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Davis, Sammy Jr.

Sammy Davis, Jr.

Singer, dancer, actor

For the Record

Writings

Selected discography

Sources

Sammy Davis, Jr.s death in 1990 robbed American audiences of a favorite entertainer, a star showman in the oldest vaudeville tradition. Davis was a well rounded performer of the sort found only rarely these days: he could sing, he could act, he could dance, and he could make people laugh with clowning and impersonations. Daviss long career in show business was even more remarkable because he managed to break color barriers in an era of integration and racism. His many honors and awardsincluding a prestigious Kennedy Center medal for career achievementserve as reflections of the affection his fans felt for him.

Davis was a complete variety performer. With a microphone and a backup ensemble he could entertain solo for two hours at a time. He was one of the first blacks to be accepted as a headliner in the larger Las Vegas casinos and one of the very few stars, black or white, to receive Emmy, Tony, and Grammy Award nominations. People magazine contributor Marjorie Rosen notes that Davis made beautiful musicand blacks and whites alike heard him and were touched by him. He was loved. And that, of course, is what he wanted most of all.

Sammy Davis, Jr. began performing almost as soon as he could walk. Both of his parents were vaudevillians who danced with the Will Mastin Troupe. In 1928, when he was only three, Davis joined the Mastin Troupe as its youngest member. He became a regular in 1930 and travelled with his father on the dwindling vaudeville circuit. The demanding schedule of train rides, practice, and performances left little time for formal education, and Davis was always just one step ahead of the truant officer. His unconventional childhood did provide him with important lessons, however. Young Sammy learned how to please an audience, how to tap dance like a master, and how to move people with a smile and a song.

The motion picture industry all but forced most vaudeville entertainers out of business. Few acts survived the competition from the silver screen. The Mastin Troupe felt the strain, dwindling gradually until it became a trioSammy Davis, Sr., Will Mastin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. By 1940 Sammy, Jr. had become the star attraction of the trio, with his father and friend providing soft shoe in the background. The act was popular enough to receive billings in larger clubs, and in that environment Davis met other performers such as Bill Bojangles Robinson, Frank Sinatra, and various big band leaders.

Davis was drafted into the United States Army when he turned eighteen and was sent to basic training in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The boot camp experience was

For the Record

Born December 8, 1925, in New York, N.Y. died of cancer May 16, 1990, in Los Angeles, Calif.; son of Sammy (a dancer) and Elvira (a dancer; maiden name Sanchez) Davis; married Loray White (a singer), 1958 (divorced, 1959); married May Britt (an actress), November 13, 1960 (divorced, 1968); married Altovise Gore (a dancer), May 11, 1970; children: (second marriage) Tracey, Mark (adopted), Jeff (adopted); (third marriage) Manny (adopted). Religion: Jewish. Military service: U.S. Army, Special Services, 1943-45; writer, producer, director, and performer in camp shows.

Singer, dancer, and actor, 1928-90. Entertainer with Will Mastn Troupe, 1930; with Will Mastin Trio, 1930-46; and with Will Mastín Trio, Starring Sammy Davis, Jr., 1946-50. Solo performer, ca. 1950-90, with numerous appearances in concerts, cabarets, and nightclubs. Signed with Decca Records, 1955; moved to the Reprise label, ca. 1960; moved to MGM label, 1972. Had pop hits with singles What Kind of Fool Am I, 1962, The Candy Man, 1972, and Mr. Bojangles, ca. 1975. Performed for soldiers stationed in South Vietnam, 1972, and in a special concert at the White House, 1973.

Actor in motion pictures, including Rufus Jones for President, 1929, The Benny Goodman Story, 1956, Porgy and Bess, 1959, Three Penny Opera, 1963, Sweet Charity, 1969, Sammy Stops the World, 1979, Cannonball Run, 1981, and Tap, 1989. Actor in plays and theatrical productions, including Mr. Wonderful, 1956, Golden Boy, 1964, Sammy on Broadway, 1974, and Stop the WorldI Want To Get Off, 1978. Star of numerous television series, including Sammy Davis and Friends, The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show, 1964, The Swinging World of Sammy Davis, Jr., 1965, and GE Presents Sammy, 1975. Guest star on numerous television programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, Laugh In, and All in the Family.

