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 on Sammy Davis Jr
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.