Samuel George Davis, Jr. was born in the Harlem section of northern Manhattan Island in New York City, as an only child, to Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American entertainer, and Elvera Sanchez, a tap dancer. During his lifetime, Davis, Jr. stated that his mother was Puerto Rican and born in San Juan; however, in the 2003 biography In Black and White, author Wil Haygood writes that Davis, Jr.'s mother was born in New York City to Cuban American parents, and that Davis, Jr. claimed he was Puerto Rican because he feared anti-Cuban backlash would hurt his record sales.
Davis's parents were vaudeville dancers. As an infant, he was reared by his paternal grandmother. When he was three years old, his parents separated. His father, not wanting to lose custody of his son, took him on tour. Davis learned to dance from his father and his "uncle" Will Mastin, who led the dance troupe his father worked for. Davis joined the act as a child and they became the Will Mastin Trio. Throughout his career, Davis included the Will Mastin Trio in his billing. Mastin and his father shielded him from racism. Snubs were explained as jealousy, for instance. When Davis served in the United States Army during World War II, however, he was confronted by strong racial prejudice. He later said, "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 eighteen years, a door which they had always secretly held open.
During service in WWII, the Army assigned Davis to an integrated entertainment Special Services unit and he found that the spotlight lessened the prejudice. Even prejudiced white men admired and respected his performances. "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," he said.
After his discharge, Davis rejoined the family dance act, which played at clubs around Portland, Oregon. He began to achieve success on his own and was singled out for praise by critics, releasing several albums. This led to Davis being hired to sing the title track for the Universal Pictures film Six Bridges to Cross in 1954, and later to his appearance in the Broadway play Mr. Wonderful in 1956.
In 1959, Davis became a member of the famous Rat Pack, led by his friend Frank Sinatra, which included fellow performers Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, a brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy. Initially, Sinatra called the gathering "the Clan", but Sammy voiced his opposition, saying that it reminded people of the Ku Klux Klan. Sinatra renamed the group "the Summit", but the media referred to them as the Rat Pack, the name of its earlier permutation led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The group made several movies together, including the original version of Ocean's Eleven (1960), Sergeants Three (1962), and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), as well as many joint stage appearances in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
Davis was a headliner at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas, but he was required (as were all black performers in the 1950s) to lodge in a rooming house on the west side of the city, instead of in the hotels as his white colleagues did. No dressing rooms were provided for black performers, and they had to wait outside by the swimming pool between acts. Davis and other black artists could entertain, but could not stay at the hotels where they performed, gamble in the casinos, or dine or drink in the hotel restaurants and bars. Davis later refused to work at places which practiced racial segregation
In 1964, Davis was starring in Golden Boy at night and shooting his own New York-based afternoon talk show during the day. When he could get a day off from the theater, he would be recording new songs in the studio, or performing live, often at charity benefits as far away as Miami, Chicago, and Las Vegas, or doing television variety specials in Los Angeles. Davis knew he was cheating his family of his company, but he could not help himself; as he later said, he was incapable of standing still.
Although he was still a draw in Las Vegas, Davis' musical career had sputtered by the latter 1960s, although he had a No. 11 hit (#1 on the Easy Listening singles chart) with "I've Gotta Be Me" in 1969. His effort to update his sound and reconnect with younger people resulted in some "hip" musical efforts with the Motown record label. But then, even as his career seemed at its nadir, Sammy had an unexpected #1 hit with "The Candy Man" in 1972. Although he did not particularly care for the song and was chagrined that he was now best known for it, Davis made the most of his opportunity and revitalized his career. Although he enjoyed no more Top 40 hits, he did enjoy popularity with his 1976 performance of the theme song from the Baretta TV series, "Baretta's Theme (Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow)" (1975–1978), which was released as a single (20th century 2282). He occasionally landed television and film parts, including cameo visits to the television shows I Dream of Jeannie, All in the Family (during which he famously kisses Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) on the cheek) and, with wife Altovise Davis, on Charlie's Angels. In the 1970s, he appeared in commercials in Japan for Suntory whiskey.
On December 11th, 1967, NBC broadcast a musical-variety special entitled Movin' With Nancy. In addition to the Emmy Award-winning musical performances, the show is notable for Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis, Jr., greeting each other with a kiss, one of the first black-white kisses in U.S. television history.
Davis had a friendship with Elvis Presley in the late 1960s, as they both were top draw acts in Vegas at the same time. Davis was in many ways just as reclusive during his hotel gigs as Elvis, holding parties mainly in his penthouse suite, and Elvis went to them occasionally. Davis sang a version of Presley's song "In The Ghetto" and made a cameo appearance in Presley's concert film Elvis: That's the Way It Is. One year later, he made a cameo appearance in a James Bond film, but the scene he appeared in was deleted.
In Japan, Davis appeared in television commercials for coffee, and in the United States, he joined Sinatra and Martin in a radio commercial for a Chicago car dealership.
Davis was a fan of the daytime soap operas, particularly the shows produced by the American Broadcasting Company. This led to a cameo appearance on General Hospital and a recurring role as character Chip Warren on One Life to Live, for which he received a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1980. He was also a game show fan, appearing on the ABC version of Family Feud in 1979. He appeared on Tattletales with third wife Altovise Davis in the 1970s. He made a cameo during an episode of the NBC version of Card Sharks in 1981.