Awards: Antoinette Perry Award nomination, 1965, for performance in Golden Boy; named man of the year by Bnai Brith, 1965; Emmy Award nominations, 1965, for The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show, and 1966, for the Swinging World of Sammy Davis, Jr. Springarn Medal from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Grammy Award nomination for best pop vocal, 1973, for The Candy Man; L.H.D. from Wilberforce University, 1973; recipient of Cultural Achievement Award of State of Israel; recipient of Kennedy Center Award for career achievement.

devastating for Davis. Although he was befriended by a black sergeant who gave him reading lessons, he was mistreated relentlessly by the white troops. Transferred to an entertainment regiment, Davis eventually found himself performing in front of some of the same soldiers who had painted coon on his forehead. He discovered that his energetic dancing and singing could neutralize the bigots and make them acknowledge his humanity. This era may have marked the beginning of Daviss dogged pursuit of his audiences love, a pursuit that would sometimes earn him scorn in years to come.

After the war the Mastin Trio re-formed, playing on bills with Daviss friends like Sinatra, Mel Torme, and Mickey Rooney. Davis went solo after signing a recording contract with Decca Records. His first album, Starring Sammy Davis, Jr., contained songs and comedy, but another work, Just for Lovers, was composed entirely of music. Both sold well, and soon Davis was a headliner in Las Vegas and New York, as well as a guest star on numerous television shows.

On November 19, 1954, Davis nearly lost his life in an automobile accident in the California desert. The accident shattered his face and cost him his left eye. While recuperating, he spent hours discussing philosophy with a rabbi on staff at the hospital, and shortly thereafter he converted to Judaism. Rather than end his career, the accident provided a burst of publicity for Davis. Upon his return to the stage he sold out every performance and received thunderous ovations. Even his well-publicized conversion failed to dampen his popularity. While some critics suggested that he might have had ulterior motives, othersespecially blacks applauded his thoughtful observations about Jews, blacks, and oppression.

Davis began the 1960s as a certified superstar of stage and screen. He had turned an average musical comedy, Mr. Wonderful, into a successful Broadway show, and he earned critical raves for his performance in the film Porgy and Bess. As a member of the high-profile Rat Pack, he hobnobbed with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, and Joey Bishop at fashionable bistros in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. In 1965 he starred in another Broadway play, Golden Boy, in which he played a struggling boxer, and then he turned in creditable film performances in A Man Called Adam and Sweet Charity. Somehow he was also able to star in two television shows during the same years, The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show and The Swinging World of Sammy Davis, Jr.

Daviss swinging world had its pitfalls, however. His marriage to Swedish actress May Britt earned him the vitriol of the Ku Klux Klan. His Rat Pack habits of drinking and drug-taking threatened his health, and his ostentatious displays of wealth nearly bankrupted him even as he earned more than a million dollars a year. Throughout the 1960s Davis was a vocal supporter of the Black Power movement and other left-wing causes, but in the early 1970s he alienated blacks and liberals by embracing Richard Nixon and performing in Vietnam. By that time Davis was in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction. He developed liver and kidney trouble and spent some months in the hospital early in 1974.

The last fifteen years of Daviss life were conducted at the performers usual hectic pace. In 1978 he appeared in another Broadway musical, Stop the WorldI Want To Get Off. He occasionally served as a stand-in host on the popular Tonight Show, and he returned in earnest to the casino and show-hall stages. Even hip surgery failed to stop Davis from performing. His bestknown act in the 1980s was a musical review with his friends Sinatra and Liza Minnelli, which played to capacity crowds in the United States and Europe just a year before Daviss death.

Doctors discovered a tumor in Daviss throat in August of 1989. The performer underwent painful radiation therapy that at first seemed successful. Then, early in 1990, an even larger cancerous growth was discovered. Davis died on May 16, 1990, as a result of this canceronly some eight weeks after his friends of a lifetime feted him with a television special in his honor.

During his lifetime, Sammy Davis, Jr. was not universally adored. Some observersincluding some blacks accused him of grovelling to his audiences, of shamelessly toadying for admiration. Those sentiments were forgotten, however, when Davis died at the relatively young age of sixty-four. In eulogies across the country, other black entertainers cited Davis as a mentor and as a pioneer who reached mainstream audiences even though he hailed from minority groups in both race and religion. Record producer Quincy Jones told People: Sammy Davis, Jr. was a true pioneer who traveled a dirt road so others, later, could follow on the freeway. He helped remove the limitations on black entertainers. He made it possible for the Bill Cosbys, the Michael Jacksons and the Eddie Murphys to achieve their dreams.

