“Mr Show Business” and “the greatest entertainer ever to grace a stage in these United States” -– Sammy Davis Jr. is a dearly missed superstar who forever carved himself into American history.
I enjoyed Sammy Davis Jr. tremendously, he was an incredible musician and actor – one of the most talented performers ever.
But his life story is also a tale about the extraordinary obstacles he faced, deep-rooted racism, secret love affairs and a mysterious confession on his deathbed.
Sammy Davis Jr. was born on in Harlem, New York on a chilly December in 1925. He came into this world with music and entertainment in his blood – there was never any doubt of which path Davis would take in life.
His father was the African-American entertainer and vaudeville performer Sammy Davis Sr. His mother, Elvera Sanchez, also made a living as a vaudeville dancer and.
Unfortunately, his parents divorced when Sammy Davis Jr. was only 3 years old. But that decision wasn’t just bad for the young boy. Davis’ father didn’t want to lose custody of his son, so Davis Sr. took his son on tour.
Sammy Davis Jr. was very young when he debuted as “Baby Sammy” and started performing with his father and his ‘uncle’ Will Mastin. The audience loved the talented 3-year-old boy and together with father and uncle DAvis formed the popular the Will Mastin Trio.
Already at this point, his father and uncle made sure to protect little Sammy from the racism during this time of segregation in America. Racism and hate would be a recurring theme throughout Sammy’s life – but when he was a child, he couldn’t understand how bad things was.
As a young boy, his career rolled on at high speed. He landed his first film role at the age of eight, when he starred in “Rufus Jones for President”, released in 1933. He spent his early life on the road and during this era, there wasn’t that big of debate around child labor or whether children should to school.
Davis received all his education on stage and when he was in his teens he was a full-fledged musician, entertainer, comedian and dancer. Davis’ father sometimes tried to hire teachers to provide his son with some form of education, but when when Davis was touring with the Will Mastin Trio, there was no time to sit in the school desk.
Sammy Davis Jr. didn’t go to pre-school and he never went to college – instead he was drafted into the U.S. Army as an 18-year-old.
In 1943, the World War II raged on and Davis served in the Army’s Special Services branch, which provided entertainment for the troops.
Racists broke his nose
However, his time in the Army turned into a minor hell for Davis, who was ridiculed and abused by many white soldiers from the South. Some attacked him both physically and mentally.
”Overnight the world looked different. It wasn’t one color any more. I could see the protection I’d gotten all my life from my father and Will. I appreciated their loving hope that I’d never need to know about prejudice and hate, but they were wrong. It was as if I’d walked through a swinging door for 18 years, a door which they had always secretly held open,” Davis said according to the book Sammy: An Autobiography: with Material Newly Revised from Yes I Can and Why Me?.
In the army, Sammy was beaten several times, painted white and he got his nose broken, so bad that it was permanently damaged. Once he was offered a beer replaced with. Later, Davis was forced to perform and entertain the soldiers who had previously abused him.
Still, Davis kept his pride and did his best to keep the troops happy and relaxed. But he got a real awakening around the open racism and discrimination – both in the army and in society. He then decided to work for a change and always came back to ”Sergeant Williams”, a person in the army who taught him how to use his talent to fight racial ignorance.
“My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking,” Davis later said.
He was discharged in 1945 and returned to the entertainment industry and his beloved Will Mastin Trio. Davis also tried his hand at a solo career, but it was in 1947 that the big turnaround would come for the then 22-year-old.
The Will Mastin Trio got to open for Frank Sinatra at the Capitol Theater in New York and that changed everything for Davis.
Frank ”Ol’ Blue Eyes” Sinatra and Sammy clicked right away – the famous singer was frankly blown away by Sammy’s talent. The duo would become lifelong friends and Sinatra always had Davis’ back, which was vital because he was constantly exposed to racism.
There are several examples of Frank Sinatra standing up to racism and the discrimination that Davis was facing, as a black entertainer in a whitewashed world.
When Davis was turned down or couldn’t sleep at the same hotel as his friend and colleague, Frank Sinatra became furious and stood up for Sammy.
He would even tear up his own contract with a theater who didn’t want Davis on stage because of his skin color. And remember, this was not during Sinatra’s earl days, he was still relatively unknown and needed the gig.
“With all the racial tension I endured, I never turned around and hated right back,” Davis later told his daughter.
“There was always some white guy like Sergeant Williams or Frank Sinatra, who helped me back up.”
Without the support from the most popular, white singer in the country, it’s not impossible that Sammy’s career would have looked very different.
Sammy Davis car crash
“Sinatra, first of all was never a racist kind of guy. He cared about everybody being equal. When Frank said, ‘This guy’s great,” they all paid attention,” Sammy’s daughter explained in her book about her father.
In the early 1950s, Davis got the chance with the record company Decca Records and went to Los Angeles to record an album.
The time in Los Angeles would change Davis’ life forever – but not in a very positive way. It was in California, on his way home from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, that he nearly lost his life in a serious car accident.
Davis lost one eye in the accident and he was forced to wear an eye patch for quite some time after the accident. Later, Davis got a glass eye.
But again, Davis managed to found something positive in all the tragedy.
The accident made him think about life and he soon discovered Judaism. Davis felt that the situation of the Jews was very similar to that of African Americans, and soon Davis had converted to Judaism in 1961.
Thankfully, Davis recovered from the car crash and in 1956 he got his breakthrough on Broadway. A few years late maybe – since Davis had been touring since the 1920s… Anyways, he made huge success in the musical ”Mr Wonderful”– written specifically to manifest the talents of Davis.
