“What have I got? No looks, no money, no education. Just talent.” – Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr. Biography
Samuel George Davis Junior, who will forever be known as Sammy, was born in Harlem, New York City, New York, USA on 8 December 1925. As his name suggests, he is the son of Sammy Davis Senior, who was also an entertainer and dancer. His mother, Elvera Sanchez, was an Afro-Cuban tap dancer. They split when Sammy Davis Jr. was only three years old and because he didn’t want to lose custody of him, his father took him on tour. The young Sammy learned to dance from his father and his uncle, Will Mastin and during this time as a young boy, his father and his uncle did their best to shield Sammy from prejudice. By all accounts they did a pretty good job as when Sammy joined the United States Army during World War II, the eighteen year old entered a world that looked completely different to the one he was used to as he became a target for racism and hate.
It could certainly have been worse for Sammy though. He served in the Special Services (entertainment) Unit, which was integrated and Sammy found that even prejudiced white men showed a certain amount of respect for, if not him, then for his performances. Sammy said, “My talent was my weapon”. When Sammy was discharged from the army at the end of the war, he re-joined the family act and toured clubs around the city of Portland in Oregon. He also had a recording deal with Capitol Records, for which he sang blues songs, albeit not under his own name.
A performance of the Will Mastin Trio at Ciro’s in March 1951 would change everything. The crowd, which was full of celebrities, were so enthusiastic, that their twenty minute supporting role went on for over an hour and led to them receiving top billing at future performances. Shortly afterwards, Sammy would be singled out due to his dancing and singing talents. He received huge praise by critics and released a number of albums. In 1954, he sang the title track to the movie Six Bridges to Cross for Universal Pictures. This in turn led to a starring role in the 1956 Broadway show Mr. Wonderful.
In the same year that he sang the title to Six Bridges to Cross, Sammy Davis Jr. was involved in an automobile accident that nearly cost him his life. It occurred at the intersection between Cajon Boulevard on Route 66 and Kendall Drive. The bullet shaped horn button on his Cadillac cost him his left eye. His actor friend Jeff Chandler said that he would donate one of his eyes to Sammy if it would prevent him from going blind. As it was, Sammy had to wear an eye patch for six months after he left hospital. He can be seen wearing the patch on the cover of his 1955 album called Starring Sammy Davis Jr. He would subsequently wear a glass eye for the rest of his life.
In 1957 Sammy Davis Jr. was involved with a young actress called Kim Novak. However, due to the taboo that existed at the time around inter-racial relationships, a mobster was hired to put the frighteners on Sammy. The threat also included a requirement for him to be married to a black woman with 48 hours or he would lose his other eye. Sammy hastily married dancer Loray White, but the marriage was never consummated and it was dissolved after only nine months.
Sammy Davis Jr. and May Britt
In 1960 Sammy would court controversy again though, when he married a Swedish born actress called May Britt. She of course, was white and Sammy received hate mail. Even so, the couple went on to have a daughter called Tracey and they also adopted two boys. However, as Sammy was on the road so much, the couple divorced in 1968.
Only three years after this first starring role, Sammy Davis Jr. joined Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and Frank Sinatra to form The Rat Pack. Led by Sinatra, the group was initially going to be called The Clan, but after Sammy said that the name reminded him of the Klu Klux Klan, Frank agreed to change it to The Summit, but this didn’t stick either. They would eventually adopt the name that they had been referred to as by the media, The Rat Pack, as that was the name of a previous incarnation of the group that had featured Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. The Rat Pack made a number of movies together including 1960’s Ocean’s 11, 1962’s Sergeants 3 and 1964’s Robin and the 7 Hoods. The group also appeared on stage together a number of times, usually in Las Vegas. Even though during this time, Sammy Davis Jr. was the headline act at The Frontier Casino, racial segregation meant that he and other black performers were not allowed to stay in the hotel. They could not gamble and they could not use the restaurants or bars. They were even made to wait out in the pool areas until it was their turn to be on stage. Later in his career, if a place practiced racial segregation, Sammy would refuse to work there.
On December 11, 1967, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy appeared in a show called “Movin’ with Nancy” in which, at the beginning of the show, Sammy would greet Nancy with a kiss. Broadcast by NBC, it was one of the first times that a black-white kiss had been shown on U.S. television.
On May 11, 1970, Sammy Davis Jr. married again, this time to a dancer he had met whilst starring on Broadway in Golden Boy. Her name was Altovise Gore and the couple had an adopted son called Manny. She and Sammy would be married until Sammy’s death in 1990.
Sammy and Altovise Davis
Sammy Davis Jr. was also an avid photographer and collected a lot of rare and intimate shots of everything from his father dancing with the Will Mastin Trio to his colleagues and friends such as Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Marilyn Monroe.
He was also a gun and shooting enthusiast and was very skilled at gunspinning and the quick draw. He was said to be able to draw and shoot a single action Colt revolver in less than a quarter of a second.
As far as politics is concerned, Sammy was a registered Democrat and supported both John F. Kennedy’s election campaign in 1960 and his brother Robert’s campaign in 1968. However, he also became good friends with Richard Nixon and publicly gave him his support in 1972. Sammy and his wife Altovise would subsequently become the first African-Americans to sleep at the White House when President Nixon invited them to do so in 1973.
Sammy’s star continued to rise through the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was friends with Elvis Presley, he hosted telethons, and even had a cameo in the 1971 James Bond movie, Diamonds are Forever, although the scene was cut. He made radio commercials and television commercials, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. He was a fan of daytime soap operas and television game shows and made cameo appearances in both. This also led to a recurring role in the soap opera called One Life to Live. He played the character Chip Warren and received a Daytime Emmy Award Nomination in 1980.
In 1990 though, tragedy would strike. In August the previous year, doctors found a tumour in Sammy’s throat which turned out to be cancerous. He received radiation and chemotherapy treatment after refusing surgery on his throat due to the damage it would cause to his voice. The treatment was to no avail though an on May 16, 1990, Sammy Davis Jr. died from complications associated with throat cancer. He was 64 years old. He was interred in the Garden of Honor at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, next to his father and Will Mastin. His wife Altovise joined him in March 2009.