Sammy Davis, Jr.: Great Dancer, Great Singer, Great Complexity

Sammy Davis Jr. remains a complicated topic. On one hand, he is one of the great talents of the 20th century. He was an amazing dancer — check out the very early clip above — and a singer who could hold his own against Sinatra, Bennett and the rest.

Growing up when he was at the height of his fame, I was embarrassed by the awkward racial jokes and the forced bonamie of the pack he ran with which, of course, was The Rat Pack (which, by the way, still is being emulated today.) Davis, for all his talent, came across with so much shtick and affectation that he almost seemed needy. It was impossible to tell what was real and what was not.

At the same time, it is obvious now — and should have been to me then, but I was too young — that Sinatra, Dean Martin and all the minor rats such as Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford really did love Davis. The final complicating factor was that much of this played out during the Vietnam era. Young people almost reflectively dismissed the personalities and talents of older performers, especially those who played to their parents and the Vegas crowd.

It was unfair in a couple of ways, but probably a pretty unavoidable product of the times. Sinatra, after all, was a liberal who did a lot to integrate popular music and to get Kennedy elected. Men like Davis and Louis Armstrong grew up in an overtly racist America. How they handled life as the nation changed and they became famous was a highly personal matter and must have been confusing. Only a relatively few insightful people understood that at the time.

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