He was the self-described “little, one-eyed, colored guy” whose trademarks included a chest full of golden chains, a maniacal laugh and a crooning singing style that made him a big attraction in Las Vegas nightclubs. Last week, the six-decade career of entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. came to an end when he died of throat cancer in Los Angeles at the age of 64. In his heyday, Davis was a charter member of Hollywood’s so-called rat pack, a hard-drinking, fastliving group of performers that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Peter Lawford. Throughout the 1960s, Davis teamed up with various members of that group to make such lowbrow—but popular—movies as Johnny Cool and Robin and the Seven Hoods. But Davis’s stature was based on more than his recordings and screen performances. In his own, often uphill battles to gain acceptance in the U.S. entertainment industry, Davis paved the way for many other black stars.
Davis was born in Harlem in 1925. When his parents divorced in 1928, his father gained custody of the young boy. Soon, father and son were travelling the theatre circuit with fellow vaudevillian Will Mastin, performing song-anddance routines. During the 1950s and 1960s, Davis gained fame as a recording artist and as an actor in such films as The Benny Goodman Story (1956) and Porgy and Bess (1959). Still, he said that he was always acutely aware of the barriers put in his way by racial prejudice. Davis wrote in his 1989 autobiography, Why Me?, that he never forgot the humiliation of playing in hotels where he could not get a room
because of his color, and of facing racial curfews in cities in which he was performing.
But Davis refused to conform to the standards of his time. In 1954, after losing his left eye in a car accident, he converted to Judaism—a move he attributed partly to a rabbi who visited him in hospital. Six years later, he married white Swedish actress May Britt (his first marriage, to dancer Loray White in 1959, lasted only a few months). And, in 1972, he publicly supported Republican Richard Nixon’s re-election to the White House—a decision that led several friends to abandon him.
Davis will probably be most fondly remembered for his resonant if cloying delivery of such 1970s musical hits as The Candy Man and Mr. Bojangles—and for the legacy of inspiration he gave to other performers and to fans. In the weeks preceding his death, hundreds of letters arrived daily at his Beverly Hills home, where celebrities including Liza Minnelli, Dean Martin and Sinatra paid their final visits.
On hearing of his death last week, comedian Bob Hope fittingly summed up Davis’s accomplishments as an entertainer, saying simply, “Sammy always left his audiences wanting more.” But singer Michael Jackson touched on what was perhaps the star’s most lasting legacy at a tribute to Davis held last November in Los Angeles, which Davis attended with his third wife, Altovise. There, in a song he had cowritten to thank Davis for his trailblazing achievements as a black performer, Jackson sang, “I am here ’cause you were there.”
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