An ability to capture imagination and attention is a quality indicative of a true entertainer, one who continuously heightens expectations by consistently surpassing them.
And Sammy Davis, Jr. is synonymous with surpassing.
In an era when Black performers were considered a lower grade of talent simply because of their skin color, Sammy emerged amazingly neutral. He played to all audiences despite the barrier; he tap danced on the color line.
Critics on both sides questioned everything about him, from his acting ability to his height to his significance amongst his race. Sammy suavely forced doubters to pit stop as he whooshed by them all in the surpassing lane. He was even gentleman enough to politely wave.
Part of surpassing is being a driving force. At the wheel Sammy Davis, Jr. occupied several different lanes: stage performer, recording artist, musician, dancer, dramatic actor, stand-up comedian. The length of his storied career was spent guiding his fans and admirers through a course of twisting emotions. He could make them double over with laughter one minute, curl up and cry the next.
There was a torrential downpour of tears the day Sammy passed away. On May 16, 1990 the curtains closed after a stormy bout with throat cancer. Born Samuel George Davis, Jr. in 1925, the Harlem, NY-native made plenty noise before his illness silenced him.
He grew up following the footsteps of his showbiz Sr. Projecting loudly through body and voice became his calling. Schooled in vaudeville he graduated to Broadway starring in hit musical Mr. Wonderful. This vehicle drove him to Las Vegas at the height of segregation. In the face of it he staged the next phase of his career – headliner at The Frontier Hotel & Casino (also known as The New Frontier until closing in 2007).
Sammy later joined The Rat Pack, a group of globally revered Hollywood heavyweights lead by the late Frank Sinatra. The popular clique, which also included late showmen Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, collectively redefined cool on the movie screen in the original Ocean’s 11 – one of more than 30 films on Sammy’s resume.
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He also found definition in his recording artist muscle by hitting #1 with singles “I Gotta Be Me” and “Candy Man”. Even sweeter was the number of awards and nominations he accumulated as a singer and actor, including Golden Globe, Tony, Emmy, and Grammy awards.
The true trophy, though, is the legacy Sammy Davis, Jr. left behind. It is one bronzed by heart-warming television appearances and real-life personal struggles. It’s a true Hollywood story featuring a life of long fought battles for civil rights and social acceptance. Behind the curtains and the music Sammy survived the critics, racism, and the ever-changing recording, television, and film industries. He surpassed all expectation, a captivating entertainer who impacted each genre he graced. He did not segregate his abilities; he integrated them into the fixture of American history.
This includes the now 40-year history of Soul Train.
Artists who captivate, who surpass expectation–they possess the same qualities found in Sammy Davis, Jr. That is the reason the Soul Train Music Award for Entertainer of the Year bears his name.
For more on Sammy Davis, Jr. visit sammydavis-jr.com
–Mr. Joe Walker
Mr. Joe Walker is an entertainment and news journalist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker.