Sammy Davis Jr. Biography

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Birth Name: Sammy Davis Jr.
Born: 12/08/1925
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA
Death Place: Beverly Hills, California, USA
Died: 05/16/1990

Born Samuel George Davis, Jr. on Dec. 8, 1925 in the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, NY, he was the son of entertainer Sammy Davis, Sr., and Elvera Sanchez, a tap dancer of Cuban descent. As an infant, Davis was primarily cared for by his grandmother while his parents worked the vaudeville circuit. After they separated, Davis, Sr., not wanting to lose custody of his son, took the three-year-old on tour with him. Soon, Davis became a performer with his father as a member of the Will Mastin Trio. Though he would never attend a formal school, he was taught to sing and dance by his father and adoptive "Uncle" Will. Davis was also shielded from much of the racism of the day by his well-meaning caregivers, a relatively easy accomplishment in the insolated world of entertainment. At the age of seven, Davis made his film debut as the star of the Vitaphone musical short "Rufus Jones for President" (1933), opposite Ethel Waters. Drafted into the U.S. Army at age 18, Davis was quickly exposed to the bitter reality of bigotry in clashes with white soldiers that frequently ended in violence and, on more than one occasion, a broken nose for Davis. Determined to be acknowledged on his own terms, he was later assigned to an integrated entertainment unit with Special Services and managed to improve his remedial reading skills.

After completing his military service, Davis rejoined the Will Mastin Trio to perform in and around the Portland, OR area. Before long, he was the acknowledged showcase of the group and by the early 1950s they had made significant headway, not only on the West Coast nightclub circuit, but on television as well. In addition to his impressive skills as a singer and dancer, Davis' uncanny impressions of various personalities and his facility on the trumpet and drum kit made him one of the most sought-after nightclub acts of the day. In 1951, he and the Trio were signed by Decca records after a sensational performance at Hollywood's Ciro's nightclub following the Academy Awards ceremony gained him further recognition. Davis was riding high in 1954 when, while returning to Los Angeles from Las Vegas for a recording session, the singer was involved in a near-fatal car accident. In addition to several other injuries, Davis lost his left eye. Ironically, it was at about the same time that the singer enjoyed his first hit single with a rendition of the show tune, "Hey, There" - a song that later appeared on his first album with Decca, Starring Sammy Davis, Jr.. On the cover to the album, Davis appeared sporting an eye patch he wore for several months before acquiring the glass eye he would use for the rest of his life.

While recovering from the accident, a conversation in the hospital with his friend, Eddie Cantor, sowed the seeds for Davis' eventual conversion to Judaism. Davis was struck by what he saw as significant parallels in the oppression suffered by both Jews and black people over the centuries. Years later, an oft-quoted retort perfectly illustrated Davis' self-deprecating humor and personal resilience. When asked by Jack Benny what his golf handicap was, Davis wryly replied, "Handicap? I'm a one-eyed Negro Jew." By the mid-1950s, Davis' career was in full swing, taking him far beyond the realm of nightclub crooner and recording artist. In 1956, he earned rave reviews for his Broadway debut as the star of the semi-autobiographical musical vehicle unabashedly titled "Mr. Wonderful." An immensely popular production, "Mr. Wonderful" also introduced one of Davis' many signature songs, "Too Close for Comfort." Less favorable, was the controversy he stirred up with his romantic relationship with rising young film beauty - and very Caucasian - Kim Novak in 1957. Rumor had it that studio mogul and notorious bully Harry Cohn was so distraught over the damage the affair might have on his starlet's career that he employed hired goons to convince Davis to end it - or else. Whether by coincidence, convenience or coercion, Davis suddenly married African-American dancer Loray White in 1958, only to file for divorce months later once the heat was off.

