History is full of some truly unfortunate stories in the field of music. Elvis dying on the toilet, Kurt Kobain’s alleged suicide, Michael Jackson overdosing, Jimmy Hendrix overdosing, Prince overdosing. But one of the most unfortunate stories lies with the man who was truly a jack of all trades and master of all: Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy Davis Jr. was quite possibly one of the most interesting musicians in all of music history, and history in general. From singing midgets, to the mob, to satanic cults, Sammy Davis Jr’s story has a lot of twists and turns. So buckle up, and let’s dive into the life of one of the world’s most incredible talents.
This story does involve a few unfortunate moments and I’ll be pointing these out as we go along.
Unlike many of our more historic articles, we do actually know about the early life of Sammy Davis Jr. He was born on Dec 8th, 1925 in Harlem. As somewhat of a premonition of his later life, he was born into a very talented family. Davis’s father, Sammy Davis Sr., was an entertainer and stage performer and his mother, Elvera Sanchez, was a stage performer and tap dancer. Both were said to have been vaudeville dancers.
Since his parents worked quite a lot in the evening, as most entertainers do, he said to have been brought up by his paternal grandmother. However, as most entertainers also do, his parents divorced when he was three. His father didn’t want to lose custody so in what was likely a defining moment for Davis, Sammy Davis Sr. decided to take his son on tour with him and Will Mastin. This would prove to be the beginning of an incredible career for Sammy Davis Jr.
He quickly learned to dance from his father and his “uncle”, Will Mastin, and very soon began to perform with the group, which began the Will Mastin Trio. In this act, Davis was apparently billed as “Silent Sam, the 44-year-old dancing midget”.
He continued to perform with the trio all the while developing his entertainment skills. These skills truly came into use in 1941 when the Will Mastin Trio was asked to fill in as an opening act for Frank Sinatra at a gig in Detroit. This particular show would prove to be life-changing for Sammy Davis Jr., but not instantly. In fact, another life-changing event would occur first, World War II.
In 1943, Sammy Davis Jr. was drafted into the army. This particular event was not necessarily life-changing. What affected Davis most about his time in the military, which is our first unfortunate moment in this story, was his first true introduction to blatant racism. During his time in the trio, he had never witnessed this racism outright because his father and uncle had both kept this from him under the guise of people being jealous of their entertaining skills. However, Davis was placed into one of the Army’s first racial integrated units in military history. This would obviously not be smooth sailing for a black man in the 1940s. However, Sammy Davis Jr. was not one to take this sort of thing lying down.
Apparently, Davis faced racism so frequently that he was having actual brawls with white soldiers nearly every other day. He described one occasion where a white secretary came to ask him a question. A group of white soldiers noticed him speaking with her and they decided to corner him a soon afterwards in the enlisted club. They took him outside and he fought them all. They overpowered him, stripped him, and painted him white, saying that he obviously wanted to be white if he wanted to talk to white women.
Other moments include him having his nose broken numerous times which gave it it’s permanently flattened look. On another occasion, he was offered a beer laced with urine. Davis fought every chance he could against the racism he experienced, but he began to notice that no matter how many times he would fight, the racists would just keep coming. So, he finally decided that there was another way that only he could fight back: through talent and showmanship.
After his discharge from the army, Sammy Davis Jr reunited with the Will Mastin Trio. However, he started pushing himself to do more than just dance. In addition to his amazing dancing, he began singing and doing impressions. His impressions were legendary, and soon the trio gained enough notoriety to make their way into some of the most famous clubs in Las Vegas.
The trio was actually being adored at this point, even by white audiences...while they were on stage. When they were off stage, they were treated just as badly as all other African Americans. Apparently, they weren’t even allowed to use the front doors of some of the clubs where they were performing.
This was a common trend around the United States at the time, even in New York. On one occasion, Davis and a group of his friends went to see Frank Sinatra perform at the New York club the Copacabana, they were turned away at the door. However, Sinatra made Davis come back the next night and he walked into the club by himself, effectively breaking down a sort of barrier. However, I couldn’t find any information on if the friends he had originally tried to take to the club also came with him. I believe it was just him alone.
Throughout all of this racism, Sammy Davis Jr never stopped fighting back with talent. This hard work would finally pay off when Davis got his big break. In 1951, the Will Mastin Trio was asked to open at the famous Hollywood nightclub, Ciro’s. The trio was meant to perform for twenty minutes to open for Janis Paige. However, the crowd loved the trio so much, Sammy Davis Jr especially, that they continued to perform for almost an hour. After this, Janis Paige insisted that the order of the show be flipped to her opening for the trio.
Following this, Sammy Davis Jr was on the rise. He could not be stopped. He was an absolute force to the reckoned with. This man’s skills could never be overstated. He could dance like no one else, he could sing just as good as Frank Sinatra, his impressions were uncanny, he was an absolute powerhouse. However, his incredible rise would come with a pretty terrible fall in another unfortunate moment in our story.
