim of racism throughout his life, and was a large financial supporter of civil rights causes. Davis had a complex relationship with the black community, and attracted criticism after physically embracing Richard Nixon in 1970. One day on a golf course with Jack Benny, he was asked what his handicap was. “Handicap?” he asked. “Talk about handicap — I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.”[1][2] This was to become a signature comment, recounted in his autobiography, and in countless articles.[3]

7 Year old Sammy Davis Jr

1985 Sammy Singing “Mr. Bojangles” in Germany.

After reuniting with Sinatra and Dean Martin in 1987, Davis toured with them and Liza Minnelli internationally, before dying of throat cancer in 1990. He died in debt to the Internal Revenue Service, and his estate was the subject of legal battles.

Davis was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, and was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award for his television performances. He was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1987, and in 2001, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Samuel George Davis, Jr. was born in New York City, New York, to Sammy Davis, Sr. (1900–1988), an African-American entertainer, and his wife Elvera Sanchez (1905–2000),[4] a tap dancer. During his lifetime, Davis, Jr. stated that his mother was Puerto Rican and born in San Juan; however, in the 2003 biography In Black and White, author Wil Haygood writes that Davis, Jr.’s mother was born in New York City to Cuban American parents, and that Davis, Jr. claimed he was Puerto Rican because he feared anti-Cuban backlash would hurt his record sales.[5][6][7]

1962 “What Kind of Fool Am I?” with Andy Williams

Davis’s parents were vaudeville dancers. As an infant, he was raised by his paternal grandmother. When he was three years old, his parents separated. His father, not wanting to lose custody of his son, took him on tour. Davis learned to dance from his father and his “uncle” Will Mastin, who led the dance troupe his father worked for. Davis joined the act as a child and they became the Will Mastin Trio. Throughout his career, Davis included the Will Mastin Trio in his billing. Mastin and his father shielded him from racism. Snubs were explained as jealousy, for instance. When Davis served in the United States Army during World War II, however, he was confronted by strong racial prejudice. He later said, “Overnight the world looked different. It wasn’t one color any more. I could see the protection I’d gotten all my life from my father and Will. I appreciated their loving hope that I’d never need to know about prejudice and hate, but they were wrong. It was as if I’d walked through a swinging door for eighteen years, a door which they had always secretly held open.” The Army assigned Davis to an integrated entertainment Special Services unit, and he found that the spotlight lessened the prejudice. “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,” he said.[8]

“Candy Man”

After his discharged at the war’s end, Davis rejoined his family dance act, which played at clubs around Portland, Oregon. He began to achieve success on his own and he was singled out for praise by critics, releasing several albums.[9] This led to his appearance in the Broadway play Mr. Wonderful in 1956.

In 1959, Davis became a member of the famous “Rat Pack”, led by his friend Frank Sinatra, which included fellow performers such as Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Shirley MacLaine. Initially, Sinatra called the gathering “the Clan”, but Sammy voiced his opposition, saying that it reminded people of the racist Ku Klux Klan. Sinatra renamed the group “the Summit”, but the media referred to them as the Rat Pack.

Davis was a headliner at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, but he was required (as were all black performers in the 1950s) to stay in a rooming house on the west side of the city, instead of sleeping in the hotels as his white entertainers did. No dressing rooms were provided for black performers, and they had waited outside by the swimming pool between acts.[10]

“The Lady is a Tramp”

“I’ve Gotta Be Me”

During his early years in Las Vegas, Davis and other African-American artists could entertain, but usually could neither stay at the hotels where they performed, gamble in the casinos, nor dine or drink in the hotel restaurants and bars. Davis later refused to work at places which practiced racial segregation. His demands would lead to the integration of Miami Beach nightclubs and Las Vegas casinos, an accomplishment Davis justly took pride in.[11]

With the Rat Pack -“Birth of the Blues”

“One For My Baby”

In 1964, Davis was starring in Golden Boy at night and shooting his own New York-based afternoon talk show during the day. When he could get a day off from the theater, he would be in the studio recording new songs, or performing live, often at charity benefits as far away as Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas, or doing television variety specials in Los Angeles. Davis knew he was cheating his family of his company, but he could not help himself; as he later said, he was incapable of standing still.

Although he was still a draw in Las Vegas, Davis’s musical career had sputtered by the latter 1960s, although he had a #11 hit (#1 on the Easy Listening singles chart) with “I’ve Gotta Be Me” in 1969. To update his sound and reconnect with younger people resulted in some embarrassing “hip” musical efforts with the Motown record label.[12] But then, even as his career seemed at its nadir, Sammy had an unexpected hit with “Candy Man“. Although he did not particularly care for the song and was chagrined that he was now best known for it, Davis made the most of his opportunity and revitalized his career. Although he enjoyed no more Top 40 hits, he did enjoy popularity with his performance of the theme song from the T.V. series Baretta (1975–1978) which was not released as a single but was given radio play and he remained a live act beyond Vegas for his career. He occasionally landed television and film parts, including cameo visits to the All in the Family (during which he kisses Archie Bunker (Carrol O’Connor) on the cheek) and, with wife Altovise Davis, on Charlie’s Angels. In the 1970s, he appeared in commercials in Japan for Suntory whiskey.

“I Can’t Get Started” on the David Letterman Show. Possibly Sammy’s last TV appearance.

On December 11, 1967, NBC broadcast a musical-variety special entitled Movin’ With Nancy. In addition to the Emmy Award-winning musical performances, the show is notable for Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. greeting each other with a kiss, one of the first black-white kisses in U.S. television history.[13]

“Christmas with the Rat Pack. Sammy singing, “Jingle Bells”

In Japan, Davis appeared in television commercials for coffee, and in the U.S. he joined Sinatra and Martin in a radio commercial for a Chicago car dealership.

Davis was a fan of the daytime soap operas, particularly the shows produced by the American Broadcasting Company. This led to his making a cameo appearance on General Hospital and playing the recurring character Chip Warren on One Life to Live for which he received a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1980. He was featured on the CBS News with Walter Cronkite in a profile filed by current CBS News political correspondent Jeff Greenfield about the finale episode of Love of Life in 1980. He was a game show fan, making a cameo on the ABC version of Family Feud in 1979, and hosting a question with Richard Dawson watching from the sidelines. He appeared on Tattletales with third wife Altovise Davis in the 1970s. He made a cameo during an episode of the NBC version of Card Sharks in 1981.

Davis was an avid photographer who enjoyed shooting family and acquaintances. His body of work was detailed in a 2007 book by Burt Boyar. “Jerry [Lewis] gave me my first important camera, my first 35 millimeter, during the Ciro’s period, early ’50s”, Boyar quotes Davis. “And he hooked me.” Davis used a medium format camera later on to capture images. Again quoting Davis, “Nobody interrupts a man taking a picture to ask… ‘What’s that nigger doin’ here?’ “. His catalogue of photos include rare shots of his father dancing onstage as part of the Will Mastin Trio and intimate snapshots of close friends Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, Nat “King” Cole, and Marilyn Monroe. His political affiliations also were represented, in his images of Robert Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. His most revealing work comes in photographs of wife May Britt and their three children, Tracey, Jeff and Mark.

“Out Of This World” – a lesser known Harold Arlen song.

Davis was an enthusiastic shooter and gun owner. He participated in fast-draw competition and was said to be capable of drawing and firing a Colt Single Action revolver in less than a quarter of a second. Davis was skilled at fast and fancy gun spinning, and appeared on T.V. variety shows showing off this skill. He appeared in western films and as a guest star on several “Golden Age” T.V. westerns. Davis nearly died in an automobile accident on November 19, 1954 in San Bernardino, California, as he was making a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.[14] The accident occurred at a fork in U.S. Highway 66 at Cajon Blvd and Kendall Drive. Davis lost his left eye as a result, and wore an eye patch for at least six months following the accident.[15][16] He appeared on What’s My Line wearing the patch.[17] Later, he was fitted for a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life. While in the hospital, his friend Eddie Cantor told him about the similarities between the Jewish and black cultures. Prompted by this conversation, Davis — who was born to a Catholic mother and Protestant father — began studying the history of Jews and converted to Judaism several years later.[1][18] One passage from his readings, describing the endurance of the Jewish people, intrigued him in particular: “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”.[19] In many ways, the accident marked a turning point in Davis’s career, taking him from a well-known entertainer to a national celebrity and icon.[14]

On the Dean Martin Show. Look at Sammy’s pants! Did we all like that back then?

In the mid-1950s, Sammy was involved with Kim Novak, a star under contract to Columbia Studios. The head of the studio, Harry Cohn, was worried about the negative effect this would have on the studio because of the prevailing taboo against miscegenation. He called his friend, the mobster Johnny Roselli, who was asked to tell Davis that he had to stop the affair with Novak. Roselli arranged for Davis to be kidnapped for a few hours to throw a scare into him. His hastily arranged and soon-dissolved marriage to black dancer Loray White in 1958 was an attempt to quiet the controversy.[20]

In 1960, Davis caused controversy when he married white Swedish-born actress May Britt. Davis received hate mail while starring in the Broadway musical adaptation of Golden Boy from 1964-1966 (for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor). At the time Davis appeared in the play, interracial marriages were forbidden by law in 31 US states, and only in 1967 were those laws ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. The couple had one daughter and adopted two sons. Davis performed almost continuously and spent little time with his wife. They divorced in 1968, after Davis admitted to having had an affair with singer Lola Falana. That year, Davis started dating Altovise Gore, a dancer in Golden Boy. They were married on May 11, 1970 by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. They adopted a child, and remained married until Davis’s death in 1990.