Davis, the quintessential song-and-dance man, recorded albums throughout his career and performed a number of signature songs. Chief among these were his tribute to Bill Robinson, Mr. Bojangles, the ballads What Kind of Fool Am I and Ive Gotta Be Me, and his biggest hit, the spritely Candy Man. Daviss singing was like everything else in his performanceenergetic, spirited, and played to maximum effect. Rosen sees Davis as a personal link to a vibrant mainstream of American entertainment who poured his jittery energy into virtuoso performances with all the intimacy of a saloon singer.

In an interview for Contemporary Authors, Davis analyzed his position in show business. Nobody likes me but the people, he said. Though I have been treated extremely well overall by the critics, I have never been a critics favorite. But the people always had faith in me, and they were supportive of me. They laugh. They have good times, and they come backstage. Its a joy.

Writings

(With Burt Broyar and Jane Broyar) Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr., Farrar, Straus, 1965.

Hollywood in a Suitcase, Morrow, 1980.

(With Broyar and Broyar) Why Me? The Sammy Davis, Jr. Story, Farrar, Straus, 1989.

Selected discography

Albums

Starring Sammy Davis, Jr., Decca, 1955.

Just for Lovers, Decca, 1955.

What Kind of Fool Am I and Other Show Stoppers, Reprise, 1962.

Sammy Davis, Jr., at the Cocoanut Grove, Reprise, 1963.

As Long as She Needs Me, Reprise, 1963.

Forget-Me-Nots, Decca, 1964.

Sammy Davis, Jr. Salutes the Stars of the London Palladium, Reprise, 1964.

The Shelter of Your Arms, Reprise, 1964.

If I Ruled the World, Reprise, 1965.

(With Count Basie)Our Shining Hour, Verve, 1965.

Nat Cole Song Book, Reprise, 1965.

Sammys Back on Broadway, Reprise, 1965.

Try a Little Tenderness, Decca, 1965.

The Best of Sammy Davis, Jr., Decca, 1966.

The Sounds of 66, Reprise, 1966.

Laurinda Almeida Plays, Sammy Davis Sings, Reprise, 1966.

Thats All, Reprise, 1967.

Dr. Doolittle, Reprise, 1967.

Ive Gotta Be Me, Reprise, 1969.

Lonely Is the Name, Reprise, 1969.

Goins Great, Reprise, 1969.

Sammy Davis, Jr. Steps Out, Reprise, 1970.

Let There Be Love, Harmony, 1970.

What Kind of Fool Am I, Harmony, 1971.

Now, MGM, 1972.

Portrait of Sammy Davis, Jr., MGM, 1978.

Hey There! Its Sammy Davis, Jr. at His Dynamite Greatest, MCA.

The Great Sammy Davis, Jr., Columbia, 1988.

Also recorded Sammy Davis, Jr. Belts the Best of Broadway, Sammy Davis, Jr. at Town Hall, Decca, Porgy and Bess, Decca, and Mr. Entertainment, Decca.

Singles

Hey, There, Decca, 1954.

Somethings Gotta Give, Decca, 1955.

Love Me or Leave Me, Decca, 1955.

That Old Black Magic, Decca, 1955.

Ill Know, Decca, 1955.

Five, Decca, 1956.

Earthbound, Decca, 1956.

New Yorks My Home, Decca, 1956.

What Kind of Fool Am I, Reprise, 1962.

(With Frank Sinatra) Me and My Shadow, Reprise, 1962.

(With Dean Martin) Sams Song, Reprise, 1962.

As Long as She Needs Me, Reprise, 1963.

The Shelter of Your Arms, Reprise, 1963.

Dont Blame the Children, Reprise, 1967.

Lonely Is the Name, Reprise, 1968.

Ive Gotta Be Me, Reprise, 1968.

Candy Man, MGM, 1972.

The People Tree, MGM, 1972.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Authors, Volume 108, Gale, 1984.

Davis, Sammy, Burt Broyar and Jane Broyar, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr., Farrar, Straus, 1965.

Davis, Sammy, Burt Broyar and Jane Broyar, Why Me? The Sammy Davis, Jr. Story, Farrar, Straus, 1989.

Dobrin, Arnold, Voices of Joy, Voices of Freedom, Coward, 1972.

Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martins, 1974.

Periodicals

New York Times, May 17, 1990.

People, May 28, 1990.

