December 8, 1925– Sammy Davis Jr.:
“I have to be a star like another man has to breathe.”
He was the hippest Jew in Show Biz & he brought black into the white homes of segregated America & entertained everyone.
As a kid I was totally enamored of “The Rat Pack”, with Davis, led by Davis’ old friend Frank Sinatra, & included such fellow performers Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, & Shirley MacLaine. The love I feel for the group endures.
Davis started in vaudeville when he was just 3 years old & despite the barriers of racism, he conquered Broadway, Recordings, Las Vegas, Films & Television. He was in show biz for 60+ years.
48 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 & a Hispanic, Davis suffered from dreaful overt racism throughout his entire life. During his lifetime, 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 & 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 in 1970.
One day on the golf course with 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 & Baby Sanchez, who 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 & little Davis soon became the star of the show redubbed: Will Mastin’s Gang Featuring Little Sammy. When the authorities stepped in forbidding him to appear on stage, Davis Sr. gave his son a rubber cigar & billed him as “The Dancing Midget”.
He made his film debut in Rufus Jones For President (1932) when he was 7 years old tap dancing with the greatest tapper who ever lived Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, holding his own .
Davis was drafted into the US Army when he was 18 years old. He suffered abuse & torment from his fellow soldiers, & 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 & very frightening. I couldn’t have a white buddy, & 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 & 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. But, Davis wanted to go solo & perfected a nightclub act that brought him a recording contract. His first couple of albums: Starring Sammy Davis, Jr. & Just For Lovers were hits & Davis was soon to headlining at supper clubs in LA, Las Vegas, Miami, & NYC.
Davis was just the sort of entertainer that I have always loved the most. He could sing, act, dance, do impersonations, make audiences laugh & 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 & was basically his nightclub act with a bit of a plot. His pals Sinatra & Danny Kaye strong-armed director Otto Preminger into giving Davis the role of Sportin’ Life in his film version of George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess (1959) where Davis gives a stupendous performance & really kicks some life into the film.
Davis was a headliner in Vegas, but like all black 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 & they had to wait outside between acts. The Rat Pack played an important role in the desegregation of Las Vegas hotels & casinos in the early 1960s. Sinatra & crew refused to play clubs that would not offer full service to the African American entertainers. Once Rat Pack appearances became popular & 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 Mob 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 & was annulled 9 months later, with White receiving $10,000 to keep quiet.
Davis found companionship & camaraderie with fellow performers: Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, along with Shirley MacLaine, Angie Dickinson & Juliet Prowse as the pack’s gal pals. The press gave them that name,“The Rat Pack” (named after a group of Hollywood stars from a decade earlier). The little gang Played Las Vegas, did concerts & television specials, plus made several films together in some combination of the core group, including the original version of Ocean’s 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), & Robin & The 7 Hoods (1963).
Davis married Swedish-born actor May Britt in 1960. When the news hit, Davis received hate mail & death threats, along with an FBI file & the special love of the KKK.
Davis starred in the 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.
His performing schedule took a toll on the marriage to Britt (they had 3 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 insist that Davis sometimes liked to get it on with guys. Davis 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, & 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 is on my 2014 Cancer Mix. I wish he had made it to his 90th birthday today. It would have been so groovy to have Davis as a guest on my Netflix Holiday Special A Very Steve Christmas!. Davis would have done his very swingin’ version of My Favorite Things, & we then would have done a duet of 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, & Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel. I would really have loved that.
Davis took his final bow in 1990, taken by cancer after he refused treatment that might have ruined his voice.
Sammy Davis, Jr. is not just one of my favorite entertainers, he’s one of my idols.