Why you should care
Because how many other black, Jewish, one-eyed geniuses do you know?
If you are 23 years old, the year you were born was the year that Sammy Davis Jr. died too soon, and if you know him at all, it’s probably connected to old Saturday Night Live skits in which he was played by either Eddie Murphy or Billy Crystal. Or part of some sort of retro-cool deal where he’s tied in to Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the so-called bad boys and sybarites of the Kennedy era.
And even that would not even be a fractional portion of enough when considering how huge he was for many more reasons than just song and dance. During a time when the casinos he played in Las Vegas would not let him stay in their hotels, he was slaying them.
Sure, he was slaying them with his act, but Sammy’s act, which he had been working since he was 5 years old, was much wider than just what was happening onstage: daring to interracially marry back when people were getting killed for just being black and trying to vote (for which he drew his own share of death threats); making his name in movies, television and on Broadway; boxing; converting to Judaism; being a multi-instrumentalist and a friend and known associate of equally colossal talents, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and many others. The list goes on and on.
And even more so than the whole Rat Pack nexus, Sammy had the cultural fluidity that let him just as comfortably march on Washington, D.C., in 1963 as hug the widely hated Richard M. Nixon on live television and weather the resultant storm (he eased toward Nixon when he felt the Kennedys high-handed him over the interracial-dating issue). Or befriend Anton LaVey from the Church of Satan just as easily as he made fast friends with Elvis during a time when it had been (some say falsely) claimed that in response to guesses that he was black, Elvis purportedly had said that the only thing a black man could do for him was shine his shoes.
”Early on somebody told me that Elvis was black,” Sammy was quoted as saying. “And I said ‘No, he’s white, but he’s down-home.’ And that is what it’s all about. Not being black or white, it’s being ‘down-home’ and which part of down-home you come from … I have a respect for Elvis’ and my friendship. It ain’t my business what he did in private. The only thing I want to know is, ’Was he my friend?’ ‘Did I enjoy him as a performer?’ ‘Did he give the world of entertainment something?’ — and the answer is yes on all accounts.
The other jazz just don’t matter.”
So it went for Sammy supping any and all aspects of life fully. Four kids; multiple marriages; even more awards for singing, dancing and acting; autobiographies; and ultimately the lifestyle catching up to him with a killing case of throat cancer from his years of smoking. A sad, semitragic end for someone whose voice had given so much to so many, but in the end? That’s the best of what remains.