Sammy Davis, Jr.

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Date: Feb. 12, 2013
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,366 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1270L

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About this Person
Born: December 08, 1925 in New York, New York, United States
Died: May 16, 1990 in Beverly Hills, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Entertainer
Updated:Feb. 12, 2013
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In one sense, Sammy Davis Jr. was a throwback to the spirit of an earlier age. He was an extremely versatile entertainer with roots in the vaudeville stage, and long after music became fundamentally intertwined with marketing and electronic media, he remained a star primarily by getting up in front of audiences and singing, dancing, and making them laugh. In another sense, though, Davis was a pioneer. As much as any other single performer, he may be said to have broken the color barrier in American entertainment. He was the first black musician to establish a foothold firmly in the pop mainstream, appearing in such citadels of white American culture as the Las Vegas casinos, and hobnobbing with such stars as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Early Life

Sammy Davis Jr. was born in New York's Harlem neighborhood on December 8, 1925. His father performed with a group of touring stage vaudevillians known as the Will Mastin Troupe. He was raised by his father after his mother, a chorus girl, abandoned Davis when he was only three years old. He never received any formal education. Incorporated into the Will Maston Troupe at an early age, Davis recalled meeting the dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as a teenager. The last great star of the vaudeville era, Robinson impressed the young performer. In later years, Davis would make the Nitty Gritty Dirt band composition "Mr. Bojangles" an indispensable part of his stage presentation.

The events that formed Davis's identity as a performer occurred after he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. He encountered overt racial hostility that reached the point of violence--the Army at that time was still largely a segregated institution. When his skills as an entertainer were noticed, he was sent to perform at Army bases around the country. Davis succeeded in channeling his anger and hurt into his performances. In his 1965 autobiography, Davis recalled that he thrived "on the joy of being liked" and would put extra energy into his performances in order to "neutralize {the haters} and make them acknowledge" his efforts.

Career as a Performer

Following his discharge from the Army, Davis honed his performing skills and learned to present a smooth blend of singing, instrumental work, dancing, and comedy. He toured with shows headlined by Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra, and his reputation grew to the point where he could draw crowds on his own to leading high-ticket nightclubs in such cities as New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. After Davis had a successful run at New York's swank Copacabana club, the Decca label signed him to a recording contract in 1954.

On November 19, 1954, Davis was severely injured in an automobile accident. The accident shattered his face and cost him his left eye. During his recuperation, he became involved in a series of discussions with a rabbi visiting the hospital. Davis had had some previous exposure to the Jewish faith from fellow vaudevillian Eddie Cantor and was now impressed by the historical parallels between the black and Jewish experience of oppression and diaspora. He announced his conversion to Judaism a short time later, the first of several decisions that would mire Davis in controversy. Some white observers questioned the sincerity of Davis's conversion, while some blacks viewed it as a further concession to white standards on the part of a performer who always seemed eager, or overeager, to please white audiences.

Davis's conversion to Judaism and his rapid recovery from his injuries landed him in the headlines and his career took off in earnest. Offers of club dates poured in, and a Broadway musical, Mr. Wonderful, was created specifically with Davis in mind. The performer moved successfully from stage to screen and appeared in several prominent roles at the end of the 1950s, most memorably as Sportin' Life in the 1959 film of George Gershwin's opera-musical Porgy and Bess. By 1960 Davis was a bona fide star.

More Controversy

In 1960 Davis sparked further controversy by marrying a white woman, the Swedish actress Mai Britt. The couple was deluged with hate mail, and Davis wrote in his 1989 autobiography that the couple had been pressured by President John F. Kennedy not to appear at Kennedy's 1961 inauguration so as not to offend the president's Southern supporters. Davis again rode out the storm, keeping up a steady stream of film and television appearances. Politically Davis took a decided turn to the left as he expressed support for militant black leaders such as Angela Davis, in addition to participating in more mainstream civil rights marches. In 1972 Davis once again stunned supporters and detractors alike by endorsing Richard Nixon's presidential campaign and hugging Nixon on stage during a campaign appearance.

