Sammy Davis Jr. is considered one of the legendary all-around entertainers. Initially a tap dancer, he fought against all odds that includes racial discrimination and segregation to become one of the top stars during his time. His dynamic versatlility eventually won him legions of fans of all races. Davis appeared in more than 30 movies, including his Rat Pack film Oceans 11. By the late 1960s his career has experienced a slowdown but he rose again to the spotlight with his only #1 single “The Candy Man” during the early 1970s. He was also known for his excellent impersonations of other stars. Davis continued performing and recording until his death from throat cancer in 1990, aged 64. He was posthumously honored with Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Some facts about Sammy Davis Jr.’s personal life
Sammy Davis Jr. was born Samuel George Davis Jr. in Harlem, New York on December 8, 1925. Davis was a very versatile and dynamic entertainter and was the first among the black artists to find wide support from the audience, both black and white.
He started as career when he young as a tap-dancer, and performed with his father and Will Mastin as the Will Mastin Trio. He left to serve in the US Army during the Second World War. Upon returning from the service he resumed his showbiz career. Despite being one of the headlining singers at a Las Vegas casino, he and the other black performers still experienced racial discrimination. Davis overcame constant battles of discrimination and bigotry with his immense talent alone, which helped him rise to become one of America’s top entertainers during the 1950s-1960s.
He also went against such taboos and prejudices by refusing to appear and perform in clubs that practiced segregation; he had also married Swedish actress May Britt and had a relationship with another actress Kim Novak. His affairs with both white women were controversial indeed as bi-racial relationships were still held as a taboo during that time, and Davis would even receive death threats because of this.
Davis also converted into Judaism in 1961, several years after surviving a near-death experience from an automobile accident in 1954. The accident left him blind in his left eye, the reason why he initially wore a patch and then later a glass eye throughout the remainder of his life. Through his friend and comedian Eddie Cantor (who was Jewish) who helped Davis throughout his ordeal, he began to get interested by studying the religion.
Film, television and stage career
Davis made his screen debut at the age of eight, in a 21-minute musical short film Rufus Jones for President. (1933)
Davis made his first full major appearance on a Rat Pack movie, Oceans 11 in 1960, although his first Rat Pack movie was actually Meet Me in Las Vegas where he made a cameo appearance. He also initially appeared on another Rat Pack filmNever So Few but he was to be replaced later by Steve McQueen. Davis went on to star in a few more Rat Pack films alongside fellow Rat Pack-ers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, from Pepe (1960) to Cannonball Run II(1984).
He also acted in other films such as Porgy and Bess, The Threepenny Opera, Broadway Danny Rose and many others. All in all, he made appearances in over 30 films.
Davis also made appearances on Broadway, including his starring role in the 1956 production of Mr. Wonderful, and in 1964’s Golden Boy, where he scored a Tony nomination. He also entered television and hosted his own variety show The Sammy Davis Jr. Show in the mid-1960s.
Music and recording career
Davis touched on a variety of genres including jazz, pop standards, show tunes and musicals. About his recording career, Davis had his first hit single with his rendition of “Hey There” (originally from the musical The Pajama Tunes) which was released on Decca label. It became a hit on the Billboard pop chart at #16. Davis released his first album was Starring Sammy Davis Jr. in 1955. He was particularly prolific during the 1950s where he released several albums and singles.
In 1955 he achieved his first top ten hit with Johnny Mercer’s “Something’s Gotta Give,” which was actually a B-side to “Love Me or Leave Me.” Surprisingly, the B-side performed better on the charts than the A-side. “Something’s Gotta Give” rose to #9 on the Billboard pop charts (#11 on the UK singles chart) while the A-side “Love Me or Leave Me” wasn’t too far behind, peaking at #12 on the pop chart (#8 UK).
Davis scored other hits throughout the 1950s and the 1960s: “That Old Black Magic” (#13 pop), “What Kind of a Fool Am I” (#17 pop, #6 adult contemporary) which also won a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1963, “The Shelter of Your Arms” (#17 pop, #6 adult contemporary, #3 R&B), “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” (#11 pop, #1 adult contemporary) and dozens of other minor hits.
Davis recorded and released a total of 16 albums on Decca Records, 23 on Sinatra’s Reprise label, as well as a smattering of releases on Motown, MGM, Verve and 20th Century Records.
Although by the late 1960s Davis’ musical career in particular had ebbed, he otherwise later achieved his biggest hit ever, “The Candy Man,” which he sang with the Mike Curb Congregation. It went to #1 on both the Billboard pop and adult contemporary singles chart in 1972.
Final years, death, awards and legacy
From the 1970s onwards Davis was mostly confined to the club circuit, and in 1988 he made an unsuccessful comeback attempt alongside Martin and Sinatra. He also toured with Liza Minelli internationally, and made his one of his last films Tap and The Kid Who Loved Christmas.
Davis, a lifelong smoker, succumbed to throat cancer in Beverly Hills, California on May 16, 1990, aged 64. His remains are interred in Glendale, California. The legendary Davis has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame given to him in 1960.
Even years after his death Davis’ life has often been portrayed and made references in several television productions and films (including the 1998 HBO film The Rat Pack, where Don Cheadle’s portrayal of Davis won the actor a Golden Globe). He has been impersonated by a lot of showbiz personalities up to now.
Davis was also posthumously honored with Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. In 2002 he was also posthumously honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for his 1962 hit “What Kind of a Fool Am I.”