Davis was driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in 1954 when he was almost killed in a car crash. The year prior, Davis had befriended a Jewish comedian named Eddie Cantor. Cantor had given Davis a mezuzah, which is a parchment enclosed in a case that is normally fixed to a door post. However, Davis had taken to wearing it around his neck for good luck. This car crash happened on the only night that Davis had not been wearing his necklace.
During the crash, Davis’s eye was damaged because of a bullet-shaped horn button which led to him losing his left eye completely. He survived the crash, but the loss of his eye meant that he would have to relearn his movements. Obviously, his depth perception was greatly affected by this and this type of injury can destroy an entertainer’s career, especially in this time period. However, instead of letting him sulk due to his injuries, Davis’s friends, including Frank Sinatra, pushed him out of bed and towards recovery as soon as possible. He soon regained his footing, just in time for this car crash to make him into a national celebrity.
At this point, Sammy Davis Jr was still making waves. He was writing songs and acting in different television shows and films, all while performing constantly. With all of this hard work came notoriety, but this would also soon turn against him.
In 1957, Davis began dating Kim Novak, a white actress. Supposedly, Davis was incredibly in love with Novak and Novak apparently shared the same feelings. It was really the first moment in Sammy Davis Jr’s life where he loved someone enough to want to marry them, and this rumour started to spread. However, as with almost every aspect of Davis’s life, white people were not happy about this. One particular white racist that didn’t like the idea of Davis marrying Novak was her boss, Harry Cohn.
Harry Cohn was the head of Kim Novak’s film studio, Columbia Pictures. He believed that Novak’s marriage to a black man, even an incredibly famous and beloved black man, would affect the studio’s profits. So, he did what any sane white man would do: he hired the mob to threaten Sammy Davis Jr. Reportedly, the mobsters threatened Davis with blinding his remaining eye and breaking his legs if he didn’t marry a black woman within 48 hours. This scare tactic actually worked, and completely destroyed Sammy Davis Jr. because he took the threats very seriously.
To protect himself from the mob violence, Davis decided to marry a black dancer named Loray White. This was known to everyone as a sham marriage and it was only done because of the threats Davis received from the mob. He agreed to pay White a lump sum under the condition that their marriage would be dissolved within a year. The couple went ahead with a traditional wedding, but the entire ordeal was too much for Davis and he drank too much at the reception. He was said to have tried to strangle White on the way to their wedding suite. He was found later that evening with a gun to his head attempting to take his own life.
Davis’s marriage to White was short-lived and they were divorced in 1959. This was a particularly low moment in Davis’s life, but it would soon pick back up that same year. This was the year that he got his second big break when Frank Sinatra asked him to become a member of the famous Rat Pack.
Sammy Davis Jr’s time in the Rat Pack was one of the most famous of his career. Many may remember him as an actor or singer in the Will Mastin Trio, but the Rat Pack is what everyone associates with Davis’s career. However, there’s a particular moment from his time in the Rat Pack that really affected Davis greatly. This was in relation to president John F. Kennedy.
Apparently, the Rat Pack campaigned for JFK during his 1960 presidential campaign. They contributed directly to his election as president. Sammy Davis Jr even considered JFK a friend, which was true. In fact, a part of JFK’s campaign focused on the black community and their struggles. At this moment in history the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, so it was important to not alienate black voters. However, it became apparent that JFK also didn’t want to alienate his white southern voters, either.
At the same time of the 1960 presidential race, Sammy Davis Jr had met another white woman who he quickly fell for: Swedish-born actress May Britt. Although interracial marriages were still illegal in many states, and only four percent of Americans supported interracial marriages, Davis and Britt were married. Soon after this, JFK won the election and became president, and Davis was excited to attend his inauguration with his new wife. He had actually been asked to perform. However, just before the inauguration he was uninvited by JFK, effectively giving Sammy Davis Jr. a giant slap in the face for all of his support.
It was sometime after his shunning by JFK that Davis began to enter his partying stage. When I say partying, I mean truly hardcore, rock’n’roll partying. He was said to have begun participating in huge orgies while drinking heavily and experimenting with cocaine. But these weren’t the only things Davis was beginning to dabble in. At this point, he was also getting his introduction into the occult.
The Church of Satan was founded in California in 1966 and apparently Sammy Davis Jr felt a great affinity towards the church, although he had already converted to Judaism. This is likely to have been introduced to him through the orgies and drugs circles he was in, because everyone knows that the Church of Satan sure loves a good orgy and a bit of cocaine.
One particularly interesting moment in his Church of Satan days involved Davis being invited to a Satanic party by a few friends. When he arrived he found everyone there in robes with a naked woman tied spread eagle on an altar. However, Davis later wrote, “That chick was happy, and wasn’t really going to get anything sharper than a dildo stuck in her.” But another member at the party wouldn’t be as lucky.
