“Being a star has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to get insulted.”
Samuel George Davis Jr. was born on December 8, 1925, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, with the infant initially raised by his paternal grandmother. Davis’s parents split up when he was 3 and he went to live with his father, who was working as an entertainer in a dance troupe. When his father and adopted uncle went on tour, Davis was brought along, and after learning to tap the three began performing together. They would eventually be dubbed the Will Mastin Trio.
After the war, Davis resumed his showbiz career. He continued to perform with the Will Mastin Trio as the star of the act and also struck out on his own, singing in nightclubs and recording records. His career began to rise to new heights in 1947 when the trio opened for Frank Sinatra (with whom Davis would remain a lifelong friend and collaborator) at the Capitol Theatre in New York. A tour with Mickey Rooney followed, as did a performance that caught the ear of Decca Records, who signed Davis to a recording contract in 1954.
Later that year, while driving to Los Angeles for a soundtrack recording, Davis was seriously injured in a car accident. The accident resulted in his losing an eye, and he would use a glass eye for most of his life. His recuperation also gave him time for deep reflection. He converted to Judaism shortly thereafter, finding commonalities between the oppression experienced by African-American and Jewish communities.
Despite what appeared to be a free-swinging playboy lifestyle, a lifetime of enduring racial prejudice led Davis to use his fame for political means. During the 1960s he became active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in the 1963 March on Washington and refusing to perform at racially segregated nightclubs, for which he is credited with helping integrate in Las Vegas and Miami Beach. Davis also challenged the bigotry of the era by marrying Swedish actress May Britt at a time when interracial marriages were forbidden by law in 31 states. (President John F. Kennedy in fact requested that the couple not appear at his inauguration so as not to anger white Southerners.)
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the multitalented Davis continued his prolific output. He maintained his musical career, releasing albums well into the late ’70s and getting his first #1 chart hit with 1972’s “Candy Man.” Davis appeared in films such as 1981’s The Cannonball Run, with Burt Reynolds and Roger Moore, and 1989’s Tap, with Gregory Hines. He was also a guest on a wide variety of television shows, including the Tonight Show, The Carol Burnett Show, All in the Family and The Jeffersons as well as the soap operas General Hospital and One Life to Live. But while his career continued, with the performer embarking on a lauded tour with Sinatra and Liza Minnelli during the late ’80s, Davis’s health began to fade.
But while his career continued, with the performer embarking on a lauded tour with Sinatra and Liza Minnelli during the late ’80s, Davis’s health began to fade. Davis was a heavy smoker, and in 1989 doctors discovered a tumor in his throat. The fall of that year he gave what would be his final performance, at the Harrah’s casino in Lake Tahoe. Shortly thereafter, Davis underwent radiation therapy. Though the disease appeared to be in remission, it was later discovered to have returned. On May 16, 1990, Sammy Davis Jr. passed away at his home in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 64. Before his death he was honored by an array of his peers at a February television tribute.