No other moniker for Sammy Davis Jr. was more accurate. He did it all—sing, dance, create music and crack wise. Though blessed with talent, his life wasn’t without struggles.
The son of Vaudevillians Elvira Sanchez and Sammy Davis Sr., Samuel George Davis Jr. was born December 8, 1925, in New York City. Three years later, his mother left the Will Mastin Troupe—and the family—and Davis joined his father on stage.
The youngster grew up on Vaudeville’s Orpheum circuit performing with his father and adopted uncle, Will Mastin, in The Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis Jr. While his childhood was good for learning showbiz, it wasn’t conducive to formal education, something Sammy Davis Jr. had little of, though the occasional tutor kept truant officers at bay.
His life varied little until 1943, when Uncle Sam came calling and handed Davis, 18, his draft card. The Army taught him basic military survival skills—including how to read—but a few he learned on his own and they would serve him well when he came home to find racial prejudice wasn’t confined to the military.
With more than one broken nose to show for his run-ins with less-than-accepting white soldiers, Davis was eventually transferred to an entertainment unit only to find himself performing for some of the same men with whom he’d had unfriendly exchanges. Noted in his New York Times obituary, he used this opportunity to “reach the bigots, ‘neutralize them and make them acknowledge,’ him.” He took the same approach when he returned home after completing his service.
It may have been his service that prompted him to give back during the Vietnam War, though.
His career had taken off after a few lean years as Vaudeville gave way to film, radio and eventually television—all of which had a place for Davis. By 1950, he was recording albums, headlining in New York and Las Vegas and appearing on TV.
All of that nearly ended abruptly with a near-fatal car accident in 1954. He lost his left eye, but a consummate entertainer, he made a huge comeback, as well as religious switch to Judaism. By the mid-1960s he found himself a member of the illustrious Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. The United States soon became actively involved in combat in Vietnam and a few years later, Davis took his show to the troops for a 13-day tour.
“I’ve never been so tired and felt so good in my life,” Stars and Stripes reported Davis as saying after his first show in Long Binh, Vietnam.
He relished the time he spent in country with the troops and encouraged other entertainers to follow suit. “My recent tour in Vietnam was one of the most exciting and satisfying experiences of my career,” he said after the 1972 circuit. “I can only urge all entertainers to support this much needed USO program.”
It seems the troops held similar sentiment about his performances. That first in Long Binh drew 15,000 GIs.
Davis, a drinker and heavy smoker, continued performing for the remainder of his life—including the 1989 movie Tap and a world tour with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli the same year. For his lifetime of contributions to the performing arts, he was a 1987 Kennedy Center Honors honoree. While his artistic contribution to the entertainment world was vast, perhaps his greatest legacy is what he did to break down barriers for black performers.
Sammy Davis Jr. died May 16, 1990, from throat cancer.
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.