Davis's lengthy period in the spotlight came about partly because of the high social profile he maintained. He spent time with a coterie of entertainers, dubbed "The Rat Pack," who were fixtures of top-dollar nightspots in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The group included performers who had, like Davis, worked their way up through nightclub appearances; they included Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, and Tony Curtis. The group spent money with total abandon. According to the New York Times, Davis once estimated that he had spent $50 million over the course of his career, on an income that at times topped $3 million a year.

Continued Career

Despite drug and alcohol addiction and an extended hospitalization for liver and kidney surgery in 1974, Davis's hectic schedule was hardly diminished during the 1970s. He was a frequent guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and in 1978 returned to Broadway as the star of the revival musical Stop the World -- I Want to Get Off.

During the 1980s, Davis embarked on a hugely successful revue tour with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. He then received a hip replacement in 1985 that allowed him to dance again. In 1989 Davis made his final film appearance with Gregory Hines in Tap, which looked back warmly at the vaudeville scene that had formed the foundation for Davis's own career. Later that year, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and died on May 16, 1990.

Following Davis's death, Americans from all walks of life marveled at his life story. The Washington Post columnist Donna Britt wrote that Davis "deserves more than mere praise because he was too complicated." California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, speaking at the performer's funeral, struck a common note when he said that without Davis, "Cos {Bill Cosby} would not be Cos, and Sidney {Poitier} would not be Sidney." "Every black entertainer who came after Davis," read Time's obituary, "was spared some of the blows he had to take, because he took them first."


Born December 8, 1925, in New York; died of throat cancer, May 16, 1990, in Los Angeles; son of Sammy (a stage performer) and Elvira (a dancer, maiden name Sanchez); married Loray White, 1958 (divorced, 1959); married Mai Britt, 1960 (divorced, 1968); married Altovise Gore, 1970; children: Tracey, Mark (adopted), Jeff (adopted), Manny (adopted). Religion: Jewish. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Army, 1943-45.


Singer, dancer, and stage and screen actor, late 1920s-1990. Member, Will Mastin Troupe, 1930-50; solo performer, 1950-90, appearing in cabarets, nightclubs, and numerous Broadway musicals and motion pictures; signed with Decca label, 1955; signed with Reprise label, 1960; signed with MGM label, 1972; had pop hits with "What Kind of Fool Am I," 1962, and "The Candy Man," 1972; frequent television guest star and talk-show host, 1970s and 1980s.


Spingarn Medal from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1968; honorary degree from Wilberforce University, 1973; honored with television special devoted to his life, 1990.


Selective Discography

  • Starring Sammy Davis, Jr., Decca, 1955.
  • Just for Lovers, Decca, 1955.
  • What Kind of Fool Am I and Other Show Stoppers, Reprise, 1962.
  • Forget-Me-Nots, Decca, 1964.
  • Nat Cole Song Book, Reprise, 1965.
  • The Best of Sammy Davis, Jr., Decca, 1966.
  • I've Gotta Be Me, Reprise, 1969.
  • What Kind of Fool Am I, Harmony, 1971.
  • Portrait of Sammy Davis, Jr., MGM, 1978.
  • Hey There! It's Sammy Davis, Jr. at His Dynamite Greatest, MCA.
  • The Great Sammy Davis, Jr., Columbia, 1988.



Contemporary Musicians, volume 4, Gale Research, 1991.

Davis, Sammy, Jr., Burt Broyar and Jane Broyar, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr., Farrar, Straus, 1965.

Davis, Sammy, Jr., Burt Broyar and Jane Broyar, Why Me? The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, Farrar, Straus, 1989.

Larkin, Colin, ed., The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness, 1992.


Entertainment Weekly, November 28, 1997, p. 53.

Maclean's, May 28, 1990, p. 61.

New York Times, May 17, 1990 (obituary).

Time, May 28, 1990, p. 71.

Washington Post, May 17, 1990, p. A1.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1606001000