History of Sammy Davis Jr.

Dianne Brooks
tap dancer silhouette

The history of Sammy Davis Jr. begins with his recognition as one of the most gifted entertainers to grace our planet. He was an amazing dancer, singer, actor and comedian. He broke through racial barriers, paving the way for people of color everywhere. Davis was a unique talent who more than anything loved to make people happy.

Early Life

Davis was born in Harlem and raised on the road. His parents, Sammy Davis Sr. and Elvera Sanchez were vaudeville dancers. He debuted at age three when Will Mastin, his father's partner, put him onstage in a show called Struttin' Hannah from Savannah. Thereafter, Sammy became a regular on the chitlin circuit, the string of theaters that played to black audiences in the South and Midwest. Needless to say, Davis had no real childhood: never attending school or playing with other children.

Becoming Mr. Entertainment

With the demise of vaudeville in the 1930s, Davis, his father Sammy Sr., and Will Mastin toured in a 'flash dance' act that combined tap, folk, ballet and gymnastics. Even though he was only five feet, four inches tall and weighed a mere one hundred and twenty pounds, Sammy Davis Jr. was drafted in 1944. He completed basic training four times at Fort Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where for the first time he realized that people hated him because of his race. Sergeant Gene Williams, fortunately, took him under his wing, helping to add a little polish and enabling him to improve his camp show act.

The History of Sammy Davis Jr. Star

After the army, The Will Mastin Trio, as they were now called, played nightclubs from Manhattan to Las Vegas. Davis' big breakthrough happened at Ciros in Los Angeles, where he had the crowd on its knees with his songs and impressions of, among others, Humphrey Bogart and Jerry Lewis. Success followed when Sammy Davis Jr. signed with Decca records and premiered at the Copacabana. Tragically, Davis lost his left eye in a car accident that same year.

Sammy Davis Jr. Highlights
Songs Films Television Books
Candy Man Taps Laugh-In Why Me?
What Kind of Fool Am I Ocean's Eleven The Rifleman Yes I Can

The history of Sammy Davis Jr. covered sixty years and an enormous output. He performed in three Broadway shows, many films and numerous television shows. He recorded a wide range of popular music. Davis' last film Tap was a collaboration with the late dancer Gregory Hines.

The Rat Pack

Davis' charter membership in Frank Sinatra's 'Rat Pack' came at a higher cost than for the other members. He was always reminded of his race by his nickname of 'Smokey'. At their Sands Hotel performances, he was often the butt of ethnic jokes. Once, in a Sands hotel steam room, all the robes for the Pack were white, except for Sammy's, which was black. Even his role in Ocean's Eleven was subservient: he was the garbage collector. Nonetheless, it was always profitable. Sammy, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin did a sold out Together Again tour in 1987, with Liza Minnelli replacing Martin later.

Loves and Marriage

Davis' personal life was never easy. He had grown up on the road, without any model of how to be a husband or father. Although he called himself ugly, his charisma attracted women.

One famous love affair, with actress Kim Novak took a dangerous turn, when studio chief, Harry Cohn made it clear via the LA gangster Mickey Cohen that Davis would suffer serious bodily harm if it didn't end.

After announcing his engagement to Swedish actress May Britt in 1960, Sammy was threatened and later booed at the Democratic National Convention. John F. Kennedy un-invited him to his inauguration. He and Britt had one daughter, Tracey and later adopted two sons Mark and Jeff. Sammy was not a family man, however, and was divorced eight years later. He married Altovise Davis in 1970.

Beyond the Swingin' Sixties

Davis was a Civil Rights advocate and active supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Later, to the consternation of many friends, he supported Richard Nixon.

Davis continued to work until the end of his life. The history of Sammy Davis Jr., comes to a close with his death from throat cancer on May 16, 1990 at the age of 64. He remains a legendary figure, loved and respected by millions.

History of Sammy Davis Jr.