Skip to comments.How Sammy Davis Jr. Became the Great Jewish Entertainer
Posted on 05/17/2014 4:14:40 PM PDT by nickcarraway
Daughter's Memoir Accentuates the Positive
● Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father By Tracey Davis and Nina Bunche Pierce Running Press, 208 pages, $30
Even when my own people would complain to me about racism, Sammy Davis Jr. told his daughter shortly before the end of his life, I would always say, You got it easy. Im a short, ugly, one-eyed black Jew. What do you think its like for me? It was a riff that Davis regularly recycled for laughs but as was so often the case for the multi-talented entertainer, there was considerable truth and pain behind the punch line. Indeed, truth, pain and laughter are all prominent themes in Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father, a sumptuously illustrated book by Daviss daughter Tracey (with collaborator Nina Bunche Pierce) that looks back on his career through the prism of their final months together. Related Sammy Davis Jr.s Menorah Fails To Sell Menorah Illuminates Davis Jr.s Judaism
As Ms. Davis recounted in her previous book, 1996s Sammy Davis Jr.: My Father, it wasnt easy growing up as the daughter of one of the worlds most in-demand song-and-dance men, a workaholic father who tried to make up for his lengthy absences with lavish expenditures and extravagant gestures. Here, however, she makes a conscious effort to leave the bitterness and baggage behind, savoring instead the memories of the conversations she shared with her father in 1990 while he was losing his battle with throat cancer. It was during this period, she writes, that my father became particularly nostalgic about the past, and seemed to particularly relish the chance to revisit and reflect upon his struggles and accomplishments with his once-estranged daughter (then pregnant with his first grandson) as his audience.
Though Ms. Davis did not record their conversations, she does her best to reconstruct them from memory here, and they touch chiefly (and often all-too-briefly) upon the major bullet points of her fathers biography: learning the showbiz ropes as a child with his father in the Will Mastin Trio; being verbally and physically abused by white soldiers while serving in the United States Army during World War II; his postwar rise to fame; his decades-long friendship with Frank Sinatra; his near-fatal car accident that caused him to lose an eye; his post-accident conversion to Judaism; the heady days in Las Vegas with The Rat Pack; the controversy over his interracial marriage to Swedish actress May Britt (Traceys mother) in 1960; their 1968 divorce; and his 1970 marriage to dancer Altovise Gore, whom he met during his Tony-nominated Broadway turn in Golden Boy.
Absent (perhaps understandably so) are the more tawdry and salacious aspects of Daviss life, like his affair with actress Lola Falana, his penchant for swinging in the non-musical sense, or his involvement with Anton LaVeys Church of Satan. Daviss drug use and alcoholism are, likewise, only lightly touched upon here. Aside from some pointed digs at her stepmother whom Ms. Davis claims was such a raging alcoholic that her father locked her out of his wing at their Beverly Hills mansion during his final months family drama is largely kept at bay, as well.
As such, little in Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father will come as any sort of revelation to longtime fans of the entertainer. And while the 100-plus photographs included here amply attest to Daviss striking charisma as well as to his innate ability to lend pizazz to even the stiffest of occasions, such as his 1971 appointment by former President Nixon to the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity (to which Sammy un-ironically sported a peace medallion) their placement in the book often seems haphazard, and their captions frustratingly sparse. Ms. Davis is solid enough at fleshing out her fathers reminiscences with historical and cultural context, but shes on shakier ground when ruminating on the bigger picture, offering up shallow epiphanies like, I looked around at the plush garden oasis my pop worked so hard for, and thought, Wow, my father really is a megastar.
Still, for all its flaws, Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father is sweetly intimate and often quite engaging. The affection that Ms. Davis and her father had for each other rings loud and true, as does her fathers passion for living; his deep sadness at losing his ability to perform which he quite clearly held tantamount to losing his life is heartbreakingly palpable. The writing of this book obviously provided Ms. Davis with another chance to commune with her fathers spirit, and its hard to fault her for wanting to do that. Even through decades-old conversations, the wit and charm of Sammy Davis Jr. remain as winning as ever, and readers will come away feeling as if theyve spent some quality time with the man. Even if they dont learn much new from the experience, theyll be entertained and thats exactly the way Sammy would want it.
