December 8, 1925– Sammy Davis Jr.:
I have to be a star like another man has to breathe.
He was the hippest Jew in showbiz and he brought blackness into the white homes of segregated America while entertaining everyone.
As a kid I was totally enamored of “The Rat Pack”. The unofficial club was led by Davis’s old friend Frank Sinatra and included fellow performers Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and Shirley MacLaine. Their gigs were often improvised and when one member of the Rat Pack was scheduled to give a performance, other members would show up for an impromptu show. The love I feel for this group and their shenanigans endures.
Davis started in vaudeville when he was just three-years-old, and despite the barriers of racism, he conquered Broadway, Recordings, Las Vegas, Films and Television. He was a major figure in the entertainment industry for more than 60 years.
51 years ago, Davis appeared on the television special Movin’ With Nancy, where he greeted the star, Nancy Sinatra, with a kiss on the lips. As far as I can discover in my research, this was the very first black-on-white kiss broadcast on American television.
As an African-American and a Hispanic, Davis suffered from overt racism throughout his entire life. Davis claimed that his mother was Puerto Rican, born in San Juan. But in truth, Davis’s mother was born in Manhattan to Cuban parents. Davis feared the anti-Cuban backlash would hurt his record sales. He was a presence and a large financial supporter of early civil rights causes, yet he had a complex relationship with the black community. He attracted a lot of criticism after physically embracing Richard Nixon during a photo-op at the White House in 1970.
One day on the golf course with entertainer Jack Benny, he was asked what his handicap was. Davis answered:
Handicap? I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.
Davis began his career as part of his parent’s Vaudeville act: Sammy Davis Sr. and Baby Sanchez. They performed with The Will Mastin Trio, in a bill titled Holiday In Dixieland. He was tossed out on the stage when he was a toddler and little Davis soon became the star of the show re-dubbed: Will Mastin’s Gang Featuring Little Sammy. When the authorities stepped in forbidding him to appear on stage because of his age, Davis Sr. gave his son a rubber cigar and billed him as “The Dancing Midget”.
He made his film debut in Rufus Jones For President (1932) when he was seven-years-old, where he tap dances with the greatest tapper who ever lived Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, holding his own.
Davis was drafted into the U.S. Army when he was 18-years-old. He suffered dreadful abuse and torment from his fellow soldiers, and was transferred to an entertainment division. He then found himself performing in front of the same soldiers who had painted the word “coon” on his forehead. Davis:
It was horrible and very frightening. I couldn’t have a white buddy, and I’d always had white buddies. It was at least a year before I saw a black officer. You’d never see us black cats in those patriotic war movies, but, man, we was in the Army, we was fighting the war.
That’s when I got my nose broken. Somebody said, ‘Hey, nigger, stand in the back of the chow line’. That was the second time it was broken, out of maybe 5 times. It was a guy bigger than me. It wouldn’t be a guy my size. There aren’t many guys my size! But I knew how to fight. My dad and my friend Sugar Ray Robinson taught me. Everybody told me: ‘Just stay in your place. You can’t change the world’. But I kept saying: ‘I don’t want to change the world, I’d just like to change my part of it’.
After his discharge from the army, Davis rejoined the family act, playing clubs around Portland, Oregon. Davis yearned to go solo and he perfected a nightclub act that brought him a recording contract. In 1955, his first couple of albums: Starring Sammy Davis, Jr. and Just For Lovers were hits and Davis was soon headlining at supper clubs in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, and New York City.
Davis was just the sort of entertainer that I have always loved the very most. He could sing, act, dance, do impersonations, make audiences laugh and make them cry.
Davis managed to make an average Broadway musical, Mr. Wonderful (1957) into a solid success, although it was tailored to his particular talents and was basically his nightclub act with a thread of a plot. His pals Sinatra and Danny Kaye strong-armed director Otto Preminger into giving Davis the role of Sportin’ Life in his film version of George Gershwin‘s Porgy And Bess (1959) where Davis gives a stupendous performance and really kicks some life into that film.
Davis was a headliner in Las Vegas, but like all African-American artists in the 1950s, he was required to stay in a rooming house on the other side of the city, instead of in the hotel. No dressing rooms were provided for the black performers and they had to wait outside between acts. The Rat Pack played an important role in the desegregation of Las Vegas hotels and casinos in the early 1960s. Sinatra and his posse refused to play clubs that would not offer full service to the African-American entertainers. Once Rat Pack appearances became popular and the subject of attention by the press, the Las Vegas hotels were forced to give up their racists policies.
In 1957, Davis began a romantic relationship with film star Kim Novak. Columbia Studios head honcho Harry Cohn called in the mafia to stop the affair. Cohn arranged for Davis to be kidnapped for a few hours where he was threatened to have his leg broken if he did not marry a black woman within 48 hours. A hasty wedding to black dancer Loray White was arranged. At his marriage party Davis got so drunk that his friend, Arthur Silber, put him to bed. Later, when Silber checked on Davis he found him holding a loaded revolver to his head. The marriage to White was never consummated and it was annulled nine months later, with White receiving $10,000 to keep quiet.
Davis found companionship and camaraderie with fellow performers, especially his Rat Pack pals, along with chicks like Angie Dickinson and Juliet Prowse as the pack’s gal pals. It was the press that came up with that name, “The Rat Pack”, homage to a group of Hollywood stars who palled around a decade earlier. This little gang played Las Vegas, did concerts and television specials, plus made several swingin’ films together in some combination of the core group, including the original version of Ocean’s 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), and Robin And The Seven Hoods (1963).
Davis married Swedish-born actor May Britt in 1960. When the news hit, Davis received hate mail and death threats, along with an FBI file and the special love of the KKK. He starred in another Broadway musical Golden Boy from 1964-66, receiving a Tony Award nomination. At the time, interracial marriages were against the law in most of the USA. But his fans kept the show running despite the controversies over his private life.
But, his performing schedule took a toll on the marriage to Britt (they had three kids together). They divorced in 1968. In 1970, he married Altovise Gore, who he met when she was a dancer in Golden Boy. The ceremony was performed by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. They were together until Davis left this world 20 years later.
I once had a reliable Hollywood insider friend who insisted that Davis sometimes liked to get it on with guys. Davis himself took on the issue and stated:
The truth is I’m not a homosexual, but I’m not ashamed to say I have had homosexual experiences. It was like drugs, which I’ve tried too. You make a choice. I was in the Army. I was 17-years-old, and I was little. A friend warned me: ‘Hey, Sammy, don’t ever do anything that’d get you busted. Little cats don’t make it past the front door in prison’. I didn’t know what he meant. But, I learned in the Army.
His recording of Gotta Lot of Livin’ To Do was on my 2014 Cancer Mix. I wish he had made it to his 93rd birthday today. It would have been so groovy to have Davis as a guest on my Netflix Holiday Special, A Very Stephen Christmas!. Davis would have done his very swingin’ version of My Favorite Things, and then we would have done a duet of the now forbidden Baby, It’s Cold Outside, before joining Liza Minnelli for a medley of We Need A Little Christmas, It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, and Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel. I would really have loved that.
While he was seen as a sellout by many African-Americans, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 and in 1966, he was given his own network television show, which was unprecedented at the time. Davis, who smoked four packs of cigarettes a day throughout his lifetime, died in 1990 from throat cancer after refusing treatment that would have ruined his voice. He was 64-years-old.
Sammy Davis, Jr. is not just one of my favorite entertainers, he’s one of my idols.