Sammy Davis Jr.: Remembering the Complicated Legacy of ‘The Greatest Entertainer’ on His 95th Birthday

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Depending on who you ask about the legacy of iconic singer, dancer, comedian and instrumentalist, Sammy Davis Jr., you are likely to get a mixed bag of reactions as to the level of impact and influence his career had on Black entertainers.

There are those who might revere Davis as a trailblazing pioneer who forged a path for Black artists to receive top billing in socially segregated spaces amid an intense period of cultural unrest. There are those who may disparage him as a sell-out who compromised his identity to gain acceptance in Hollywood and not be viewed as the Black member of the legendary Rat Pack.

An argument can be made in either direction of the consequence of Davis’ sacrifices with respect to how he is remembered in Black American culture. His imprint, however, cannot be easily discounted as it was an early example for many modern-day Black entertainers attempting to balance lofty career goals while maintaining cultural integrity.

Background and Beginnings

Sammy Davis Jr. was born December 8, 1925, in Harlem, New York, to parents of different cultural backgrounds. His Black American father, Sammy Davis Sr., and his Cuban-American mother, Elvera Sanchez, were both dancers. They gifted Davis with the inheritance of dancing feet.

Davis’s parents separated when he was three years old and as he became of age, his father took him on tour with a dance troupe led by Will Mastin, a Black dancer that formed the Will Mastin Trio, of which Davis would become its youngest member. After years of touring with the troupe, Davis would later enlist in the Army and fight in World War II.

It was during his time in the service where he would recall his earliest memories of racial prejudice as a member of an integrated entertainment Special Services unit.

In a later-in-life interview on The Arsenio Hall Show, Davis spoke about his time in the Army, recalling a memory of being painted white and having urine poured in his beer by other GIs. A small man in stature, Davis would often share stories about having to defend himself against racism while in the service.

“And the guy said, ‘Where I come from, niggers don’t go in front of white people’…I turned and hit him…cat fell to the ground, his mouth was bleeding, and he looked up at me and he said, ‘Well, you beat me but you still a nigger,’” Davis shared in 1971 with legendary talk show host Dick Cavett about another incident he endured while in the military.

These experiences would serve as a precursor to the bigotry he would encounter as a member of the famed Rat Pack.

The Black rat of the pack

By the late 1950s, Davis was considered an A-list performer with a Broadway show to his credit and feature appearances in a slew of movies. As his star power rose, Davis began to make demands of the venues he would perform in, refusing to work in venues that were racially segregated. Davis using his talent as a form of protest led to the integration of Miami Beach and Las Vegas nightclubs. It did not, however, absolve him from being mistreated while he was a member of one of the most iconic talent ensembles of all time.

The Rat Pack, whose core members included Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop, were an informal collective of friends that were some of the biggest names in film and music during the 1950s and 1960s. While Davis toured the world with his Rat Pack friends as its lone Black member, his ethnicity was often the punchline to their humor during performances.

Davis was married to Swedish actress May Britt in 1960 at a time when interracial marriages were outlawed in 31 states, a union that reportedly led to Davis being denied the opportunity to perform at the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy Jr. with his fellow Rat Pack members.

A star fades and the struggle for equity continues

Sammy Davis Jr. died in 1990 from complications of throat cancer after a 60-year career in show business. His legacy as a Black Jewish Hollywood star and jack-of-all-trades entertainer is one that has been mirrored in the likes of modern-day multi-hyphenate Black celebs such as Wayne Brady and Jamie Foxx.

Despite the social barriers that Davis dismantled throughout his storied career, Black entertainers still struggle with receiving top-billing in the film industry. Their best efforts are often snubbed from the academies that award performative excellence, such as the Grammys, Oscars and Emmys.

It is fitting to honor what would be Davis’s 95th birthday by recognizing the nuance of his personhood, the delicate balance he struck in efforts to make a way for himself and subsequently for a legion of Black entertainers to follow.

“The Candyman” did not have a neat path to stardom, nor was it one void of contradictions. But it is a blueprint worth acknowledging for every lesson it offers.

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate, and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be.