Whatever trace of racism that still exists against blacks in this country is not even worth getting upset about, but when someone wants something that won’t be given to them willingly, they’ll find an excuse to take it. What laws exist which favor white people over black? None, just the opposite. Nevertheless there are those who see themselves as perpetual victims because they can get things.
Sammy and Frank.
Considering we have a president who hates blacks and has been keeping the black unemployment rates at all time highs, I don’t know how you can say that. Sammy Davis Jr. died more than20 years ago, anyway.
Sammy and May Britt.
Sammy with daughter Tracey.
I remember Al Capp saying he could only take Sammy for about 5 minutes.
5 minutes longer than I could take the...
One of the greats. His greatest pain came from a liberal who invited him to a party to serve him fried chicken because “that’s what you people eat”.
SDJr showed people racism when they couldn’t see it.
He was a legendary hoofer and performer
5 minutes longer than I could take the...
In my mind, he was the best performer of the Rat Pack, with Dean Martin a close second. Old Blue Eyes was a faraway third.
Those were the days.
I beg to differ...Sammy was very talented, but so was Frank. They were all great, really.
Maybe one of the greatest all-around entertainers this country has ever produced. One of the all-time great tap dancers, a decent singer, an actor capable of doing drama and comedy equally well, and oddly, a skilled quick-draw artist and knife thrower.
Too bad we don’t have anyone like that today.
Sounds like the writer is disappointed. But still, he gets his digs in ......
While I was only a teenager when Sammy was in his prime, i still remember watching him on TV........The guy was a true entertainer, one of the very best and any attempt to demean his legacy is pretty much standard now a days.
Sounds like he has lots of fans on FR.
To me he had about the same effect as a dose of syrup of ipecac.
You sure you're not talking about Fuzzy Zoeller's comments at the 1997 Masters tournament?
He played the drums as well, maybe the trumpet too. Saw him kick as at a drum set someone asked him to play out of the blue.
My feelings exactly, I miss Sammy and Dean.
Also, IMO Dean martin was both more talented than and a better person than Jerry Lewis. I always enjoyed Dean’s time on stage but I came to dread suffering through Jerry’s antics..
A kinder, gentler time...
One of my all-time favorite entertainers. Not my favorite dancer, not my favorite singer, not my favorite comedian, not my favorite impressionist, not my favorite actor, but perhaps my favorite combination of those talents.
> “While I was only a teenager when Sammy was in his prime, i still remember watching him on TV........The guy was a true entertainer, one of the very best ...”<
I recall an old tv show in which Sammy Davis, Jr., played a naive and gullible soldier who was often the butt of jokes. (Looking at Wikipedia, my guess is it was “The Patsy” from 1960, an episode on the General Electric Theater.) The climax of the show occurred when some other soldiers set up a practical joke in which they pretended to pull the pin on a live grenade and then panic.
[Plot spoiler, though I’ve never seen a rerun of the show] The Davis character believed it was a live grenade and was terrified, as expected, but kept trying to get them to run. When he realized it was too late for them to get away, he dove on the grenade and covered it with his body.
The image of him on the ground writhing in terror waiting for the grenade to explode was moving. Of course, the other soldiers were ashamed then of the low opinion they’d had of him. (An officer observed what happened and praised him for his bravery.)
I’m not a big fan of Davis in general, but thought his acting in that scene was excellent. I’ve remembered it for over half a century.
By the way, I don’t believe that episode was about racism (and don’t recall whether there were other black soldiers in the scene). I think it was just about him being gullible and the butt of jokes (hence the name, “The Patsy”).
Start this video at any point as they are all great.
Sammy at 43:50 impersonating Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis
Frank Sinatra Spectacular SL 1965
Thanks for the link :-)
Do you take cream and sugar in your eye?
Funniest TV moment, ever.
I always liked that guy. And man - could he sing.
Also, do not post images from Corbis or Getty.
Sorry, wasn’t sure about Corbis.