A Century Of Sammy Davis Jr: 100 Years With The World’s Greatest Entertainer

Sammy Davis Jr sur scène à Paris en 1964
I’VE GOTTA BE ME: Sammy Davis Jr. on stage at the Olympia in Paris, March 19, 1964. Photo by Reporters Associates / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

There isn’t anyone like Sammy Davis Jr. — never has been and may never be again.

The Candy Man. Mr. Show Business. The Greatest Entertainer In The World. The centerpiece of the Will Mastin Trio and third from the left in Rat Pack lineups.

Cool is a necessarily ineffable attribute, but if there must be a tangible version of it, then ponder a photo of peak Sammy. Hair just so. Ubiquitous cigarette dangling, simultaneously dangerously close to slipping from his hands but so obviously under his control. A drink nearby, something brown and cool and strong. Wearing a suit like it’s a second skin. The smile, the look lighting the photo in a way no magnesium flashbulb could.

Born in 1925 to Sammy Sr. — a song and dance man — and Elvera Sanchez, a Cuban-American tap dancer, Sammy Jr. was on vaudeville stages from the time he turned three, never once receiving a second of formal classroom education, his family using their talented feet to stay one step ahead of the truant officer.

Over the next 65 years of his life — he died from complications of throat cancer in 1990, a consequence of a four-pack-a-day habit, his death quickened by his refusal to get any surgery that would cost him his velvety voice — he sang and danced and joked and acted and opened America’s eyes.

It wasn’t easy for him. He was Black and, after 1954, left with one eye, and after 1961, Jewish. That confluence led to a famous golf course colloquy with Jack Benny about handicaps, but was often no joking matter. America wasn’t ready for him to date the stunning (and white) Kim Novak. Nor was her studio, which sent mobsters to scare Davis away from their star and into a sham marriage to a Black woman.  Even that paragon of progress John Kennedy — friends with Davis through mutual pal Frank Sinatra and brother-in-law Peter Lawford — axed Davis from a performance at his inauguration because Sammy had married Swedish actress May Britt.

Old Blue Eyes may have made “My Way” his signature song, but it’s Sammy who, let the record show, took all the blows.

Sammy was complicated. A constant supporter of Jesse Jackson’s PUSH Coalition — the Rev. Jackson officiated his final marriage to Altovise Gore in 1970 — he nevertheless supported, vociferously, Richard Nixon of all people (though he did later say he regretted that because Nixon never came through as strongly on civil rights as he’d promised). 

His politics often alienated him from the broader Black community while his personal life bristled against the expectations of conventional white society.

But the talent. The talent wasn’t deniable and the legacy is long.

Sammy’s 100th birthday is coming up and his estate — now controlled by his son Manny after Gore’s death in 2009 and managed by Krystle Hartsfield-Lara — wants to make sure that legacy lives.

How could it not? Did you see Usher — a singer, dancer and actor with the shining smile who cites Davis as inspiration — performing at the halftime of the Super Bowl in Las Vegas — a city Davis adored?

“I want people to know how much he contributed to the culture across the board. He’s basically the legends’ legend,” Hartsfield-Lara tells Pollstar. “I remember talking with Stevie Wonder and he said ‘Sammy was someone I looked up and he inspired me and I wouldn’t have been the artist I am without Sammy.’”

She says it’s hard, sometimes, to understand what it meant for Sammy to be seen palling around with presidents and the most famous entertainers on earth in the late 50s and early 60s.

“He broke so many barriers. He and the Rat Pack integrated Vegas. Just how much they moved together was important and he was afraid sometimes,” she says. “I want people to remember the major things, which is activism and the type of human being he was.”

The estate’s plans for the centennial are still in early days, but Hartsfield-Lara says some things are certain.

“First: we’re going to put out some music,” she says. What that’ll look and sound like will remain a secret for now, but she promises it will deliver (it’s Sammy, after all).

There will be museum exhibits and panels, in both Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

“There will be tribute shows. A lot of people have already started reaching out, asking how they can honor him,” she says.

There will be a celebration at his gravesite at Forest Lawn in Glendale. And — a little ironically for a man without formal schooling — a foundation to provide scholarships to students in need.

And maybe one of those students will be a multihyphenate, no doubt inspired by Sammy.

But there’ll never be another Sammy.