Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


DAVIS, Sammy Jr

(b 8 Dec. '25 NYC; d 16 May '90, LA) Singer, dancer, actor. Joined family vaudeville troupe led by adopted uncle Will Mastin, reduced to trio during Depression: Davises Sr, Jr and Mastin. (Sammy Davis Sr d 21 May '88 aged 87.) Davis Jr was coached by legendary dancer Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson (b 25 May 1878, Richmond VA; d Nov. '49 NYC: called 'The Mayor of Harlem', he also coached Shirley Temple; his own tapping was recorded on 'Doin' The New Low Down' '32 with Don Redman). Davis rejoined trio after US Army service '43--5; they played support at Slapsie Maxie's in Hollywood '46 and Davis began to triumph with dancing, singing, impressions. In May '47 at the Capitol Theatre NYC Frank Sinatra insisted on having the trio on the bill with him; they made more money than they'd ever seen before and Davis and Sinatra were friends for life. They worked with Bob Hope, Jack Benny; Davis made solo tracks for Capitol '50 incl. 'The Way You Look Tonight', with impressions of the stars. Signed with Decca '54; car crash in Hollywood Nov. '54 smashed his nose and caused loss of left eye; Sinatra helped him through that, he was back performing in January, and later turned it into comedy: on the subject of prejudice he asked, 'How'd you like to be the world's only one-eyed Jewish nigger?' His Decca album Starring Sammy Davis Jr was no. 1 for six weeks '55 at a time when the album charts were dominated by film soundtracks and original Broadway cast albums; not even Sinatra had a no. 1 LP until '58. Davis's Just For Lovers was no. 5, also '55; top 20 single hits '54--5 incl. 'Hey There', 'Something's Gotta Give' (from Fred Astaire film Daddy Long Legs), 'Love Me Or Leave Me', 'That Old Black Magic'. Broadway debut '56 with trio in Mr Wonderful, by Jerry Bock, Larry Holofiener, George Weiss, over 400 performances incl. title song, 'Too Close For Comfort'. Played Sportin' Life in film of George Gershwin's Porgy And Bess '59 ('There's A Boat That's Leavin' Soon For New York'); also starred in German-English film of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera '64.

He was a founder member of Sinatra's 'Clan'; The Wham Of Sam '60 was the first release on Sinatra's Reprise label: then top 20 gold disc 'What Kind Of Fool Am I' '62 (from Stop The World I Want To Get Off by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse); title track of no. 14 LP on Reprise. With Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Sinatra in spoof film Robin And The Seven Hoods '64; that year played boxer Joe Wellington in Charles Strouse/Lee Adams Broadway musical version of Clifford Odets's Golden Boy for over 500 performances; took it to London '68; that year played hilarious hippy evangelist singing 'Rhythm Of Life' in film of Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields show Sweet Charity. Mainly TV concerts, cabaret in '70s; first no. 1 and second gold disc with 'Candy Man' '72, another Newley/Bricusse song, from Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. Other Decca LPs incl. At The Town Hall, Boy Meets Girl with Carmen McRae, Here's Looking At You, I Gotta Right To Swing, That Old Black Magic; two-disc At His Greatest on MCA. Other LPs in Billboard top 200 incl. At The Coconut Grove '63, As Long As She Needs Me '63, Salutes The Stars Of The London Palladium '64, The Shelter Of Your Arms '64, all on Reprise; Our Shining Hour '65 on Verve with Count Basie; Sammy Davis Jr Now and Portrait Of Sammy Davis Jr, both '72 on MGM. Other '70s LPs incl. It's A Musical World on MGM, In Person '77 on RCA, The Song And Dance Man on 20th Century- Fox; latest incl. Hello Detroit on Motown, Closest Of Friends on compact disc from French Vogue. Had hip surgery early '85, soon danced again on Bob Hope TV special in May, but threatened to give up performing for directing and producing: 'I was brought up in the business that said there was room for everybody, for all tastes ... That's why they called it variety. There's no variety in show business anymore.' He admired country singer Barbara Mandrell, who shared his loathing for unprepared performers. He died of throat cancer, owing a lot of back taxes; Sinatra had bought him a home in Beverley Hills in the '50s (he was one of the first African- Americans to live there) and reportedly gave his widow $1m so she could stay there.