In addition to American soaps, he was also a huge fan of the Australian show Prisoner: Cell Block H. Davis wanted to make an appearance in Prisoner, but the show ended (in 1986) before this could be arranged.
Davis was an avid photographer who enjoyed shooting family and acquaintances. His body of work was detailed in a 2007 book by Burt Boyar, named Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr. "Jerry [Lewis] gave me my first important camera, my first 35 millimeter, during the Ciro's period, early '50s", Boyar quotes Davis. "And he hooked me." Davis used a medium format camera later on to capture images. Again quoting Davis, "Nobody interrupts a man taking a picture to ask ... 'What's that nigger doin' here?'". His catalog includes rare photos of his father dancing onstage as part of the Will Mastin Trio and intimate snapshots of close friends Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, Nat "King" Cole, and Marilyn Monroe. His political affiliations also were represented, in his images of Robert Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. His most revealing work comes in photographs of wife May Britt and their three children, Tracey, Jeff and Mark.
Davis was an enthusiastic shooter and gun owner. He participated in fast-draw competitions—Johnny Cash recalled that Sammy was said to be capable of drawing and firing a Colt Single Action Army revolver in less than a quarter of a second. Davis was skilled at fast and fancy gunspinning, and appeared on TV variety shows showing off this skill. He appeared in Western films and as a guest star on several "Golden Age" T.V. Westerns.
Davis nearly died in an automobile accident on November 19th, 1954, in San Bernardino, California, as he was making a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The accident occurred at a fork in U.S. Highway 66 at Cajon Boulevard and Kendall Drive. Davis lost his left eye as a result. His friend, actor Jeff Chandler, offered one of his own eyes if it would keep Davis from total blindness. The offer was not needed. Davis wore an eye patch for at least six months following the accident. He appeared on What's My Line? wearing the patch. Later, he was fitted for a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life.
While in Community Hospital, in San Bernardino, Davis' friend, performer Eddie Cantor, told him about the similarities between the Jewish and black cultures. Prompted by this conversation, Davis - who was born to a Catholic mother and Protestant father - began studying the history of Jews. He converted to Judaism several years later. One passage from his readings (from the book A History of The Jews by Abram L. Sachar), describing the endurance of the Jewish people, intrigued him in particular: "The Jews would not die. Three millennia of prophetic teaching had given them an unwavering spirit of resignation and had created in them a will to live which no disaster could crush". In many ways, the accident marked a turning point in Davis' career, taking him from a well-known entertainer to a national celebrity.
In 1957, Sammy was involved with Kim Novak, a young actress under contract to Columbia Studios. The head of the studio, Harry Cohn, was worried about the negative effect this would have on the studio because of the prevailing taboo against miscegenation. He called his friend, the mobster Johnny Roselli, who was asked to tell Davis that he had to stop the affair with Novak. Roselli arranged for Davis to be kidnapped for a few hours to throw a scare into him. His hastily arranged and soon-dissolved marriage to black dancer Loray White in 1958 was an attempt to quiet the controversy.
In 1960, Davis caused controversy again when he married white Swedish-born actress May Britt. Davis received hate mail while starring in the Broadway musical adaptation of Golden Boy from 1964–66 (for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor). At the time Davis appeared in the play, interracial marriages were forbidden by law in 31 US states (but were entirely legal in New York), and only in 1967 were those laws ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. Davis and Britt had one daughter and one son. Davis performed almost continuously and spent little time with his wife. They divorced in 1968, after Davis admitted to having had an affair with singer Lola Falana. That year, Davis started dating Altovise Gore, a dancer in Golden Boy. They were married on May 11th, 1970 by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. They adopted a son, Manny in 1989 and remained married until Davis's death in 1990.
Although Davis had been voting Democratic, he felt a lack of respect from the John F. Kennedy presidency. He had been removed from the list of performers for Kennedy's inaugural party, which was hosted by Davis' close friend, Frank Sinatra. The slight was intended to quell any controversy what might have resulted from Davis' recent interracial marriage to May Britt on November 13th, 1960.
In the early 1970s, Davis supported Republican President Richard M. Nixon (and gave the startled President a hug during a live television broadcast). The incident was controversial, and Davis was given a hostile reception by his peers. He also undertook a USO tour of South Vietnam at the behest of the Nixon administration.
Previously Davis had won their respect with his performance as Joe Wellington, Jr., in Golden Boy and his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Nixon invited Davis and his wife, Altovise, to sleep in the White House in 1973, the first time an African American was invited to do so. Davis spent the night in the Queens' Bedroom.
Davis was a long-term donor to the Reverend Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH organization. However, he declined to take part in Jackson's campaign for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, which was instead won by Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota, who then lost the general election to President Ronald W. Reagan.
Davis died in Beverly Hills, California on May 16th, 1990, of complications from throat cancer. Earlier, when he was told that surgery (laryngectomy) offered him the best chance of survival, Davis replied he would rather keep his voice than have a part of his throat removed; he subsequently was treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. However, a few weeks prior to his death his entire larynx was removed during surgery. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale in Glendale, California next to his father and Will Mastin.
On May 18th, 1990, two days after Davis' death, the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip were darkened for ten minutes, as a tribute to him.
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