Home ยป blog ยป Sammy Davis, Jr.: Great Dancer, Great Singer, Great Complexity

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.ย Only a relatively few insightful people understood that at the time.

About the author


Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

Sign Up for TDMB Daily Email Blasts

TDMB offers daily one-video email blasts. A different genre each day of the week. They are quick hits: Just great music and a bit of context.

Sign up below or, for more info, click here.

Here’s What’s Here

The Daily Music Break explores every genre of music, from hip hop to opera. It's simple: Boundaries are dumb. It's all good. Here is more about the site and here is our index:

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

--Radiohead to ZZ Top (R to Z)

Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.