One could easily argue that Sammy Davis Jr. stood at the peak of his career in the late 1950s. He became a member of the famous The Rat Pack, a club of entertainers led by Frank Sinatra.
The gang did shows and movies together – but the group was also known for their wild parties and extravagant habits.
During this time Davis fell in love with the beautiful, blue-eyed blonde Kim Novak. At this time, Novak’s career was at peak and she was a very famous face in Hollywood after her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s ”Vertigo”.
The couple first laid eyes on each other at the famous The Chez Paree, in Chicago. Then they met again, the same evening, at an after-party. They fell in love immediately and became inseparable.
But it didn’t take long before the gossip magazines heard about the scandalous romance. At this time, interracialrelationships were not accepted. Davis immediately called Kim Novak to apologize – he swore he hadn’t say a word to the journalists about their love affair.
Kiv Novak believed him and invited Davis home for dinner – the couple ate spaghetti and everything was fine for a while.
However, Kim Novak’s boss, Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, was not so pleased. In fact, he was furious over Novak dating a black man. He thought that it could ruin her whole career and also jeopardize the company’s revenue.
He forbade Novak from meeting Davis, but that didn’t help. The couple continued to see each other in secret – sometimes Davis would hid under a pile of sheets to avoid the paparazzis curious eyes.
Harry Cohen’s frustration grew bigger and he ordered guards to Novak’s house, to keep Davis away.
In the end, it went so far that Cohn contacted the mafia, which threatened Davis. Now it was serious and the Mob announced that if Davis didn’t marry an African-American woman within 48 hours, nasty things would happen.
The Mob threatened to break Davis’ legs and stick out his only working eye, according to the 2014 BBC Documentary “The Kid in the middle”.
Now Sammy was in a hurry. He called his friend, the singer Loray White, directly. They had dated sporadically before and Davis offered her $10,000 to marry him. Hours later, the couple tied the knot at the Sands Hotel, but they divorce not long after – something that Davis had included in the deal.
After that, Novak and Davis went on with their lives.
“That DID happen. [Cohn was] surrounded by all these men, including people in the Mob. He told me that my career was in jeopardy if I continued to see Sammy… it was very disturbing, but we knew there was no use fighting it,” Novak later confirmed.
Had one daughter
The couple they would be reunited one last time. When Sammy Davis Jr. laid on his deathbed, Novak visited her old love partner. After many years apart, the old couple was able to say a final goodbye.
Overall, Sammy Davis Jr. wasn’t that lucky with women. He wasn’t really a family man, according to his only daughter.
Due to his height and broken nose, he was often discredited as ugly. But in return, Sammy had a charisma and charm that really made the women fall for him, something that certainly stuck in many people’s eyes.
Still, Davis was married three times and he had a daughter, Tracey, together with the Swedish-born actress May Britt.
The interracial marriage to May Britt was also taboo and Davis received many hate letters from people who did not think it was appropriate for a black man to marry a white woman.
Throughout his career, of course, there were many rumors about Davis and it is always difficult to know what is true and hearsay.
A rumor that went was that President Kennedy refused to let Sammy Davis Jr. play at JFK:s inauguration. Davis, who was a devoted Democrat and supported Kennedy in the 1960 election campaign, was initially thought to have perform but was denied on account of his marriage to May Britt, according to daughter Tracey’s book from 2014.
It was JFK’s father who didn’t approve of Sammy’s interracial marriage and thought it would ruin the ball, longtime friend Arthur Silber confirmed to Desert Sun in 2015.
In 2014, Tracey released a book about her father where many things were revealed or confirmed, including the ”incident” with JFK. The book is based on conversations she had with her father and gives a good insight into his life and thoughts.
“He wanted me to keep it going. He wanted people to know his music and what he stood for and what he did and what kind of person he was. And I think he knew intuitively that I was the one to do it,” she later told CBC.
As stated, Tracey was Davis’ only biological child, but the famous singer actually had three adopted sons as well, something not everyone knows.
Sammy Davis Jr.’s last words
A few years ago, one of the adopted sons, Mark, suspected that he was in fact Davis’ biological son. Mark had found his birth certificate in 2013 where it said that Davis was named his father. He also remembered his last conversation he had with his father on the deathbed.
”’You are my son’ were his last words to me and I have from that day wondered what he meant”, Mark told Daily Mail.
Tracey didn’t believe this at all and was absolutely certain that she was Davis and May Britt’s only biological child. After a period of great confusion, Mark finally did a DNA test which showed that he wasn’t Davis’ biological son.
In 1989, Sammy Davis Jr. was diagnosed with throat cancer. For much of his career, he drank and smoked a lot – something that might explain the sickness. Davis refused to have surgery on his throat and received chemotherapy instead. Sammy Davis Jr. wanted to keep his voice intact and – a voice that touched people to very last moments of his life.
Author Burt Boyer told Vanity Fair:
“It was stunning. Here’s a man dying of throat cancer, and his voice was glorious, like a nightingale. It was almost unreal. ” Not only was he born with talent and the voice of an angel, but he also died with it too.”
Unfortunately, Sammy Davis Jr. died. 64 years old, on May 16th in 1990.
He was hailed by thousands of people around the world – 2,500 people, attended his funeral.
Davis was subsequently awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. When the news of his death became known, the city of Las Vegas turned off all its neon lights on the strip in honor his memory.
Loved this man for so many reasons. He was wonderful at anything he did. An amazing talent and gone way too soon!
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