The greatest entertainer ever to grace a stage in these United States.
–Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones (On a New 2019 Sammy Davis Jr. Tribute)
My handicap? Man, I am a one-eyed, black Jew! That’s my handicap!
-Sammy Davis Jr. (Responding when Jack Benny asked him his golf handicap)
The endless problems created by our great FREEDOM MOVEMENT can only be compared to a river that never stops flowing. Fortunately, its progress flows like a river. Slowly–but surely and relentlessly–the Movement keeps pressing insistently forward, step by step. One such step, in my opinion, was the historic affair at Carnegie Hall on January 27th, which you personally initiated and organized then crowned with your astonishing artistry.
-Martin Luther King Jr. (in a letter thanking Sammy on March 28, 1961)
He was a one-man variety show, every act on the damnedest vaudeville bill anybody ever watched. He was in all the floats in the big parade, a cast of hundreds (it sometimes seemed) contained in one slight frame that had to be composed entirely of pure genius and pure energy.
-Charles Champlin, The LA Times
Singer, hoofer, actor of stage and screen, comedian, musician, there wasn’t an aspect of entertainment at the at which Sammy Davis Jr. didn’t excel at the highest level.
If by chance you didn’t catch the PBS special from the American Master Series; Sammy Davis Jr.: I Gotta Be Me,
then do yourself a real favor and find it – it’s a tour-de force, an entertaining and educational experience featuring a talent who contributed to our world in so many different ways.
Born to Sing and Dance
After young Sammy’s parents split up at the tender age of three, he went on the road with his father and uncle’s vaudeville act. Now, what follows is so vast in scope it can only be covered in a book for a documentary, so, I’ll lay out the facts of his life staccato-style.
After years of the vaudeville grind, he was discovered by the Hollywood glitterati at Ciro’s with the Will Mastin Trio after the 1951 Academy Awards. Davis won over the crowd with his impersonation of some of the stars present. This was a double victory. Mastin had long ago warned him, ”No colored performer ever did white people in front of white people.’
Three years later, Davis was driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, his Cadillac collided with an automobile that backed out in front of him. He sustained massive injuries to his face, including a broken nose and damage to his left eye so severe that it had to be replaced with a plastic one. He was back on stage two months later. Davis converted to Judaism not long after. Sammy shared a genuine bromance with Frank Sinatra, who once refused to play a venue where Davis was barred. Throughout his career Sinatra stood by him, and bailed him out financially more than a few times. Movies. Rat Pack. TV Specials. Sleeping over in the the White House. The March on Washington. Davis was everywhere. A Zelig or ForrestGump for you cinephiles. Perhaps the most influential entertainer of his day.
Sister Diane Played Sammy Early
My introduction to Sammy Davis Jr. came when my sister Diane, always up on the latest and best music, would play her collection of movie soundtracks, one of which being Porgy and Bess, starring Sidney Portier, Dorthy Dandridge, and of course in a role he made immortal, Sammy as Sportin’ Life.
The music for the film was created by this guy you may have heard of by the name of George Gershwin.
He wrote Porgy and Bess with Ira and DuBose Heyward. It was initially a commercial failure, but came to be considered one of the most important American operas of the twentieth century and an American cultural classic.
So, to me, Sammy Davis Jr. was always a ubiquitous presence in my American cultural pantheon. He was on the cover of my star-struck mother’s magazine covers either for this dazzling performances or his scandalous affairs and marriages, particularly with Swedish movie star, May Britt. She was a blonde beauty dating the Harlem-born musical hurricane. How outrageous! We would watch TV specials on the family couch starring Sammy & Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, you name it, he was there. I grew up watching this incredible talent and I didn’t realize all that he had been through to get there.
Sammy Broke the Mold: A Legacy Like None Other.
As I said earlier, Sammy Davis is a unique character in American life and culture, no matter his trials, he never acted as if he was any less a person than his Rat Pack mega-star posse, including the iconic Frank Sinatra.
Sure he was the butt of many stupid jokes, but, when the time can to preform, everyone knew was the equal of anyone in the world.
I’ll close by quoting from a terrific review for the New YorkTimes by Gary Giddins and the Book of Job.
A Force of Nature
“Yet he lived long enough to see the world turned on its ear. In 1979, he danced with Kim Novak at a party and none of the photographers thought it worth shooting. In the mid-50’s the mob and Columbia Pictures promised to shoot him for good if he was ever seen with her. If the tap-dance revival, jewelry- decked hip-hop moguls, interracial marriage, integrated nightclub acts and black Republicans are now too commonplace to merit comment, more than a little credit must go to Sammy Davis Jr.’s childlike refusal to mind his place. They also serve who only play.”
-Gary Giddins (The New York Times)
“Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with a mane? Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrifying. He paws in the valley and exults in his strength, he goes out to meet the weapons. He laughs at fear and is not dismayed, he does not turn back from the sword. Upon him rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin. With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground, he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.”
-Job 39:19-24 (God speaking to Job.)
The same might be said of Sammy Davis Jr.
So, No Sammy Davis Jr.
No Gregory Hines tap dancer par excellence
No moon walk for Michael Jackson
No bling. Definitely no bling.
No Rat Pack
No massive funding and support for Dr. King’s mission
No National Enquirer (which was partially invented to chronicle his scandalous affairs with white women!)
Viva Sammy Davis Jr.!
Photograph of Sammy For GAP by the legendary Bert Stern