Anne Janette Johnson

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Davis, Sammy Jr. 1925–1990

Sammy Davis, Jr. 19251990

Entertainer

Drafted into U.S. Army

Career Took Off After Injuries

Socialized with Rat Pack

Selected discography

Sources

In one sense, Sammy Davis Jr. was a throwback to the spirit of an earlier age. He was an extremely versatile entertainer with roots in the vaudeville stage, and long after music became fundamentally intertwined with marketing and electronic media, he remained a star primarily by getting up in front of audiences and singing, dancing, and making them laugh. In another sense, though, Davis was a pioneer. As much as any other single performer, he may be said to have broken the color barrier in American entertainment. He was the first black musician to establish a foothold firmly in the pop mainstream, appearing in such citadels of white American culture as the Las Vegas casinos, and hobnobbing with such stars as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Davis was born in New Yorks Harlem neighborhood on December 8, 1925. His father performed with a group of touring stage vaudevillians known as the Will Mastín Troupe. He was raised by his father after his mother, a chorus girl, abandoned Davis when he was only three years old. He never received any formal education. Incorporated into the Will Maston Troupe at an early age, Davis recalled meeting the dancer Bill Bojangles Robinson as a teenager. The last great star of the vaudeville era, Robinson impressed the young performer. In later years, Davis would make the Nitty Gritty Dirt band composition Mr. Bojangles an indispensable part of his stage presentation.

Drafted into U.S. Army

The events that formed Daviss identity as a performer occurred after he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. He encountered overt racial hostility that reached the point of violencethe Army at that time was still largely a segregated institution. When his skills as an entertainer were noticed, he was sent to perform at Army bases around the country. Davis succeeded in channeling his anger and hurt into his performances. In his 1965 autobiography, Davis recalled that he thrived on the joy of being liked and would put extra energy into his performances in order to neutralize [the haters] and make them acknowledge his efforts.

Following his discharge from the Army, Davis honed his performing skills and learned to present a smooth blend of singing, instrumental work, dancing, and comedy. He

At a Glance

Born December 8, 1925 in New York; died of throat cancer May 16, 1990, in Los Angeles; son of Sammy (a stage performer) and Elvira (a dancer, maiden name Sanchez); married Loray White, 1958 (divorced, 1959); married Mai Britt, 1960 (divorced, 1968); married Altovise Gore, 1970; children Tracey, Mark (adopted), Jeff (adopted), Manny (adopted). Religion: Jewish. Military service: U.S. Army, 1943-45.

Career: Singer, dancer, and stage and screen actor, late 1920s-1990. Member, Will Mastin Troupe, 1930-50; solo performer, 1950-90, appearing in cabarets, nightclubs, and numerous Broadway musicals and motion pictures; signedwilh Decca label, 1955; signed with Reprise label, 1960; signed with MGM label, 1972; had pop hits with What Kind of Fool Am I, 1962, and The Candy Man 1972; frequent television guest star and talk-show host, 1970s and 1980s.

Awards: Emmy Award nominations in 1965 and 1966; Springam Medal from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1968; Grammy Award nomination for Best Pop Vocal, 1973 (for The Candy Man); honorary degree from Wilberforce University, 1973; honored with television special devoted to his life, 1990.

toured with shows headlined by Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra, and his reputation grew to the point where he could draw crowds on his own to leading high-ticket nightclubs in such cities as New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. After Davis had a successful run at New Yorks swank Copacabana club, the Decca label signed him to a recording contract in 1954.

On November 19, 1954, Davis was severely injured in an automobile accident. The accident shattered his face and cost him his left eye. During his recuperation, he became involved in a series of discussions with a rabbi visiting the hospital. Davis had had some previous exposure to the Jewish faith from fellow vaudevillian Eddie Cantor, and was now impressed by the historical parallels between the black and Jewish experience of oppression and diaspora. He announced his conversion to Judaism a short time later, the first of several decisions that would mire Davis in controversy. Some white observers questioned the sincerity of Daviss conversion, while some blacks viewed it as a further concession to white standards on the part of a performer who always seemed eager, or overeager, to please white audiences.

Career Took Off After Injuries

Daviss conversion to Judaism and his rapid recovery from his injuries landed him in the headlines and his career took off in earnest. Offers of club dates poured in, and a Broadway musical, Mr. Wonderful, was created specifically with Davis in mind. The performer moved successfully from stage to screen and appeared in several prominent roles at the end of the 1950s, most memorably as Sportin Life in the 1959 film of George Gershwins opera-musical Porgy and Bess. By 1960, Davis was a bona fide star.

