Samuel George “Sammy” Davis, Jr. (December 8, 1925 – May 16, 1990) was an American entertainer. Primarily a dancer and singer, he also had many acting roles on stage and screen, and was noted for his impersonations of actors and other celebrities.
At the age of three Davis began his career in vaudeville with his father and Will Mastin as the Will Mastin Trio, which toured nationally. After military service Davis returned to the trio. Davis became an overnight sensation following a nightclub performance at Ciro’s after the 1951 Academy Awards. With the trio, he became a recording artist. In 1954, he lost his left eye in an automobile accident, and several years later, he converted to Judaism.
Davis’ film career began as a child in 1933. In 1960, he appeared in the first Rat Pack film, Ocean’s 11. 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’ career slowed in the late 1960s, but he had a hit record with “The Candy Man” in 1972 and became a star in Las Vegas, earning him the nickname “Mister Show Business”.
As an African-American, Davis was the victim of racism throughout his life and was a large financial supporter of the Civil Rights movement. Davis had a complex relationship with the African-American community, and drew criticism after physically embracing President Richard M. Nixon in 1972. 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.” This was to become a signature comment, recounted in his autobiography, and in countless articles.
After reuniting with Sinatra and Dean Martin in 1987, Davis toured with them and Liza Minnelli internationally, before he died 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 the Harlem section of Manhattan in New York City, as an only child, to Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American entertainer, and Elvera Sanchez, a tap dancer. According to Frank Sinatra Jr., at age 5, Davis appeared in a film in which he sat on the lap of Ethel Waters 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 parents of Cuban, Afro-Cuban, and African-American descent, and that Davis, Jr. claimed he was Puerto Rican because he feared anti-Cuban backlash would hurt his record sales.
This contradicts entertainer Louie Velez account when he met the mother of Sammy Davis, Jr. in Las Vegas honoring her son. He had them all in tears while he was performing, and after he completed his performance, he left the stage to give Mrs. Elvera Davis, Sammy’s mom a kiss and said, “Thank you for giving us Sammy”. Mrs. Davis better know as Baby Sanchez, advised Louie that Sammy was of Puerto Rican decent as he, which made Louie feel even more honored and closer to Sammy. Even the late George Kirby, a great comedienne and close friend of Sammy was back stage during Louie’s tribute, sobbing, and saying, “He’s .the man, he’s the man”. Furthermore unlike the Cubans whom many settled in New Jersey, East Harlem has been a haven for Puerto Ricans since World War l.(see Louie Velez Patterson Associates) also Sammmy Davis Jr. official website)
Davis’s parents were vaudeville dancers. As an infant, he was reared 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.”
During service in WWII, the Army assigned Davis to an integrated entertainment Special Services unit and he found that the spotlight lessened the prejudice. Even prejudiced white men admired and respected his performances. “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.
After his discharge, Davis rejoined the family dance act, which played at clubs around Portland, Oregon. He began to achieve success on his own and was singled out for praise by critics, releasing several albums. This led to Davis being hired to sing the title track for the Universal Pictures film Six Bridges to Cross in 1954, and later to his starring role 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 Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, a brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy. Initially, Sinatra called the gathering “the Clan”, but Davis voiced his opposition, saying that it reminded people of the Ku Klux Klan. Sinatra renamed the group “the Summit”, but the media referred to them as the Rat Pack, the name of its earlier incarnation led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The group made several movies together, including the original version of Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Sergeants Three (1962), and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), as well as many joint stage appearances in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
Davis was a headliner at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas, but he was required (as were all black performers in the 1950s) to lodge in a rooming house on the west side of the city, instead of in the hotels as his white colleagues did. No dressing rooms were provided for black performers, and they had to wait outside by the swimming pool between acts. Davis and other black artists could entertain, but could not stay at the hotels where they performed, gamble in the casinos, or dine or drink in the hotel restaurants and bars. Davis later refused to work at places which practiced racial segregation.
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 recording new songs in the studio, 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’ musical career had sputtered by the latter 1960s, although he had a No. 11 hit (#1 on the Easy Listening singles chart) with “I’ve Gotta Be Me” in 1969. His effort to update his sound and reconnect with younger people resulted in some “hip” musical efforts with the Motown record label.But then, even as his career seemed at its nadir, Sammy had an unexpected #1 hit with “The Candy Man” in 1972. 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 1976 performance of the theme-song from the Baretta TV series, “Baretta’s Theme (Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow)” (1975–1978), which was released as a single (20th Century Records 2282). He occasionally landed television and film parts, including cameo visits to the television shows I Dream of Jeannie, All in the Family (during which he famously kisses Archie Bunker (Carroll 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.
