Sammy Davis Jr.

  • Pop, jazz singer/crooner born in 1925 from Harlem, New York City, New York. Died in 1990 from throat cancer.
  • Davis’ parents were entertainers. As a child, Davis learned to dance, and he joined an act with his father and uncle, called the Will Mastin Trio. At 7 years old, he played the title role in a short musical comedy film titled Rufus Jones for President. He was drafted into the army, and he performed in front of the troops during World War II. After his discharge, he returned to the Will Mastin Trio, and he started to record music, using the names Shorty Muggins and Charlie Green. His first single under his own name was released in 1950 – Inka Dinka Doo, in which he impersonated several other singers that were popular at that time.
  • Davis recorded his debut studio album in 1954, titled Starring Sammy Davis Jr. In November that year, he was in a serious car accident, resulting in the loss of his left eye. The cover of the album shows Davis wearing an eye patch. His first single to chart was on the album – the show tune Hey There reached #16 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
  • As was common during that time, Davis released many albums over the next years. From 1955 to 1959, he released 11 studio albums, covering jazz standards. One of the albums, Mr. Wonderful, was the cast recording of the Broadway Musical of the same name, in which he was the star. Several songs from these albums reached the Top 20 – Something’s Gotta Give, Love Me or Leave Me, and That Old Black Magic all charted in 1955.
  • During this time, his performances in Las Vegas were popular, but because he was a black man, he could not stay at the casinos where he performed, and dressing rooms were not available to him – between acts, he was required to wait by the swimming pool. He frequently experienced prejudice for his race, and he was particularly reviled because he would date white women.
  • In 1959, he became a member of the Rat Pack, an informal group of entertainers that were popular at that time, especially in Las Vegas. The group was started by Humphrey Bogart, who hosted parties at his home in Los Angeles. Other members were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. Davis’ involvement in the Rat Pack led to 11 film roles between 1959 and 1984.
  • Davis released 28 albums during the 60s. Three singles broke into the top 20 – What Kind of Fool Am I?, The Shelter of Your Arms, and I’ve Gotta Be Me – the latter made it to #1 on the Easy Listening Chart, and #11 on the Hot 100. By the late 60s, while his Las Vegas act remained popular, his musical career declined. He signed with Motown Records to try to update his sound and appeal to younger listeners, but the 1 album that he released with Motown was not successful.
  • In 1972, he signed with another label, and the album Sammy Davis Jr. Now was released. The album of jazz standards was panned by critics, but it contained a surprise hit – The Candy Man. It was a cover of the song that appeared in the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Davis’ version was his only #1 hit on the Hot 100 chart – it topped the chart for 3 weeks.
  • He released 12 albums in the 70s and 80s. He performed in over 40 films and made guest appearances in over 30 episodes of television shows in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Davis was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001, and his song What Kind of Fool Am I? was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. He also won an Emmy award in 1990 for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Show for the TV special Sammy Davis Jr.’s 60th Anniversary Celebration (Davis died 3 months after it aired), and he was nominated for a Tony award for his role in the Broadway theater production of Golden Boy in 1964. He was given a Kennedy Center Honors award in 1987.
  • Sammy Davis Jr. was larger than life in the 60s. As a black man, no one paralleled his success across the entertainment world – music, theater, films and television – during that time in America. Here’s a clip of a 1969 performance by Davis of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s classic This Guy’s In Love With You (which Herb Alpert took to #1 in 1968) – it’s a great clip of what his performances were like when he was at his prime. So smooth, so cool, a classic crooner – I gotta say, I miss that orchestra sound in music today!

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