In 1960, Davis sparked further controversy by marrying a white woman, the Swedish actress Mai Britt. The couple was deluged with hate mail, and Davis wrote in his 1989 autobiography that the couple had been pressured by President-elect John F. Kennedy not to appear at Kennedys 1961 inauguration so as not to offend the Presidents Southern supporters. Davis again rode out the storm, keeping up a steady stream of film and television appearances. Politically, Davis took a decided turn to the left as he expressed support for militant black leaders such as Angela Davis, in addition to participating in more mainstream civil rights marches. In 1972, Davis once again stunned supporters and detractors alike by endorsing Richard Nixons presidential campaign and hugging Nixon on stage during a campaign appearance.

Socialized with Rat Pack

Daviss lengthy period in the spotlight came about partly because of the high social profile he maintained. He spent time with a coterie of entertainers, dubbed The Rat Pack, who were fixtures of top-dollar nightspots in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The group included performers who had, like Davis, worked their way up through nightclub appearances; they included Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, and Tony Curtis. The group spent money with total abandon. According to the New York Times, Davis once estimated that he had spent $50 million over the course of his career, on an income that at times topped $3 million a year.

Despite drug and alcohol addiction and an extended hospitalization for liver and kidney surgery in 1974, Daviss hectic schedule was hardly diminished during the 1970s. He was a frequent guest host for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show program, and in 1978 returned to Broadway as the star of the revival musical Stop the WorldI Want to Get Off.

During the 1980s, Davis embarked on a hugely successful revue tour with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. He received a hip replacement in 1985 that allowed him to dance again. In 1989, Davis made his final film appearance with Gregory Hines in Tap, which looked back warmly at the vaudeville scene that had formed the foundation for Daviss own career. Later that year, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and died on May 16, 1990.

Following Daviss death, Americans from all walks of life marveled at his life story. Washington Post columnist Donna Britt wrote that Davis deserves more than mere praise because he was too complicated. California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, speaking at the performers funeral, struck a common note when he said that without Davis, Cos [Bill Cosby] would not be Cos, and Sidney [Poitier] would not be Sidney. Every black entertainer who came after Davis, read Times obituary, was spared some of the blows he had to take, because he took them first.

Selected discography

Starring Sammy Davis, Jr., Decca, 1955.

Just for Lovers, Decca, 1955.

What Kind of Fool Am I and Other Show Stoppers,

Reprise, 1962.

Forget-Me-Nots, Decca, 1964.

Nat Cole Song Book, Reprise, 1965.

The Best of Sammy Davis, Jr., Decca, 1966.

Ive Gotta Be Me, Reprise, 1969.

What Kind of Fool Am I, Harmony, 1971.

Portrait of Sammy Davis, Jr., MGM, 1978.

Hey There! Its Sammy Davis, Jr. at His Dynamite Greatest, MCA.

The Great Sammy Davis, Jr., Columbia, 1988.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Musicians, volume 4, Gale Research.

Davis, Sammy, Jr., Burt Broyar and Jane Broyar, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr., Farrar, Straus, 1965.

Davis, Sammy, Jr., Burt Broyar and Jane Broyar, Why Me? The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, Farrar, Straus, 1989.

Larkin, Colin, ed., The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness, 1992.

Periodicals

Entertainment Weekly, November 28, 1997, p. 53.

Macleans, May 28, 1990, p. 61.

New York Times, May 17, 1990 (obituary).

Time, May 28, 1990, p. 71.

Washington Post, May 17, 1990, p. Al.

James M. Manheim

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Sammy Davis Jr

Sammy Davis Jr.

American entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990) had a career that spanned more than five decades. He started in vaudeville and progressed to Broadway, film, and performing on the Las Vegas strip.

Sammy Davis, Jr.'s death in 1990 robbed American audiences of a favorite entertainer, a star showman in the oldest vaudeville tradition. Davis was a well rounded performer of the sort found only rarely these days: he could sing, he could act, he could dance, and he could make people laugh with clowning and impersonations. Davis's long career in show business was even more remarkable because he managed to break color barriers in an era of segregation and racism. His many honors and awards—including a prestigious Kennedy Center medal for career achievement—serve as reflections of the affection his fans felt for him.

Davis was a complete variety performer. With a microphone and a backup ensemble he could entertain solo for two hours at a time. He was one of the first blacks to be accepted as a headliner in the larger Las Vegas casinos and one of the very few stars, black or white, to receive Emmy, Tony, and Grammy Award nominations. People magazine contributor Marjorie Rosen notes that Davis "made beautiful music … and blacks and whites alike heard him and were touched by him. He was loved. And that, of course, is what he wanted most of all."