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, daughter of Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis, Jr., greeting each other with a kiss, one of the first black-white kisses in U.S. television history.
Davis had a friendship with Elvis Presley in the late 1960s, as they both were top-draw acts in Vegas at the same time. Davis was in many ways just as reclusive during his hotel gigs as Elvis, holding parties mainly in his penthouse suite, and Elvis went to them occasionally. Davis sang a version of Presley’s song “In The Ghetto” and made a cameo appearance in Presley’s concert film Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. One year later, he made a cameo appearance in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, but the scene was cut.
In Japan, Davis appeared in television commercials for coffee, and in the United States, he joined Sinatra and Martin in a radio commercial for a Chicago car dealership.
Davis was a fan of daytime soap operas, particularly the shows produced by the American Broadcasting Company. This led to a cameo appearance on General Hospital and a recurring role as character Chip Warren on One Life to Live, for which he received a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1980. He was also a game show fan, appearing on the ABC version of Family Feud in 1979. 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.
In addition to American soaps, he was also a huge fan of the Australian show Prisoner: Cell Block H. Davis wanted to make an appearance in Prisoner, but the show ended (in 1986) before this could be arranged.
Davis was an avid photographer who enjoyed shooting family and acquaintances. His body of work was detailed in a 2007 book by Burt Boyar, named Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr. “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 catalog includes rare photos 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.
Davis was an enthusiastic shooter and gun owner. He participated in fast-draw competitions—Johnny Cash recalled that Sammy was said to be capable of drawing and firing a Colt Single Action Army revolver in less than a quarter of a second. Davis was skilled at fast and fancy gunspinning, and appeared on TV 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. The accident occurred at a fork in U.S. Highway 66 at Cajon Boulevard and Kendall Drive (34.2072°N 117.3855°W). Davis lost his left eye as a result. His friend, actor Jeff Chandler, offered one of his own eyes if it would keep Davis from total blindness. The offer was not needed. Davis wore an eye patch for at least six months following the accident. He appeared on What’s My Line? wearing the patch. Later, he was fitted for a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life.
While in Community Hospital, in San Bernardino, Davis’ friend, performer 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. He formally converted to Judaism several years later, in 1961. One passage from his readings (from the book A History of The Jews by Abram L. Sachar), 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”.In many ways, the accident marked a turning point in Davis’ career, taking him from a well-known entertainer to a national celebrity.
In 1957, Sammy was involved with Kim Novak, a young actress 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, 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.
In 1960, Davis caused controversy again when he married white Swedish-born actress May Britt. Davis received hate mail while starring in the Broadway musical adaptation of Golden Boy from 1964–66 (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 (but were entirely legal in New York), and only in 1967 were those laws ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. Davis and Britt 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. Kathy McKee replaced Altovise in Davis nightclub act. Davis adopted a son, Manny in 1989 and remained married until Davis’s death in 1990.
Although Davis had been a Democrat, he felt a lack of respect from President John F. Kennedy and his staff. He was removed from the list of performers for Kennedy’s inaugural party, hosted by Davis’ close friend Sinatra. This was intended to avoid any controversy from Davis’ recent interracial marriage to May Britt, but Davis felt slighted. Davis had postponed his wedding until after the election, at the request of the Kennedy campaign via Sinatra.
In the early 1970s, Davis supported Republican President Richard M. Nixon, in large part due to Nixon’s pro-Israel policies. He gave the startled President a hug during a live television broadcast. The incident was controversial, and Davis was criticized by many entertainment colleagues. Davis also made a USO tour to South Vietnam at Nixon’s request.
Previously Davis had won Nixon’s respect with his performance as Joe Wellington, Jr., in Golden Boy and his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Nixon invited Davis and his wife, Altovise, to sleep in the White House in 1973, the first time an African American was invited to do so. The Davises spent the night in the Queens’ Bedroom.
Davis was a long-time donor to the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH organization. However, he declined to take part in Jackson’s campaign for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination.
Davis died in Beverly Hills, California on May 16, 1990, of complications from throat cancer. Earlier, when he was told that surgery (laryngectomy) offered him the best chance of survival, 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. However, a few weeks prior to his death his entire larynx was removed during surgery. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale in Glendale, California next to his father and Will Mastin.
On May 18, 1990, two days after Davis’ death, the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip were darkened for ten minutes, as a tribute to him.
His most popular video on youtube: