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Samuel George Davis, Jr., better known as Sammy Davis, Jr. (December 8, 1925 - May 16, 1990) was an American entertainer. He was a dancer, singer, multi-instrumentalist (playing vibraphone, trumpet, and drums), impressionist, comedian, and actor. He was a member of the 1960s Rat Pack, which was led by his old friend Frank Sinatra, and included such fellow performers as Dean Martin and Peter Lawford.
Davis was born in the Harlem neighborhood of New York to Elvera Sanchez, a Puerto Rican and Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American entertainer. The couple were both dancers in vaudeville. As an infant, he was raised by his paternal grandmother. When he was three years old, his parents split up. His father, not wanting to lose custody of his son, took him on tour. Unknown to most Sammy had a sister Ramona Cecelia Davis who passed in April of 2001.
During his lifetime Sammy Davis, Jr. stated that his mother was Puerto Rican and born in San Juan . However, the 2003 biography In Black and White claims that he made these statements due to the political sensitivities of the 1960s and his mother was instead born in New York of Cuban ancestry. The book claims that Elvera was in fact born in New York, the daughter of Cuban Americans Marco Sanchez, a cigar salesman, and Luisa Aguiar. This information was obtained from the daughter and grand-daughter of Elvera's sister Julia and from contemporary documentation. These claims have never been confirmed by the Davis or Sanchez families, and therefore continue to remain as speculation.
As a child he learned how to dance from his father, Sammy Davis, Sr., and his "uncle" Will Mastin, who led the dance troupe for which his father worked. Davis joined the act as a young child and they became the Will Mastin Trio. Throughout his long career, Davis included the Will Mastin Trio in his billing, and long after he became a solo star, he continued to pay his father and Mastin a large percentage of his income. It was his way of thanking them both for making his career possible, but the magnanimous gesture contributed to Sam's lifelong financial problems.
Mastin and his father had shielded him from racism; snubs were explained as jealousy. But during World War II, Davis served in the United States Army and was confronted by strong racial prejudice; he was beaten by white soldiers on several occasions. As he said later, "Overnight the world looked different. It wasn't one color anymore. I could see the protection I'd gotten all my life from my father and Will. I appreciated their loving hope that I'd never need to know about prejudice and hate, but they were wrong. It was as if I'd walked through a swinging door for eighteen years, a door which they had always secretly held open."
While in the service, however, he joined an entertainment unit, and found that the spotlight removed some of the prejudice. "My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man's thinking," he said.
After he was discharged, he rejoined the dance act and began to achieve success on his own as he was singled out for praise by critics. The next year, he released his second album. The next move in his growing career was to appear in the Broadway show Mr. Wonderful in 1956.
In 1959, he became a charter member of the Rat Pack, which was led by his old friend Frank Sinatra, and included such fellow performers as Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Shirley MacLaine. Initially, Sinatra called the gathering of fast-living friends "the Clan," but Sam voiced his opposition, saying that it invoked thoughts about the Ku Klux Klan, and Sinatra renamed the group "the Summit"...but nevertheless, the media kept on calling it the Rat Pack all along.
Davis was a headliner at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas for many years, yet was required to accept accommodations in a rooming house on the west side of the city, rather than reside with his peers in the hotels, as were all black performers in the 1950s. For example, no stage dressing rooms were provided for black performers, so they were required to wait outside by the swimming pool between acts.
After he achieved superstar success, Davis refused to work at venues which would practice racial segregation. His demands eventually led to the integration of Miami Beach nightclubs and Las Vegas, Nevada casinos. Davis was particularly proud of this accomplishment; during his early years in Vegas, he and other African-American artists like Nat King Cole and Count Basie could entertain on the stage, but often could not reside at the hotels at which they performed, and most definitely could not gamble in the casinos or go to the hotel restaurants and bars.
Although James Brown would claim the title of "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," the argument could be made that Sammy Davis, Jr. deserved it more. For example, in 1964 he was starring in Golden Boy at night, shooting his own New York-based afternoon talk show during the day, and when he could get a day off from the theater, he would either be in the studio recording new songs, or else performing live, often at charity benefits as far away as Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas, or doing television variety specials in Los Angeles. Even at the time, Sam knew he was cheating his family of his company, but he couldn't help himself; as he later said, he was incapable of standing still.
Although still a huge draw in Las Vegas, Davis' musical career had sputtered out by the latter years of the 1960s. An attempt to update his sound and reconnect with younger people resulted in some embarrassing "hip" musical efforts with the Motown record label. But then, even as his career seemed at its nadir, Sammy had an unexpected worldwide smash hit with "Candy Man". Although he didn't particularly care for the song, and he was chagrined that he was now best known for it, Davis made the most of his new opportunity and revitalized his career. Although he enjoyed no more Top 40 hits, he remained a successful live act beyond Vegas for the remainder of his career, and he would occasionally land television and film parts, including highly successful visits (playing himself) to the All in the Family series.
In Japan, Davis appeared in television commercials for coffee, and in the U.S. he joined Sinatra and Martin in a radio commercial for a Chicago car dealership.
Davis was one of the first male celebrities to admit to watching television soap operas, particularly the shows produced by the American Broadcasting Company. This admission led to him making a cameo appearance on General Hospital and playing the recurring character Chip Warren on One Life to Live for which he received a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1980.
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