Nicknamed “Mister Show Business,” Sammy Davis Jr. (pictured throughout) occupies a significant portion of African-American experience in entertainment. Although the singer, dancer, and Rat Pack member was seen by many as an assimilating “uncle Tom,” Davis lived a complex life full of triumphs, failures, and everything in between before his passing in 1990 on this day. NewsOne takes a look back on the life of Sammy Davis Jr.
Born Samuel George Davis on December 8, 1925, in Harlem, parents Samuel Sr. and his Cuban-American Mother Elvera Sanchez were both entertainers. Davis began his career early, performing in a vaudeville troop with his father at the age of 3. In 1933, Davis began his film career, starring in the satirical and often-criticized musical short “Rufus Jones for President.”
Watch Part 1 of “Rufus Jones for President” here:
Davis’ career took a turn during the inception of World War II, when he served in the United States Army. Largely protected from racism by his father and uncle, Will Mastin, Davis experienced prejudice in an extreme fashion for the first time during his time in service. The Army was aware of Davis’ prodigious singing and dancing abilities, so they assigned him to an integrated entertainment unit.
It was under those circumstances that Davis learned to cope with racism.
“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,” wrote Davis in one of his autobiographies. After being discharged from the service, Davis went full speed with his career, recording several albums, touring with his family and landing on Broadway in 1956 with the play “Mr. Wonderful.”
Three years later, Davis joined the Rat Pack, a legendary crew of entertainers and friends that included Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. The Rat Pack made splashes in Hollywood and abroad, most notably with the 1960 film “Ocean’s 11” (pictured above) and 1964’s “Robin and the Seven Hoods.” The troupe also performed stage shows together in various venues, catapulting their fame to high heights.
Davis supported the Civil Rights Movement in a variety of ways, although he was often criticized for hobnobbing with White Hollywood while seemingly snubbing other Black entertainers in favor of his Rat Pack friends. There were also rumblings going around that Davis fronted money for the Italian Mob all while becoming an international celebrity. In 1972, Davis’ support of then-Republican President Richard Nixon was seen as a slight to the Black community.
Davis married Altovise Gore (pictured below) in 1970, and the ceremony was presided over by Rev. Jesse Jackson. Although the pair remained married until his passing, it was a troubled union sparked by Davis’ personal demons of drug addiction, poor spending habits, and a propensity to focus only on his career and not his family’s needs.
Considering that Davis remained somewhat popular throughout the 1970s, he never regained the star power and faded in to poverty, depression, and basic obscurity.
Davis succumbed to throat cancer in Beverly Hills; this after a delayed surgical procedure was performed to save his life. Davis was resistant to the surgery, as he didn’t want to lose part of his legendary voice. After his death, the Las Vegas Strip, in the city where he often performed for thousands, darkened its lights in tribute to Davis. He is buried next to his father and uncle in Glendale, Calif.
Davis was a polarizing figure indeed.
Although he seemed to take on mannerisms employed by White stars of his day, he couldn’t disguise the fact he was still a Black man. Even his conversion to Judaism was perceived as a ploy to shed his African-American roots, but that only raised intrigue in the man that much more. No matter what has been publicly said about Davis, there is no denying that Sammy Davis, Jr. deserves respect for his talents despite the murkiness of his private life and politics.
Watch Davis perform “The Candy Man” here:
Rest In Powerful Peace, Sammy Davis, Jr.