Sammy Davis Jr. Happy Birthday – December 8, 1925
From the Archives of Tap Legacy™
The quintessential entertainer Samuel George Davis, Jr., was born in Harlem, New York City, the son of Vaudeville performers, Sammy Davis, Sr., and Elvera Davis. A quick study, it is said that while Sammy was still a young boy, being brought to theater by his mother, John Bubbles requested that Sammy not be allowed backstage during his act because Sammy was learning all of his steps.
Sam Jr.’s career began at the age of three performing in Holiday in Dixieland a black Vaudeville act featuring his father and lead by Will Mastin, whom Sammy would always refer to as his uncle. To overcome the strict child labor laws of the time Sammy was dubbed Silent Sam, the Dancing Midget. The act proved phenomenally popular with audiences and soon was renamed Will Mastin’s Gang Featuring Little Sammy.
In 1933 at the age of eight, Sammy made his film debut in the musical short Rufus Jones for President directed by Roy Mack and made in the Warner studio in Brooklyn, NY.
In 1943, Sammy joined the U.S. Army, where he endured a constant battle with racism. Upon his return from duty, the act reunited and was renamed The Will Mastin Trio. Sammy would soon begin including his many impersonations in the trio’s act, having been encouraged by Mickey Rooney and the addition of comedy brought new life to the group. By the beginning of the 1950’s they were headlining venues such as New York’s Capitol Club and Ciro’s in Hollywood.
In 1952, at the invitation of Sinatra, they played the newly integrated Copacabana. In 1954, Davis signed to Decca, topping the charts with his debut LP, Starring Sammy Davis Jr. That same year he lost his left eye in an auto accident as he was on his way to record the theme song for the 1955 Tony Curtis film Six Bridges to Cross. Upon returning to the stage in early 1955 Sammy was greeted with even greater enthusiasm than before on the strength of a series of hit singles including Something’s Gotta Give, Love Me or Leave Me, and That Old Black Magic. A year later, Davis made his Broadway debut in the musical Mr. Wonderful, starring in the show for over 400 performances and launching a hit with the song Too Close for Comfort.
In 1958, Davis resumed his film career after a quarter-century layoff with Anna Lucasta, followed a year later by his acclaimed turn in the film version of Porgy and Bess. Continuing his life-long friendship with Frank Sinatra, Sammy became a charter member of the Rat Pack, along with Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. The Rat Pack would go on to make a series of films including Ocean’s Eleven, Sergeants 3, and Robin and the 7 Hoods, among others. However, most famous were their live stage shows, most notably a long run at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas which occurred during the filming of Ocean’s Eleven.
In 1964, Sammy returned to Broadway to star in Golden Boy, earning him a Tony nomination for his performance and was followed by the publication of Sammy’s autobiography Yes I Can.
Throughout the end of the 1960s Sammy would continue to shine in such films as the jazz drama A Man Called Adam, Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, and Salt and Pepper and its sequel One More Time. Musically Davis topped the pop charts in 1972 with The Candy Man, from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In the mid-seventies Sammy hosted his own syndicated variety show, Sammy and Company, and in 1978 starred in the film Sammy Stops the World.
During the late 1970s and ’80s, although not highly visible on screen, Sammy continued to perform live shows on the casino circuit. His last film appearance was in the role of Little Moe for the 1989 film Tap which also featured his protege Gregory Hines, a young Savion Glover and many of his contemporaries. A lifelong smoker, Davis died of cancer on May 16, 1990.
Beyond what is undeniably an accomplished career, Davis was widely accepted as being incomparable as an entertainer. He could sing, act, tap dance, play multiple musical instruments including the trumpet and drums, produce amazingly accurate impersonations, and twirl guns. Upon entering the stage with a gun belt around his waist and a six shooter by his side Sammy would proceed to twirl the gun as if he had grown up in the old west. After about a minute of this and applause from the audience Sammy would casually holster the gun and turn to the audience and say Well, you know, I wouldn’t wear one if I didn’t know how to use it. Then he would smile. Such was the grace of Sammy Davis, Jr.