Learned to Tap Dance Like a Master

Sammy Davis, Jr. began performing almost as soon as he could walk. Both of his parents were vaudevillians who danced with the Will Mastin Troupe. In 1928, when he was only three, Davis joined the Mastin Troupe as its youngest member. He became a regular in 1930 and travelled with his father on the dwindling vaudeville circuit. The demanding schedule of train rides, practice, and performances left little time for formal education, and Davis was always just one step ahead of the truant officer. His unconventional childhood did provide him with important lessons, however. Young Sammy learned how to please an audience, how to tap dance like a master, and how to move people with a smile and a song.

The motion picture industry all but forced most vaudeville entertainers out of business. Few acts survived the competition from the silver screen. The Mastin Troupe felt the strain, dwindling gradually until it became a trio—Sammy Davis, Sr., Will Mastin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. By 1940 Sammy, Jr. had become the star attraction of the trio, with his father and friend providing soft shoe in the background. The act was popular enough to receive billings in larger clubs, and in that environment Davis met other performers such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Frank Sinatra, and various big band leaders.

Davis was drafted into the United States Army when he turned eighteen and was sent to basic training in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The boot camp experience was devastating for Davis. Although he was befriended by a black sergeant who gave him reading lessons, he was mistreated relentlessly by the white troops with whom he had to share a barracks. Transferred to an entertainment regiment, Davis eventually found himself performing in front of some of the same soldiers who had painted "coon" on his forehead. He discovered that his energetic dancing and singing could "neutralize" the bigots and make them acknowledge his humanity. This era may have marked the beginning of Davis's dogged pursuit of his audience's love, a pursuit that would sometimes earn him scorn in years to come.

Headliner in Vegas and New York

After the war the Mastin Trio re-formed, playing on bills with Davis's friends like Sinatra, Mel Torme, and Mickey Rooney. Davis went solo after signing a recording contract with Decca Records. His first album, Starring Sammy Davis, Jr., contained songs and comedy, but another work, Just for Lovers, was composed entirely of music. Both sold well, and soon Davis was a headliner in Las Vegas and New York, as well as a guest star on numerous television shows.

On November 19, 1954, Davis nearly lost his life in an automobile accident in the California desert. The accident shattered his face and cost him his left eye. While recuperating, he spent hours discussing philosophy with a rabbi on staff at the hospital, and shortly thereafter he converted to Judaism. Rather than end his career, the accident provided a burst of publicity for Davis. Upon his return to the stage he sold out every performance and received thunderous ovations. Even his well-publicized conversion failed to dampen his popularity. While some critics suggested that he might have had ulterior motives, others—especially blacks—applauded his thoughtful observations about Jews, blacks, and oppression.

Davis began the 1960s as a certified superstar of stage and screen. He had turned an average musical comedy, "Mr. Wonderful," into a successful Broadway show, and he earned critical raves for his performance in the film Porgy and Bess. As a member of the high-profile "Rat Pack," he hobnobbed with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, and Joey Bishop at fashionable bistros in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. In 1965 he starred in another Broadway play, "Golden Boy," in which he played a struggling boxer, and then he turned in creditable film performances in A Man Called Adam and Sweet Charity. Somehow he was also able to star in two television shows during the same years, "The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show" and "The Swinging World of Sammy Davis, Jr."

Pitfalls of the "Swinging World"

Davis's "swinging world" had its pitfalls, however. His marriage to Swedish actress May Britt earned him the vitriol of the Ku Klux Klan. His "Rat Pack" habits of drinking and drug-taking threatened his health, and his ostentatious displays of wealth nearly bankrupted him even as he earned more than a million dollars a year. Throughout the 1960s Davis was a vocal supporter of the Black Power movement and other left-wing causes, but in the early 1970s he alienated blacks and liberals by embracing Richard Nixon and performing in Vietnam. By that time Davis was in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction. He developed liver and kidney trouble and spent some months in the hospital early in 1974.

The last fifteen years of Davis's life were conducted at the performer's usual hectic pace. In 1978 he appeared in another Broadway musical, "Stop the World—I Want To Get Off." He occasionally served as a stand-in host for the popular "Tonight Show," and he returned in earnest to the casino and show-hall stages. Even hip surgery failed to stop Davis from performing. His best-known act in the 1980s was a musical review with his friends Sinatra and Liza Minnelli, which played to capacity crowds in the United States and Europe just a year before Davis's death.

