Davis, Sammy, Jr.
Davis, Sammy, Jr.
Davis, Sammy, Jr. , dynamic American singer, actor, and dancer; b. N.Y., Dec. 8, 1925; d. Beverly Hills, Calif., May 16, 1990. A nightclub entertainer with a background in vaudeville who could sing, dance, act, play several instruments, and do impressions, Davis found success in recordings, film, television, and personal appearances during a career that lasted virtually his entire life. As an African-American, he broke down racial restrictions while simultaneously challenging assumptions about what a black performer should be. As such he was both a throwback to an earlier time in entertainment and a precursor of a less race-conscious future.
Davis’s parents, Sammy Davis Sr. and Elvera Sanchez Davis, were members of Holiday in Dixieland, a
vaudeville troupe led by Will Mastin. Davis began appearing onstage with the troupe when scarcely out of infancy. His parents separated when he was two, and he remained with his father in the act, which diminished during the Depression to a trio of himself, his father, and Mastin. He made his film debut in the short Rufus for President in September 1933.
Davis was drafted in 1943 and served in the army until 1945, when he rejoined the Will Mastin Trio. After World War II, the group, which Davis dominated with his singing, dancing, and impressions, broke into the upper echelon of nightclubs and hotels. Davis was signed as a solo act to Capitol Records and made his first recordings for the label in 1949. In 1954 he joined Decca Records, first reaching the charts in August with “Hey There” (music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross). He was appearing with the Mastin Trio at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas when, on Nov. 19, 1954, he was severely injured in an automobile accident, losing his left eye. Nevertheless, he was back performing in January 1955.
Davis’s career took off in 1955. His album Starring Sammy Davis Jr. topped the charts in June, he had a Top Ten single in “Something’s Gotta Give” (music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer), followed by Top 40 hits with “Love Me or Leave Me” (music by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Gus Kahn) and “That Old Black Magic” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer), and the LP Just for Lovers reached the Top Ten in the fall. At the end of the year he made his adult acting debut playing Fletcher Henderson in the film biography The Benny Goodman Story. He then made his Broadway debut starring in the musical Mr. Wonderful (N.Y., March 22, 1956), which ran 383 performances.
In 1957 the Will Mastin Trio broke up, leaving Davis to work as a solo performer. On Jan. 10,1958, he married Lor ay White, a singer; they divorced on April 23, 1959. He made his television acting debut on an episode of G.E. Theatre on Oct. 5, 1958, and the following month appeared in the film Anna Lucasta. In July 1959 he portrayed Sportin’ Life and sang “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) in a film version of Porgy and Bess. A friend of Frank Sinatra’s and member of Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” of fellow entertainers, he appeared in a series of films with them, beginning in August 1960 with Ocean’s Eleven and continuing with Sergeants Three (1962) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964).
On Nov. 13,1960, Davis married Swedish actress Mai Britt; they had one daughter and adopted two sons. They divorced on Dec. 19,1968. Having signed to Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records label, Davis returned to the Top 40 in the fall of 1962 with “What Kind of Fool Am I?” (music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley), from the musical Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, and his album What Kind of Fool Am I and Other Show- Stoppers spent five months in the charts.
By now Davis was appearing regularly in motion pictures, only some of which featured his singing. One was the West German production Die Dreigroschenoper, released in the U.S. in March 1963 under its English title The Threepenny Opera, in which he played the Street Singer and sang “Mack the Knife” (music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Bertolt Brecht). He starred in his first television special, S. D. and the Wonderful World of Children, on Nov. 25, 1963, and reached the Top 40 at the end of the year with “The Shelter of Your Arms” (music and lyrics by Jerry Samuels).
Davis returned to Broadway with the musical Golden Boy (N.Y., Oct. 20,1964), which ran 569 performances. In 1965 he appeared in another TV special and made an album, Our Shining Hour, with Count Basie. He had his own television series, The S.D. Jr. Show, from January to April 1966, and in June starred in the film drama A Man Called Adam, playing a jazz musician. He reached the Top 40 with the spoken-word recording “Don’t Blame the Children” (music by H. B. Barnum, lyrics by Ivan Reeve) in 1967. In 1968 he performed Golden Boy in London and appeared in the comic spy film Salt and Pepper with fellow Rat Pack member Peter Lawford; they did a sequel, One More Time, in 1970. At the end of 1968 he scored his biggest hit single since 1955 with “I’ve Gotta Be Me” (music and lyrics by Walter Marks), which topped the easy-listening charts. He made a musical appearance in the film version of the musical Sweet Charity, released in January 1969.
On May 11, 1970, Davis wed dancer Altovise Gore, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life; they later adopted a son. Davis was hospitalized with cirrhosis of the liver in 1971, but he recovered. Signing to MGM Records, he released “The Candy Man” (music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) in December 1971; it hit #1 in June 1972 and sold a million copies. The LP S.D. Jr. Now, on which it appeared, spent six months in the charts. He appeared in the concert film Save the Children, released in September 1973, and the same month began making regular appearances on the TV variety series NBC Follies, which ran through December. In April 1974 he was back on the N.Y. stage in his own revue, Sammy on Broadway. He hosted a syndicated TV talk show, Sammy and Company, during the 1975–76 and 1976–77 seasons. In August 1978 he appeared at Lincoln Center in N.Y. in a production of Stop the World—I Want to Get Off that was filmed and released as Sammy Stops the World in December.
Davis was less active in the 1980s, suffering a recurrence of his liver problems in 1983 and having to undergo hip replacement surgery in 1985. But he was working more frequently by the late 1980s, appearing in the films Moon Over Parador (1988) and Tap (1989), and touring internationally with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. He contracted throat cancer in 1989 and died of it in 1990 at age 64.
With J. and B. Boyar, Yes I Can (N.Y., 1965); Hollywood in a Suitcase (N.Y., 1980); Why Me? (N.Y., 1989).
Starring Sammy Davis Jr. (1955); Just for Lovers (1955); Mr. Wonderful (1956); Porgy and Bess (1959); What Kind of Fool Am I and Other Show Stoppers (1962); Threepenny Opera (1964); Golden Boy (1964); Our Shining Hour (with Count Basie; 1965); Sammy Davis Jr. Now (1972); Stop the World I Want to Get O/(1978).
T. Davis with D. Barclay, S. D.Jr., My Father (L.A., 1996).