Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, 1976: The small man center stage has removed his coat and tie. His dark face has grown moist with perspiration. He reaches for a tambourine, slaps it against his hip. In his own words, Sammy Davis Jr. is "revving up." The music changes and the "monster of musical motion" takes off--with "Mr. Bojangles," "That Old Black Magic," "Candy Man," proving his mastery of what has been called his "art of establishing immediate, joyful rapture with audiences."
Flashback to almost 50 years earlier:
Somewhere on the vaudeville circuit, 1929: a silent four-year-old human prop appears on stage for the first time with his father Sammy Davis Sr. and "adopted" uncle Will Mastin. He will soon begin to accompany them in "flashdancing" routines. The years will go by. The lights of vaudeville will dim and go out. Sammy Sr. and Will will fade. Sammy Jr. will go on.
Sammy Davis Jr. was born in New York's Harlem on December 8, 1925. His father was then a lead dancer in Mastin's "Holiday in Dixieland," a vaudeville troupe in which young Sammy's mother, Elvera (Sanchez) Davis, was the lead chorus girl. His paternal grandmother, Rosa B. ("Mama") Davis, reared him at 140th Street and Eighth Avenue until he was two and a half, when his parents broke up materially and professionally, and Sammy Sr. got custody of his son.
Little Sammy, who was called "Poppa" by his father and, for some equally obscure reason, "Mose Gastin" by Uncle Will, traveled and performed with the Mastin troupe, The youngster made his motion picture debut in 1933 in Rufus Jones for President, a two-reeler filmed at Brooklyn's Warner studios, in which he played a little boy who falls asleep in the lap of his mother (Ethel Waters) and dreams he is elected President of the United States.
As the years went by and vaudeville waned with the rise of motion pictures, the Mastin troupe got smaller and its name larger--first "Will Mastin's Gang. Featuring Little Sammy" then "The Will Mastin Trio, Featuring Sammy Davis Jr." It was during those years that Davis met Frank Sinatra, who was then with Tommy Dorsey's band, and Bill ("Bojangles") Robinson, the "Mr. Bojangles," earlier popularized in the song by Jerry Jeff Walker and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which later became a standard song in Davis' act.
He was drafted into the Army when he was 18, and after encountering blatant racial prejudice for the first time and countering it with his fists, he was transferred to Special Services. There he did shows in camps across the country, "gorging" himself "on the joy of being liked," as he described it in his 1965 autobiography, Yes I Can. He combed every audience for "haters" and, when he spotted one, would give his performance "an extra burst of strength and energy" because he "had to get those guys," to "neutralize them and make them acknowledge" him.
During the lean post-World War II years, breaking in a night club act in the "boondocks" and occasionally in Las Vegas, which was in its infancy as a "show town," he perfected his performance, doing flashdancing and impressions of popular screen stars and singers, playing trumpet and drums--and singing, with Sammy Sr. and Uncle Will's soft-shoe and tap as background. During this period, he recorded some songs for Capitol. One of them, a rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight," was chosen 1946 Record of the year by Metronome magazine, which also named him the year's "Most Outstanding New Personality."
Over the following two years, the trio toured for six months with Mickey Rooney, played a three-week engagement on a bill headed by Frank Sinatra at New York's Capitol Theatre and had a featured spot in a Bob Hope benefit show. It was through Jack Benny, however, that they won a coveted booking at Ciro's in Hollywood and an appearance with Eddie Cantor on the "Colgate Comedy Hour," a television series for which they became the summer replacement. After the trio's smash hit engagement at the Copacabana in New York, Decca Records signed Davis to a contract. His first album, Starring Sammy Davis Jr., included impersonations. Another LP, Just for Lovers, starred him solely as himself.
It was in 1954 that an automobile accident cost him his left eye. During his confinement in Community Hospital in San Bernadino, he began his conversion to Judaism. When he was discharged from the hospital, clubs nationwide were clamoring for him and the trio. With battered face and eye-patch, Davis made his return to the nightclub circuit with them. After a succession of successful club appearances, he made his Broadway debut in 1956, with Sam Sr. and Will, in Mr. Wonderful, a musical comedy created for him.
Davis made his solo debut on television on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and did some serious acting in episodes of the "General Electric Theatre" and "The Dick Powell Show." In 1965, on the "Patty Duke Show," he played himself in "Will the Real Sammy Davis Please Stand Up?" Meanwhile his recordings were making records--"Hey There," "Birth of the Blues," The Lady Is a Tramp," "Candy Man," "Gonna Build a Mountain," and "Who Can I Turn To?"
He co-starred in 1958 as the jive talking sailor in the film Anna Lucasta and the next year as the mischievous Sportin' Life in the screen version of Porgy and Bess. Among the numerous additional films in which he appeared are Pepe (in a cameo role as himself), Convicts Four, Three Penny Opera, Nightmare in the Sun, A Man Called Adam, and Sweet Charity, and as a member of the "Rat Pack," a group of performers headed by Frank Sinatra, in a number of pictures including Ocean's Eleven, Sergeants Three, and Robin and the Seven Hoods, as well as Johnny Cool, Salt and Pepper, and One More Time. In the mid-1960s, he returned to the stage as the star of Broadway's Golden Boy, which earned him Cue magazine's Entertainer of the Year award. His numerous television specials have also been widely acclaimed.