Black Jewish History Month: Sammy Davis, Jr.

Well I’m MaNishtana kids, and it’s been a fun month, but what better way to end it than the Black Jewish equivalent of Rick-Rolling: Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr.

I know, I know.  A lot of you are cringing.  The truth is a lot of JOCs are as enthusiastic about claiming Sammy as Black folk are overwhelmingly proud that Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for playing a slave (which is STILL a lot more deserving and respectable than Halle Berry winning one for playing a whore.  Sorry.  I meant…No…No, I meant “whore’).

But at the end of the day, no one can deny that Sammy made a major introduction of Jews of Color into the mainstream public eye.  And for that, today in Black Jewish History Month: Sammy Davis, Jr.

How Are YOU Jewish: Convert

Samuel George “Sammy” Davis, Jr. was an American entertainer.

Primarily a dancer and singer, Davis was a childhood vaudevillian who became known for his performances on Broadway and in Las Vegas, as a recording artist, television and film star, and as a member of Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack”.

At the age of three Davis began his career in vaudeville with his father and “uncle” as the Will Mastin Trio, toured nationally, and after military service, returned to the trio. Davis became an overnight sensation following a nightclub performance at Ciro’s after the 1951 Academy Awards, with the trio, became a recording artist, and made his first film performances as an adult later that decade. Losing his left eye in a car accident in 1954, he converted to Judaism and appeared in the first Rat Pack movie, Ocean’s 11, in 1960. After a starring role on Broadway in 1956’s Mr Wonderful, Davis returned to the stage in 1964’s Golden Boy, and in 1966 had his own TV variety show, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show. Davis’s career slowed in the late sixties, but he had a hit record with “The Candy Man”, in 1972, and became a star in Las Vegas.

As an African American, Davis was the victim of racism throughout his life, and was a large financial supporter of civil rights causes. Davis had a complex relationship with the black community, and attracted criticism after physically embracing Richard Nixon in 1970. One day on a golf course with Jack Benny, he was asked what his handicap was. “Handicap?” he asked. “Talk about handicap — I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.” This was to become a signature comment, recounted in his autobiography, and in countless articles.

After reuniting with Sinatra and Dean Martin in 1987, Davis toured with them and Liza Minnelli internationally, before dying of throat cancer in 1990.

Davis was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, and was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award for his television performances. He was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1987, and in 2001, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Samuel George Davis, Jr. was born in New York City, New York, to Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American entertainer, and Elvera Sanchez,a tap dancer. During his lifetime, Davis, Jr. stated that his mother was Puerto Rican and born in San Juan; however, in the 2003 biography In Black and White, author Wil Haygood writes that Davis, Jr.’s mother was born in New York City to Cuban American parents, and that Davis, Jr. claimed he was Puerto Rican because he feared anti-Cuban backlash would hurt his record sales.

Davis’s parents were vaudeville dancers. As an infant, he was raised by his paternal grandmother. When he was three years old, his parents separated. His father, not wanting to lose custody of his son, took him on tour. Davis learned to dance from his father and his “uncle” Will Mastin, who led the dance troupe his father worked for. Davis joined the act as a child and they became the Will Mastin Trio. Throughout his career, Davis included the Will Mastin Trio in his billing. Mastin and his father shielded him from racism. Snubs were explained as jealousy, for instance. When Davis served in the United States Army during World War II, however, he was confronted by strong racial prejudice.

Davis, Jr. was hired to sing the title track for the Universal Pictures film Six Bridges to Cross, recording it on December 2, 1954.

The Army assigned Davis to an integrated entertainment Special Services unit, and he found that the spotlight lessened the prejudice. After his discharge at the war’s end, Davis rejoined the family dance act, which played at clubs around Portland, Oregon. He began to achieve success on his own and was singled out for praise by critics, releasing several albums. This led to his appearance in the Broadway play Mr. Wonderful in 1956.

In 1959, Davis became a member of the famous “Rat Pack”, led by his friend Frank Sinatra, which included fellow performers such as Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Shirley MacLaine. Initially, Sinatra called the gathering “the Clan”, but Sammy voiced his opposition, saying that it reminded people of the racist Ku Klux Klan. Sinatra renamed the group “the Summit”, but the media referred to them as the Rat Pack.

Davis was a headliner at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, but he was required (as were all black performers in the 1950s) to lodge in a rooming house on the west side of the city, instead of in the hotels as his white colleagues did. No dressing rooms were provided for black performers, and they had to wait outside by the swimming pool between acts.

During his early years in Las Vegas, Davis and other African-American artists could entertain, but usually could not stay at the hotels where they performed, gamble in the casinos, nor dine or drink in the hotel restaurants and bars. Davis later refused to work at places which practiced racial segregation. His demands would lead to the integration of Miami Beach nightclubs and Las Vegas casinos, an accomplishment for which Davis justly took pride.

Davis nearly died in an automobile accident on November 19, 1954 in San Bernardino, California, as he was making a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The accident occurred at a fork in U.S. Highway 66 at Cajon Blvd and Kendall Drive. Davis lost his left eye as a result, and wore an eye patch for at least six months following the accident. He appeared on What’s My Linewearing the patch. Later, he was fitted for a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life. While in the hospital, his friend Eddie Cantor told him about the similarities between the Jewish and black cultures. Prompted by this conversation, Davis — who was born to a Catholic mother and Protestant father — began studying the history of Jews and converted to Judaism several years later. One passage from his readings, describing the endurance of the Jewish people, intrigued him in particular: “The Jews would not die. Three millennia of prophetic teaching had given them an unwavering spirit of resignation and had created in them a will to live which no disaster could crush”. In many ways, the accident marked a turning point in Davis’s career, taking him from a well-known entertainer to a national celebrity and icon.

This is Black Jewish History Month at Manishtana’s Musings.

manishtanasignoff

MaNishtana@manishtana.net

twitter.com/MaNishtana

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