Professionally, things could not have been going better for Davis, who gave one of his first serious dramatic performances opposite sex-kitten Eartha Kitt in the melodrama, "Anna Lucasta" (1958). In director Otto Preminger's lavish, albeit troubled and unfairly maligned film version of "Porgy and Bess" (1959), a lithe, seductive Davis delivered what many deemed the definitive portrayal of the snake-like drug pusher, Sportin' Life. Emboldened by his continued success and clearly undeterred by his past experience with Novak, Davis married Swedish actress May Britt in 1960. It was a move that caused a great deal of controversy during a period in America when interracial marriage was outlawed in more than half of the states. Many in the African-American community accused him of selling out his own race. While entertaining in Las Vegas, Davis was once again confronted by the widespread discrimination of the day, despite his headlining star status. As a black performer, he was barred from using the dressing rooms, staying at the hotels or eating at the restaurants of the very resorts at which he was performing. A powerful ally during this time was longtime friend and fellow entertainer, Frank Sinatra, who by this time was a shareholder in the popular Sands Resort and made it abundantly clear to casino owners that treating Davis differently than any other member of his famous entourage would not be tolerated.

That illustrious group of swinging co-conspirators included the likes of Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and comedian Joey Bishop. Initially, Sinatra had taken to calling his select cadre "The Clan," until Davis pointed out that it sounded uncomfortably similar to the nickname of a certain white supremacist group. Sinatra acquiesced and took to referring to the crew as "The Summit," although in the press they would be forever known as the "Rat Pack," a moniker first applied to screen legend Humphrey Bogart's close circle of friends. Davis, Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack where the epitome of sophisticated cool throughout that era, enjoying the run of the Vegas Strip and even rubbing elbows with the politically powerful Kennedy dynasty, thanks to Lawford's marriage to President JFK's sister, Patricia Kennedy. On screen, Davis and various incarnations of the Rat Pack appeared in a string of light-hearted romps beginning with the heist-comedy, "Ocean's Eleven" (1960), followed by the wacky Western, "Sergeants Three" (1962) and the gangster fable, "Robin and the Seven Hoods" (1964). An active supporter of the era's Civil Rights movement, Davis participated in the historic 1963 March on Washington at which Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Decades later, the beloved entertainer's efforts would earn him an induction to NAACP's Hall of Fame.

Back on Broadway, Davis picked up a Tony nomination for his powerfully dramatic performance in the 1964 musical version of Clifford Odets' 1930s Group Theater hit "Golden Boy." Adapting his own play, Odets tailored the character to Davis' talents and persona, adding updated socially relevant themes to the morality tale about a musician-turned-boxer who is corrupted by the good life. The following year, Davis published the first of his three autobiographies, Yes, I Can, an exceptionally candid memoir of his life up to that point. Capitalizing on the success of "Golden Boy," Davis appeared again on screen as a talented, yet self-destructive jazz trumpeter in the drama "A Man Called Adam" (1966). Two years later, he starred in and executive-produced the less-impressive "Salt and Pepper" (1968), a silly crime-comedy, featuring Davis and Peter Lawford as a pair of swinging London nightclub owners embroiled in a deadly plot to overthrow the British government. With the ascension of rock-n-roll and the massive popularity of acts like The Beatles and Rolling Stones, conventional wisdom held that Davis' career as a recording artist was on the wane. Once again, the performer defied expectations when he enjoyed substantial radio play for his rendition of the rousing anthem, "I've Gotta Be Me" in 1968. Little did anyone suspect, his biggest hit was yet to come.

After a rumored affair with performer Lola Falana - with whom he had appeared in both "Golden Boy" and "A Man Called Adam" - led to his divorce from May Britt two years earlier, Davis married for the third and final time to chorus line dancer, Altovise Gore in 1970. Originally written for the film "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" (1971), Davis landed his only No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a cover of "The Candy Man," in 1972. In spite of the wealth of material recorded by Davis earlier in his career - "What Kind of Fool Am I" and "Mr. Bojangles" among them - for many, this song would become the one most closely identified with the singer. Davis made a bit of television history with his memorable 1972 appearance as himself on the groundbreaking sitcom, "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-79), capped off by the hilarious image of Davis planting a kiss on the cheek of the stunned bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor).