Doctors discovered a tumor in Davis's throat in August of 1989. The performer underwent painful radiation therapy that at first seemed successful. Then, early in 1990, an even larger cancerous growth was discovered. Davis died on May 16, 1990, as a result of this cancer—only some eight weeks after his friends of a lifetime feted him with a television special in his honor.

A Mentor and Pioneer

During his lifetime, Sammy Davis, Jr. was not universally adored. Some observers—including some blacks—accused him of grovelling to his audiences, of shamelessly toadying for admiration. Those sentiments were forgotten, however, when Davis died at the relatively young age of sixty-four. In eulogies across the country, other black entertainers cited Davis as a mentor and as a pioneer who reached mainstream audiences even though he hailed from minority groups in both race and religion. Record producer Quincy Jones told People: "Sammy Davis, Jr. was a true pioneer who traveled a dirt road so others, later, could follow on the freeway. He helped remove the limitations on black entertainers. He made it possible for the Bill Cosbys, the Michael Jacksons and the Eddie Murphys to achieve their dreams."

Davis, the quintessential song-and-dance man, recorded albums throughout his career and performed a number of signature songs. Chief among these were his tribute to Bill Robinson, "Mr. Bojangles," the ballads "What Kind of Fool Am I" and "I've Gotta Be Me," and his biggest hit, the spritely "Candy Man." Davis's singing was like everything else in his performance—energetic, spirited, and played to maximum effect. Rosen sees Davis as "a personal link to a vibrant mainstream of American entertainment" who "poured his jittery energy into virtuoso performances with all the intimacy of a saloon singer."

In an interview for Contemporary Authors, Davis analyzed his position in show business. "Nobody likes me but the people," he said. "Though I have been treated extremely well overall by the critics, I have never been a critic's favorite. But the people always had faith in me, and they were supportive of me. … They laugh. They have good times, and they come backstage. It's a joy."

Further Reading

Contemporary Authors, Volume 108, Gale, 1984.

Davis, Sammy, Burt Broyar and Jane Broyar, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr., Farrar, Straus, 1965.

Davis, Sammy, Burt Broyar and Jane Broyar, Why Me? The Sammy Davis, Jr. Story, Farrar, Straus, 1989.

Dobrin, Arnold, Voices of Joy, Voices of Freedom, Coward, 1972.

Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin's, 1974.

New York Times, May 17, 1990.

People, May 28, 1990. □

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Davis Jr., Sammy

Sammy Davis Jr.

Born: December 8, 1925
New York, New York
Died: May 16, 1990
Los Angeles, California

African American singer, dancer, and actor

American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. had a career that spanned more than five decades. He started in vaudeville (short funny acts on stage, such as song-and-dance and singing) and progressed to Broadway theater, film, and performing in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Learned to tap dance like a master

Sammy Davis Jr., born on December 8, 1925, began performing almost as soon as he could walk. Both of his parents, Elvera Sanchez and Sammy Davis Sr., were vaudevillians who danced with the Will Mastin Troupe. Sammy Jr. became the Mastin Troupe's youngest member at age three. He became a regular at age five and traveled with his father on the shrinking vaudeville circuit. Sammy Jr. was able to dance very quickly in a style called "flash dancing." He danced so well that once, competing against older children, he won a silver cup and ten dollars. By the time he was eight years old he had appeared in two movies.

Sammy Jr.'s demanding schedule of travel, practice, and performances left little time for formal education. When he could afford it, his father hired tutors. But Sammy Jr. could not read much more than comic books until he grew up and joined the army. His unconventional childhood did provide him with important lessons, however. Young Sammy learned how to please an audience, how to tap dance like a master, and how to move people with a smile and a song.

The growing movie industry

Few vaudeville acts in the 1930s survived the competition from the growing motion picture industry. The Mastin Troupe decreased gradually until it became a three-person actSammy Davis Sr., Will Mastin, and Sammy Davis Jr. By 1940 Sammy Jr. had become the star attraction. The act was popular enough to receive billings in larger clubs, and in that environment Davis met other performers such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (18781949), Frank Sinatra (19151998), and various big band leaders.

The army

Davis was drafted into the United States Army in 1943, when he turned eighteen. An African American sergeant, who taught him how to read, befriended him. He was constantly mistreated by white troops, however, with whom he shared living quarters. Transferred to an entertainment regiment, Davis eventually found himself performing in front of some of these same soldiers. He discovered that his energetic dancing and singing could win over the bigots (people who are opposed to others because of their race or their beliefs).