At one point in the evening as Davis was doing drugs and being “serviced”, one of the ritual leaders pulled back his hood to reveal that he was actually Sammy Davis Jr’s barber: Jay Sebring. Some of the true crime aficionados may recognise this name. If you don’t recognise this name, you may recognise the name of Sebring’s fiancee: Sharon Tate. This is the same Sharon Tate that would later be murdered by the Manson family during the infamous Manson Family massacre. Jay Sebring would be right there with Sharon Tate, bound to her, shot, and stabbed seven times.
Sammy Davis Jr kept some of his ties to the Church of Satan, sometimes going out in public with one of his fingernails painted to show allegiance. He would also welcome many of the Church of Satan guests at his shows sometimes leaving front row seats available for them. At one point, the Church of Satan actually gave him an honorary second-degree Church of Satan membership. Which made Sammy Davis Jr an honorary warlock of the Church of Satan.
JFK’s previously mentioned betrayal may have been what eventually pushed Sammy Davis Jr to support republican Richard Nixon during his presidential campaign and during his presidency. This support for Nixon, who was not seen as a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, was seen as a disgrace to the black community. They saw Davis as a sellout and more of a joke than an incredible entertainer. This began a true downfall for Davis in the face of the public.
His drug and alcohol abuse had steadily grown up to this point and he was truly pressing his luck. At one point, he opened a show with a single song and stopped the show afterwards, which was not like Sammy Davis Jr at all. He did eventually quit using cocaine, but the drinking was another story.
Davis began having issues with his wife May Britt. The two had had three children together (one biological, two adopted) but the couple never really spent much time together. Davis was taking as much work as he could get and it kept him away from his family. Finally, he admitted to having an affair which destroyed his marriage and pushed him more towards drinking.
He drank so much alcohol that he ended up being diagnosed with a diseased liver. After this, he was told by doctors that he would die if he took another drink. Luckily for the entertainment world he did as he was told and stopped his drinking completely, although he still smoked.
It was following this unfortunate diagnosis that he began working hard to better himself in many ways. He actually apparently became a great cook. Such a great cook that even Bill Cosby himself spoke about his cooking prowess.
Davis also built his career back up from the brink of destruction with a few amazing acting roles in films and plays and a hit single with “Candyman”. He was also dating his soon to be third wife, Altovise Gore. The two were married in 1970 and Sammy Davis Jr seemed to be really on the mend from his wild years. By the 1980s he was seen as a legend. People had forgotten his friendship with Nixon, and he was revered for the work he had done in the arts. He even starred in an incredible 80s film, “Tap”, where he played an aging tap-dancer who could tap-dance better than anyone in the film. It’s an incredibly impressive film to watch. If you were to call this period in his life anything, you would really call this a comeback for Sammy Davis Jr...but then came the “tickle”.
In August 1989, Davis began complaining of a tickle in his throat and an inability to taste food. Doctors found a cancerous tumor in his throat and he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He was told that he had the best chance of survival if they removed a portion of his throat instead of using chemotherapy. However, Sammy Davis Jr told the doctors that he’d rather die than lose his voice. So he began to undergo chemotherapy and radiation. Which leads us to another very unfortunate moment in Sammy Davis Jr’s story.
While he was undergoing treatment for his cancer, there was also an event being planned for Davis to celebrate his 60 years in show business. This would be a large variety show of many different performers paying tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. This was also meant to include a performance from Davis, but he was too ill due to his treatment to perform. However, towards the end of the show the feelings overwhelmed him and he decided to put on his tap-shoes right there in the audience.
The audience cheered while he took the stage with fellow tap-dancer Gregory Hines. He proceeded to deliver one of the most incredible tap-dances you could hope to see, making it look effortless compared to the younger Gregory Hines. It was an incredible performance, and it was also Sammy Davis Jr’s final performance.
On May 16, 1990, Sammy Davis Jr passed away in his home in Beverly Hills, California at the age of 64. Two days following his death, the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip were darkened for ten minutes as a tribute. However, this is not the final unfortunate portion to this story.
Following his death, it was found that Sammy Davis Jr had spent a lot more than he earned. He was also found to owe back taxes of up to $7 million to the IRS. Because she had cosigned his taxes, his wife Altovise Davis became liable for his tax debts. She was forced to auction off all of his personal possessions and real estate. She was made to work minimum wage jobs and move back into her parent’s home. Altovise Davis was quoted as saying that the real story of Sammy Davis Jr has yet to be told, but I’m actually not sure if she herself was actually able to ever tell it.
As unfortunate as all of that may be, I believe there is another unfortunate thing to remember in the story of Sammy Davis Jr. From the moment he was on his own as an adult he was subjected to terrible racism on a daily level. We didn’t go into detail on the racism he received from the Rat Pack specifically, but there are claims of a lot occurring. However, Davis knew that he had to find a way to fight this racism, and however he fought it, he had to do it his way. He found his way of fighting back was through his music with the use of his voice and other talents. He wielded his voice, obviously in connection with his throat, like a sword against the racism that he experienced; and I find it poetically unjust that it was also the same thing that killed him. And that is what’s truly unfortunate.
"In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr." by Wil Haygood