For his entire life, Davis had been a social liberal and voted Democrat. Initially as infatuated by then-presidential nominee John F. Kennedy as his pal Sinatra was, Davis also held high hopes for what JFK might accomplish in the Civil Rights movement. However, when he was pulled from performing at Kennedy's 1961 inaugural ceremony - organized by Sinatra - due to concerns that his mixed marriage to Britt might incur the wrath of white Southerners, it left Davis feeling disappointed and betrayed. Nearly a decade later, and to the amazement of many of his friends and peers, Davis became an avid supporter of Richard M. Nixon during the 1972 presidential campaign, based on Nixon's planned efforts to address the racial divide in America. So close was his relationship to Nixon that in 1973, Davis was even invited to spend the night at the White House. Years later, however, a once again disillusioned Davis would publicly admit his regret over aligning himself with the disgraced former president, who he believed had failed to live up to promises made on the furthering of the Civil Rights Movement.

Davis returned to the stage once again in a 1978 revival of the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse musical "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off," from which his hit song "What Kind of Fool Am I?" had originated. By the 1980s, Davis - who not only smoked and drank to excess, but also battled a serious cocaine addiction for much of his life - was increasingly hampered by a host of physical problems. Nonetheless, his immense talent and insatiable need to entertain remained undimmed, making him one of the last of the major variety performers still working. He appeared in a cameo with his old Rat Pack pal Dean Martin in Burt Reynolds' cross-country road race comedy "The Cannonball Run" (1981). A few years later, they were joined by Ol' Blue Eyes himself for the sequel "Cannonball Run II" (1984). Determined to carry on, despite his aging body's growing protestations, Davis underwent a painful reconstructive hip surgery in 1985, which allowed him to continue dancing, albeit to a lesser degree than he had once enjoyed. He was among the honorees recognized for their lifetime of contributions to the performing arts at the 1987 Kennedy Center Honors - an honor he admitted took a bit of the sting away from JFK's snub some 15 years earlier.

In 1988, Davis joined his Rat Pack cohorts Sinatra and Martin for a highly-publicized concert tour. Although the performances were dimmed by the advanced ages of the trio, fans flocked for a chance to see the icons share a stage. After an ailing Martin was forced to bow out, Liza Minnelli stepped in to finish out the world tour. And though he was reluctant to admit it at the time, Davis' own health problems were just as severe, if not worse, than Martin's. Davis delivered his final feature film performance as Little Mo, an aging hoofer looking to mount one last show with the help of a talented ex-con (Gregory Hines) in the drama "Tap" (1989). Early the following year, Hines paid a particularly touching tribute to the inspirational entertainer on the special, "Sammy Davis, Jr.'s 60th Anniversary Celebration" (ABC, 1990). Having earlier refused an operation that could save his life at the cost of his precious voice, Davis passed away from complications due to throat cancer on May, 16, 1990 at the age of 64. Two days later, the lights on the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed for 10 minutes in tribute to the fallen entertainment icon.

After decades of reckless spending, Davis was in massive debt by the time of his death. In a sad epitaph, his widow, Altovise, was hounded by the Internal Revenue Service up until the time of her own passing, years later. More fitting with his legacy was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, posthumously given to Davis in 2001. His reputation would only grow in the years following his passing. Loving impersonations of Sammy were done by a bevy of comedians and actors, with Billy Crystal's spot-on homage being among the most endearing. Style being cyclical, there was a renewed appreciation for the swinging brand of cool personified by Davis and his fellow Rat Packers in the 1960s, resulting in a continuous flow of new music releases, album re-releases and TV biopics like "The Rat Pack" (HBO, 1998), featuring Don Cheadle delivering a splendid interpretation of the complex Davis. Both as an entertainer and a public figure, Davis served as an inspiration for a multitude of contemporary talent - most notably "The King of Pop," Michael Jackson. More than a decade after his death, Davis remained a fascinating and iconic figure, frequently re-examined in exhaustively researched books like In Black & White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. and the riveting exposé, Deconstructing Sammy.

By Bryce Coleman




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