Headliner in Las Vegas and New York

Davis went solo in 1950 after signing a recording contract with Decca Records. His first two albums, Starring Sammy Davis, Jr. and Just for Lovers, sold well. Soon Davis was a headliner (main performer) in Las Vegas and New York, as well as a guest star on numerous television shows.

On November 19, 1954, Davis nearly lost his life in an automobile accident in the California desert. The accident shattered his face and caused him to lose his left eye. While recovering, he spent hours discussing philosophy (the study of humans and their place in the universe) with a rabbi (Jewish spiritual leader) on staff at the hospital. Shortly thereafter he converted to Judaism. Upon Davis's return to the stage he sold out every performance and received thunderous applause. Some critics suggested that he might have had hidden motives for converting to Judaism. Others, however, especially African Americans, applauded his thoughtful observations about Jews, African Americans, and oppression.

Davis began the 1960s as a certified superstar of stage and screen. He had turned "Mr. Wonderful" into a successful Broadway show, and he earned critical raves for his performance in the film Porgy and Bess. As a member of the high-profile "Rat Pack," he associated with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (19171995), Peter Lawford (19231984), and Joey Bishop (1918) at fashionable nightclubs in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, California.

In 1965 Davis starred in another Broadway play, Golden Boy, and in two movies, A Man Called Adam and Sweet Charity. He also starred in two television shows during the same years, The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show and The Swinging World of Sammy Davis, Jr.

Pitfalls of the "swinging world"

Davis's "swinging world" had its dangers, however. Many people disapproved of his 1960 interracial marriage to Swedish actress Mai Britt. His "Rat Pack" habits of drinking and partying threatened his health. Further, heavy spending nearly bankrupted (lost all one's money) him, even though he earned more than a million dollars a year.

Throughout the 1960s Davis had been a vocal supporter of the Black Power movement and other left-wing (liberal) causes. In the early 1970s he lost support of some liberals and members of the African American community when he embraced President Richard M. Nixon (19131994) and performed in Vietnam, which was the site of the Vietnam War (195575; a war between the communist forces of North Vietnam and United States-backed South Vietnam). By that time Davis had developed liver and kidney trouble and spent some months in the hospital early in 1974.

Davis recorded albums throughout his career and performed a number of signature songs. Chief among these were his tribute to Bill Robinson, "Mr. Bojangles," the ballads "What Kind of Fool Am I" and "I've Gotta Be Me," and his biggest hit, the upbeat "Candy Man." Davis's singing was like everything else in his performanceenergetic, spirited, and played to maximum effect.

The last fifteen years of Davis's life were conducted at the performer's usual hectic pace. In 1978 he appeared in another Broadway musical, Stop the WorldI Want To Get Off. He occasionally served as a stand-in host for the popular "Tonight Show," and he returned to the casino stages. Even hip surgery failed to stop Davis from performing. His best-known act in the 1980s was a musical review with his friends Sinatra and Liza Minnelli (1946), which played to sold-out crowds in the United States and Europe just a year before Davis's death.

Doctors discovered a tumor in Davis's throat in August of 1989. The performer underwent painful cancer treatment that at first seemed successful. Within a few months the cancer returned, however. Davis died on May 16, 1990, only eight weeks after his friends honored him with a television special.

A mentor and a pioneer

Davis's long career in show business was even more remarkable because he managed to break color barriers in an era of segregation (the separation of a race from the rest of society) and racism (the belief that some races are better than others). He was one of the very few stars, African American or white, to receive Emmy, Tony, and Grammy Award nominations. His many honors and awards, including a prestigious Kennedy Center medal for career achievement, serve as reflections of the affection his fans felt for him.

During his lifetime Sammy Davis Jr. was not universally adored. Some observers accused him of shamelessly flattering his audiences to win their admiration. Those sentiments were forgotten, however, when Davis died at the relatively young age of sixty-four. In eulogies (public speeches for a person who has recently died) across the country, entertainers and others cited Davis as a mentor and a pioneer who reached mainstream audiences even though he hailed from minority groups in both race and religion.

For More Information

Davis, Sammy, Burt Broyar, and Jane Broyar. Sammy: An Autobiography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Davis, Sammy, Burt Broyar, and Jane Broyar. Why Me? The Sammy Davis, Jr. Story. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1989.

Davis, Sammy, Burt Broyar, and Jane Broyar. Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965. Reprint, 1990.

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"Davis Jr., Sammy." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Davis Jr., Sammy." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/davis-jr-sammy

"Davis Jr., Sammy." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/davis-jr-sammy