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Sammy Davis Jr

Sammy Davis Jr was born in Harlem in 1925 to Elvera Sanchez, a Puerto Rican dancer, and Sammy Davis Snr, a black vaudeville entertainer.

Elvera’s mother was a light-skinned, Manhattan-born Cuban whose miedo al negro (fear of blacks) encouraged Elvera to abandon her son.

Raised by his paternal grandmother for his first three years until his father took him on tour, Sammy Jr was raised by two men – his father and his ‘uncle’ Will Mastin who led his father’s dance troupe.

Sammy Jr joined Mastin’s shows from the age of four and never went to school. He was drafted into the US Army when he was eighteen and his experiences in the service were not happy ones.

Suffering abuse by fellow soldiers, he was transferred to an entertainment regiment, and eventually found himself performing in front of some of the same soldiers who had painted the word “coon” on his forehead.

After the war, Davis went solo and signed a recording contract with Decca Records. His first two albums – Starring Sammy Davis, Jr and Just for Lovers – both sold well and he soon became a headliner in Las Vegas and New York.

A car crash in 1954 cost him sight in his left eye, but he fought his way back to health and re-learnt all his dancing skills to cope with restricted vision.

He went on to woo critics in the film Porgy and Bess (1958) and, as a member of the high-profile Rat Pack, he hobnobbed with Frank SinatraDean Martin and Joey Bishop. In the 1960s, Davis managed to turn an average Broadway show, Mr Wonderful, into a roaring success.

Possessed of a magnificent crooner’s voice that was full of baritone and sugary schmaltz, he was one of 60s America’s greatest entertainers.

sammy_may_1978But the high life also served up pitfalls for Davis, and his marriage to Swedish actress May Britt (pictured) earned him the vitriol of the Ku Klux Klan.

A black convert to Judaism with a white wife, he received numerous death threats and packed a gun most of his life. Friendly with Martin Luther King, he campaigned for Kennedy in the 60s – but for Nixon in the 70s.

While his Rat Pack ways of drink and drugs threatened his health, his lavish lifestyle nearly bankrupted him. Davis became addicted to drugs and alcohol, later developing both liver and kidney trouble which required hospitalisation in 1974.

The last fifteen years of Davis’s life were conducted at his usual hectic pace, and in 1978 he appeared in another Broadway musical, Stop the World – I Want To Get Off.

Following the discovery of a throat tumour in 1989, Davis underwent radiation therapy, but he died in 1990 aged 64.