The Life You Give: Sammy Davis, Jr. *1925

Sammy Davis, Jr., born December 8, 1925 in New York, New York, was a singer, dancer, and entertainer.

At age three Davis began performing in vaudeville with his father and uncle, Will Mastin, in the Will Mastin Trio. Davis studied tap dancing under Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson but never received a formal education. After serving in the U.S. Army he became the central figure of the Mastin Trio, not only singing and dancing but also playing trumpet, drums, piano, and vibraphone; moreover, he was an accomplished mime and comedian. He encountered virulent racial prejudice early in his career, but he endured to become one of the first African American stars to achieve wide popularity.

Along with his extremely successful nightclub career, Davis was a popular recording artist, and he was successful on Broadway in Mr. Wonderful (1956) and in a 1964 revival of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy and in films, including Porgy and Bess (1959) and Sweet Charity (1969). He also appeared in a series of motion pictures with friends such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, including Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). Davis wrote two autobiographical books, Yes I Can (1965) and Why Me? (1989). (Source: Britannica)

Learned to tap dance like a master

Sammy Davis Jr. began performing almost as soon as he could walk. Both of his parents, Elvera Sanchez and Sammy Davis Sr., were vaudevillians who danced with the Will Mastin Troupe. Sammy Jr. became the Mastin Troupe’s youngest member at age three. He became a regular at age five and traveled with his father on the shrinking vaudeville circuit. Sammy Jr. was able to dance very quickly in a style called “flash dancing.” He danced so well that once, competing against older children, he won a silver cup and ten dollars. By the time he was eight years old he had appeared in two movies.

Sammy Jr.’s demanding schedule of travel, practice, and performances left little time for formal education. When he could afford it, his father hired tutors. But Sammy Jr. could not read much more than comic books until he grew up and joined the army. His unconventional childhood did provide him with important lessons, however. Young Sammy learned how to please an audience, how to tap dance like a master, and how to move people with a smile and a song.

The Aristipposian Poet
The Life You Give: Sammy Davis, Jr.
in celebration of his music and entertainment
December 8 at 1am EST
on Clubhouse

Few vaudeville acts in the 1930s survived the competition from the growing motion picture industry. The Mastin Troupe decreased gradually until it became a three-person act—Sammy Davis Sr., Will Mastin, and Sammy Davis Jr. By 1940 Sammy Jr. had become the star attraction. The act was popular enough to receive billings in larger clubs, and in that environment Davis met other performers such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878–1949), Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), and various big band leaders.

Davis was drafted into the United States Army in 1943, when he turned eighteen. An African American sergeant, who taught him how to read, befriended him. He was constantly mistreated by white troops, however, with whom he shared living quarters. Transferred to an entertainment regiment, Davis eventually found himself performing in front of some of these same soldiers. He discovered that his energetic dancing and singing could win over the bigots.

On November 19, 1954, Davis nearly lost his life in an automobile accident in the California desert. The accident shattered his face and caused him to lose his left eye. While recovering, he spent hours discussing philosophy with a rabbi on staff at the hospital. Shortly thereafter he converted to Judaism. Upon Davis’s return to the stage he sold out every performance and received thunderous applause. Some critics suggested that he might have had hidden motives for converting to Judaism. Others, however, especially African Americans, applauded his thoughtful observations about Jews, African Americans, and oppression.

Davis began the 1960s as a certified superstar of stage and screen. He had turned “Mr. Wonderful” into a successful Broadway show, and he earned critical raves for his performance in the film Porgy and Bess.As a member of the high-profile “Rat Pack,” he associated with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (1917–1995), Peter Lawford (1923–1984), and Joey Bishop (1918–) at fashionable nightclubs in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, California.

In 1965 Davis starred in another Broadway play, Golden Boy, and in two movies, A Man Called Adam and Sweet Charity. He also starred in two television shows during the same years, The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show and The Swinging World of Sammy Davis, Jr.

Throughout the 1960s Davis had been a vocal supporter of the Black Power movement and other left-wing causes. In the early 1970s he lost support of some liberals and members of the African American community when he embraced President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) and performed in Vietnam, which was the site of the Vietnam War. By that time Davis had developed liver and kidney trouble and spent some months in the hospital early in 1974.

Davis recorded albums throughout his career and performed a number of signature songs. Chief among these were his tribute to Bill Robinson, “Mr. Bojangles,” the ballads “What Kind of Fool Am I” and “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” and his biggest hit, the upbeat “Candy Man.” Davis’s singing was like everything else in his performance—energetic, spirited, and played to maximum effect.

The last fifteen years of Davis’s life were conducted at the performer’s usual hectic pace. In 1978 he appeared in another Broadway musical, Stop the World—I Want To Get Off. He occasionally served as a stand-in host for the popular “Tonight Show,” and he returned to the casino stages. Even hip surgery failed to stop Davis from performing. His best-known act in the 1980s was a musical review with his friends Sinatra and Liza Minnelli (1946–), which played to sold-out crowds in the United States and Europe just a year before Davis’s death.

In eulogies across the country, entertainers and others cited Davis as a mentor and a pioneer who reached mainstream audiences even though he hailed from minority groups in both race and religion.

(Source: Encyclopedia of World Biographies)

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