Sammy and the Supremes

Although Davis had been voting Democratic, he had felt a lack of respect from the John F. Kennedy White House. He had been removed from the bill of the inaugural party hosted by Sinatra for the new President because of Davis’s recent interracial marriage to May Britt on November 13, 1960.[21]

In the early 1970s, Davis supported Republican President Richard M. Nixon (and gave the startled President a hug on live TV). The incident was controversial, and Davis was given a hostile reception by his peers, despite the intervention of Jesse Jackson. Previously he had won their respect with his performance as Joe Wellington Jr. in Golden Boy and his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Nixon invited Davis to sleep in the White House in 1973, which is believed to be the first time an African-American was invited to do so. Davis spent the night in the Queen’s Bedroom.[22] Unlike Frank Sinatra, Davis voted Democratic for president again after the Nixon administration, supporting the campaigns of Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988.

Sammy with Arsenio

Davis died in Beverly Hills, California on May 16, 1990, of complications from throat cancer. Earlier, when he was told he could be saved by surgery, Davis replied he would rather keep his voice than have a part of his throat removed; he subsequently was treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.[23] However, a few weeks prior to his death his entire larynx was removed during surgery.[24] He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California next to his father and Will Mastin. Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, coincidentally died the same day as Davis.

On May 18, 1990, two days after Davis’s death, the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip were darkened for ten minutes, as a tribute to him.

Source: wikipedia, youtube, imdb.com, nndb.com

Grammy Awards

Year Category Song Result Notes
2002 Grammy Hall of Fame Award What Kind of Fool Am I? Inducted Recorded in 1962
2001 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
1972 Pop Male Vocalist Candy Man Nominee
1962 Record of the Year What Kind of Fool Am I Nominee
1962 Male Solo Vocal Performance What Kind of Fool Am I Nominee

Emmy Awards

Year Category Program Result
Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Sammy Davis Jr.’s 60th Anniversary Celebration Winner[26]
1989 Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series The Cosby Show Nominee
1980 Outstanding Cameo Appearance in a Daytime Drama Series One Life to Live Nominee
1966 Outstanding Variety Special The Swinging World of Sammy Davis Jr. Nominee
1956 Best Specialty Act — Single or Group Sammy Davis Jr. Nominee

Other honors

Year Category Organization Program Result
2008 International Civil Rights
Walk of Fame
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site Inducted
2006 Las Vegas Walk of Stars[27] front of Riviera Hotel Inducted
1989 NAACP Image Award NAACP Winner
1987 Kennedy Center Honors John F. Kennedy Center for
the Performing Arts
Honoree
1977 Best TV Actor — Musical/Comedy Golden Globe Sammy and Company (1975) Nominee
1974 Special Citation Award National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Winner
1968 NAACP Spingarn Medal Award NAACP Winner
1965 Best Actor — Musical Tony Award Golden Boy Nominee
1960[28] Hollywood Walk of Fame Star at 6254 Hollywood Blvd

Discography

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Hit Records

Year Single Chart positions
U.S. U.S.
AC
Country UK
1954 “Hey There” 16 19
“The Red Grapes” 28
1955 “Something’s Gotta Give” 9 11
“Love Me Or Leave Me” 12 8
“That Old Black Magic” 13 16
“I’ll Know” 87
1956 “Five” 71
“Earthbound” 46
“New York’s My Home” 59
“In a Persian Market” 28
“All of You” 28
1960 “Happy To Make Your Acquaintance”(with Carmen McRae) 46
1962 “What Kind of Fool Am I” 17 6 26
“Gonna Build a Mountain” flip
“Me and My Shadow”(with Frank Sinatra) 64 18 20
“Sam’s Song”(with Dean Martin) 94
1963 “As Long As She Needs Me” 59 19
“The Shelter of Your Arms” 17 6
1964 “Choose” 112
“Be Bom” 135
“Don’t Shut Me Out” 106
1965 “If I Ruled the World” 135
“No One Can Live Forever” 117 33
1967 “Don’t Blame the Children” 37
1968 “Lonely Is the Name” 93 12
“Break My Mind” 106
“I’ve Gotta Be Me” 11 1
1969 “Rhythm of Life” 124
“I Have But One Life To Live” 119
1972 “The Candy Man” 1 1
“The People Tree” 92 16
1973 “I’d Be a Legend In My Time” 116 29
1974 “Singin’ In the Rain” 16
“That’s Entertainment” 41
1975 “Chico and the Man” 24
“Song and Dance Man” 32
1976 “Baretta’s Theme” 101 42
1982 “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke” 89
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