Sammy Davis Jr
- Category : Singer - Entertainer
- Type : ME
- Profile : 6/2 - Role Model / Hermit
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : LAX Separation 2
Samuel George Davis, Jr., better known as Sammy Davis, Jr. (December 8, 1925 – May 16, 1990) was an American entertainer. He was a dancer, singer, multi-instrumentalist (playing vibraphone, trumpet, and drums), impressionist, comedian, and actor.
He was a member of the 1960s Rat Pack, which was led by his old friend Frank Sinatra, and included such fellow performers as Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.
Davis was born in the run down neighborhood of Harlem to Elvera Sanchez, a Cuban and Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American entertainer. The couple were both dancers in vaudeville. As an infant, he was raised by his paternal grandmother. When he was three years old, his parents split up. His father, not wanting to lose custody of his son, took him on tour. Sammy had a sister, Ramona Cecelia Davis, who died in April of 2001.
During his lifetime Sammy Davis, Jr. stated that his mother was Puerto Rican and born in San Juan . However, the 2003 biography In Black and White claims that he made these statements due to the political sensitivities of the 1960s and his mother was instead born in New York of Cuban ancestry. The book claims that Elvera was in fact born in New York, the daughter of Cuban Americans Marco Sanchez, a cigar salesman, and Luisa Aguiar. This information was obtained from the daughter and grand-daughter of Elvera's sister Julia and from contemporary documentation. These claims have never been confirmed by the Davis or Sanchez families, and therefore continue to remain as speculation.
As a child, he was taught to dance by his father, Sammy Davis, Sr., and his "uncle" Will Mastin, who led the dance troupe for which his father worked. Davis joined the act as a young child and they became the Will Mastin Trio. Throughout his long career, Davis included the Will Mastin Trio in his billing, and long after he became a solo star, he continued to pay his father and Mastin a large percentage of his income. It was his way of thanking them both for making his career possible, but the magnanimous gesture contributed to Sam's lifelong financial problems.
Mastin and his father had shielded him from racism; snubs were explained as jealousy. But during World War II, Davis served in the United States Army and was confronted by strong racial prejudice. He was beaten by white soldiers on several occasions. As he said later, "Overnight the world looked different. It wasn't one color anymore. 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."
While in the service, however, he joined an entertainment unit, and found that the spotlight removed some of 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.
After he was discharged, Davis rejoined the dance act which played at a wide variety of spots around Portland Oregon, and began to achieve success on his own as he was singled out for praise by critics. The next year, he released his second album. The next move in his growing career was to appear in the Broadway show Mr. Wonderful in 1956.
In 1959, he became a charter member of the Rat Pack, which was led by his old friend Frank Sinatra, and included such fellow performers as Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Shirley MacLaine. Initially, Sinatra called the gathering of fast-living friends "the Clan," but Sam voiced his opposition, saying that it invoked thoughts about the Ku Klux Klan. Sinatra renamed the group "the Summit"...but nevertheless, the media kept on calling it the Rat Pack all along.
Davis was a headliner at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas for many years, yet was required to accept accommodations in a rooming house on the west side of the city, rather than reside with his peers in the hotels, as were all black performers in the 1950s. For example, no stage dressing rooms were provided for black performers, so they were required to wait outside by the swimming pool between acts.
During his early years in Vegas, he and other African-American artists like Nat King Cole and Count Basie could entertain on the stage, but often could not reside at the hotels at which they performed, and most definitely could not gamble in the casinos or go to the hotel restaurants and bars. After he achieved superstar success, Davis refused to work at venues which would practice racial segregation. His demands eventually led to the integration of Miami Beach nightclubs and Las Vegas, Nevada casinos. Davis was particularly proud of this accomplishment.
Although James Brown would claim the title of "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," the argument could be made that Sammy Davis, Jr. deserved it more. For example, in 1964 he 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 either be in the studio recording new songs, or else performing live, often at charity benefits as far away as Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas, or doing television variety specials in Los Angeles. Even at the time, Sam knew he was cheating his family of his company, but he couldn't help himself; as he later said, he was incapable of standing still.
Although still a huge draw in Las Vegas, Davis' musical career had sputtered out by the latter years of the 1960s. An attempt to update his sound and reconnect with younger people resulted in some embarrassing "hip" musical efforts with the Motown record label. But then, even as his career seemed at its nadir, Sammy had an unexpected worldwide smash hit with "Candy Man". Although he didn't particularly care for the song and was chagrined that he was now best known for it, Davis made the most of his new opportunity and revitalized his career. Although he enjoyed no more Top 40 hits, he remained a successful live act beyond Vegas for the remainder of his career, and he would occasionally land television and film parts, including highly successful visits (playing himself) to the All in the Family series.
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 one of the first male celebrities to admit to watching television soap operas, particularly the shows produced by the American Broadcasting Company. This admission led to him 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.
Davis suffered a setback on November 19, 1954, when he almost died in an automobile accident in Victorville, California on a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Davis lost his left eye as a result. The accident occurred on a bend in U.S. Highway 66 at a railroad bridge. While in the hospital, his friend Eddie Cantor told him about the similarities between the Jewish and black cultures. During his hospital stay, Davis converted to Judaism after reading a history of the Jews. One paragraph about the ultimate 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 his autobiography, Davis describes his swinger lifestyle which included alcohol, cocaine, and women. He also chronicles his financial difficulties. Although he was pulling in seven figure incomes by the mid-sixties, he was spending more than what was coming in, and he remained in a state of precarious financial health for the rest of his life.
Because of his past-due federal income taxes, much of his memorabilia was auctioned to pay the Internal Revenue Service.
In the mid-1950s, Sammy was involved with Kim Novak, who was a valuable star under contract to Columbia Studios. The head of the studio, Harry Cohn, called one of the mob bosses, who was asked to tell Sammy that he had to stop the affair with Miss Novak. Davis's first wife was Loray White, whom he married in 1958 and divorced in the following year. In 1960, Davis caused controversy when he married white Swedish-born actress May Britt. Davis received hate mail when he was starred in the Broadway musical adaptation of Golden Boy from 1964-1966 (for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor), but that did not bother his fans. 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 abolished 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 wed in 1970 by Jesse Jackson. They adopted a child, and remained married until Davis' death in 1990.
Although Davis had been a voting Democrat, he had felt a distinct 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. In the early 1970s, Davis famously supported Republican President Richard M. Nixon (and gave the startled President a warm hug on live TV). The incident was very controversial and was given a hostile reception by his peers, despite the intervention of Jesse Jackson. Previously he had won over their respect with his performance as Joe Washington Jr. in Golden Boy and his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike Frank Sinatra, Davis became a Democrat again after Nixon's resignation.
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'd rather keep his voice than have a part of his throat removed. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California next to his father and Will Mastin.
Davis was honored posthumously in 2001 with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.