Sammy Davis, Jr.
Sammy Davis, Jr. was the last great entertainer to come out of vaudeville, having made his stage debut at the age of either two or four (accounts vary) with the Will Mastin Trio in the late 1920s.
Davis came from a show business family. His father, Davis Sr., was a lead dancer in Will Mastin’s Holiday in Dixieland – a vaudeville troupe for which his mother, Elvera Sanchez Davis, was the load chorus girl. Sammy was born on December 8, 1925, in New York City, and was raised by his paternal grandmother, Rosa Davis, until he was two and a half. At that point his parents broke up and his father took custody of the toddler. At some point after this the boy made his stage debut with his father and “Uncle Will” (who was not an actual relation, but who called him “Mose Gastin” in return).
Little Sammy was soon the star of the show, which was renamed Will Mastin’s Gang, Featuring Little Sammy. Tap dancing was his specialty. The story goes that when he was judged by the authorities to be too young to perform (in violation of child labor laws), he was given a rubber cigar and billed as a dancing midget – although it’s hard to believe this fooled very many people.
When he was 7, Davis made his film debut in the 1933 short, Rufus Jones for President, and as he grew in size, age, and demonstrated talent, Will Mastin’s Gang became The Will Mastin Trio, Featuring Sammy Davis Jr.
Davis was drafted into the Army at 18, during World War II. There he encountered blatant racial prejudice for the first time in his life. Vaudeville, especially for black performers, existed in a very different society, insulated from many aspects of the outside world. He was transferred to Special Services, where the Army took advantage of his experience and skills to produce him in a series of shows in Army camps across the country.
As he described it in his first autobiography, 1965’s Yes I Can, Davis combed his audiences for “haters,” and as soon as he spotted one he gave his performance “an extra burst of strength and energy,” in order to “get those guys” to “neutralize them and make them acknowledge” him. Thus Davis turned potential liabilities into sources of strength and inspiration, surmounting the racial prejudice he encountered.
Still working with his father and “uncle” Will Mastin, Davis perfected his act in the post-War years, and did some recordings for Capitol Records. One of them, “The Way You Look Tonight,” was chosen by Metronome magazine as Record of the Year for 1946. The magazine also called him that year’s “Most Outstanding New Personality.” (Although it had started more than 50 years earlier devoted to band music and music in general, by the mid-1940s Metronome was a major jazz magazine.)
Still working with the Will Mastin Trio, Davis toured six months with Mickey Rooney, played a three-week engagement at New York’s Capitol Theatre on a bill headed by Frank Sinatra, and gained a featured spot in a Bob Hope benefit show. Jack Benny got the trio a sought-after booking at Ciro’s in Hollywood and an appearance with Eddie Cantor on the Colgate Comedy Hour TV show – which led to the trio headlining that show’s summer replacement. By now the Will Mastin Trio was solidly established in the new, mass media show business which was replacing (and killing) vaudeville, and was reaching a much larger audience. The trio were a smash at New York’s Copacabana, and Decca Records signed Davis.
Davis’ first album, Starring Sammy Davis, Jr., released in 1955, demonstrated much of his act, including his impressions of others. “Dad said to me, ‘You can’t do impersonations of a white person.’ He really believed that.” Davis did not, and his view was confirmed when his album went to No. 1. That same year, no doubt impelled by the success of Davis’ first album, Decca recorded and released a second, Just For Lovers. It contained no impressions – just Davis as himself. It went to No. 5.
The year before that, in 1954, Davis was in a near-fatal car crash on his way to a Los Angeles recording session. He lost his left eye. Amazingly, he was back on stage within weeks, making jokes about his new eye patch (later he got a glass eye). During his hospitalization he began a conversion to Judaism, allowing him in later years to joke about having added another minority to his resume.
Davis appeared on Broadway with the trio in 1956, in Mr. Wonderful, a musical comedy written for him. He subsequently made a solo debut on TV on The Ed Sullivan Show, and began acting in dramatic roles in both TV and movies. His other albums are What Kind of Fool Am I (1962), The Shelter of Your Arms (1964), I’ve Gotta Be Me (1969) and Sammy Davis Jr. Now (1972). His friendship with Sinatra and Dean Martin made him an integral part of the Rat Pack.
Davis gave a lot away. He was quite generous in signing autographs, and his estate was reportedly forced to auction a great deal of his personal belongings. Occasionally major items come up for auction at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Among lesser items, a scan of the net reveals a Sammy Davis Jr. signed contract (for a London play) and a trophy (from the Atlantic City Boardwalk parade) offered together for $499, and a custom made two piece suit with Davis’ name sewn on the inner pocket and reportedly worn by him for $699. And there’s a whole website devoted to “Ratpack Rarities,” for those who collect and trade memorabilia associated with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and others.
Davis received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1987, and made a world tour with Sinatra and Martin in 1988 and 1989.
Davis had a simple philosophy: “Just do what you’re best at,” he stated in 1988, “and when you can’t do it any longer – stop.” His life was cut short on May 16, 1990 by cancer. It began as throat cancer – a singer’s worst nightmare – defied radiation treatment, and spread through Davis’ body. “Sammy knew he was dying back then,” Sinatra said of their last tour, “but you never expect it to come to that. We all think we’ll live forever.”