Sammy Davis, Jr. (December 8, 1925 – May 16, 1990); The recipient of the NAACP Springarn Medal, nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award, also a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, dancer, singer, musician, Sammy Davis, Jr. was born in Harlem, New York.
Davis owed his early start to his parents, vaudeville star Sammy Davis, Sr. and Puerto Rican ‘Baby Sanchez, who performed with the youngsters adopted uncle, Will Mastin, in his act ‘Holiday In Dixieland’. But Sammy, Jr. soon became the star of the show as the newly rechristened ‘Will Mastin’s Gang, Featuring Little Sammy’ acknowledged. When the authorities forbade him to appear, so legend has it his father shrugged his shoulders, gave his son a rubber cigar and billed him as a ‘dancing midget’.
Whatever the truth, Sammy Davis Jr.’s career was off to a flying start. He made his film debut in the 1932 short Rufus Jones For President, showing off the tap dancing skills taught by the legendary Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. War service first brought Davis face to face with racial prejudice (‘In show business we had our own protective system’, he later remarked), but he survived to resume his career with the Will Mastin Trio (completed by his father), and while touring with Mickey Rooney in the late forties played a three week Manhattan residency with bill topper Frank Sinatra. It was the beginning of a close and lifelong friendship.
As part of the legendary “Rat Pack” (including Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and others), would not perform in clubs and venues that were segregated. Sammy Davis, Jr. was required to lodge in pool houses and rooms not in the hotels when he performed during the 1950’s.
A near fatal car crash in 1954 en route to Los Angeles recording session saw Davis lose his left eye, but a gruelling rehabilitation schedule left little time for self-pity; he was back on stage within weeks, wisecracking about his newly acquired eye patch. That spell in hospital coincided with a religions conversion to the Jewish faith which, while sincerely held for almost the rest of his life, provided the material for yet more self-mockery of the type that endeared him to an ever growing audience.
Davis recorded several hits. Including the no. 1 song “Candy man” in 1972. Earlier, Davis’s rendition of “I’ve Gotta Be Me”, reached no.11 in 1969.
Sadly, the cancer that ended his life on 16th May 1990 made that decision for him, but he’d long since sung and danced his way into immortality. A final world tour in 1988/89 with Sinatra and Martin will long be remembered, even though Liza Minnelli had to take Dean’s place when ill health forced him to drop out. But Davis sang and danced on. ‘Sammy knew he was dying back then,’ Sinatra later revealed, ‘but you never expect it to come to that. We all think we’ll live forever.’