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.

  • mmln

    I completely understand and I’m so happy I found this. There is a new Time Life mag in the stores entitled The Rat Pack. Everytime I see that cover I think “man, they partied and I would have LOVED to hang out with them for at least a 24 hour period……and lived to tell it.” As an African American, there has always been a few moments within the camaraderie where I’ve winced and in particular, the one where Dean Martin “thanks the NACCP for this trophy” while cradling Sammy in his arms. Not more than ten minutes ago I looked at that photo and for the first time noticed the black band members seated behind the Dean, Sammy and the rest. Their expressions aren’t telling as they’re neither smiling nor frowning but nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder what they were feeling at the time. The one and only thing that has mitigated any of it is the feeling that he was viewed and treated as an equal when it came to his fellow Rat Packers. In fact, he held third billing always while Lawford, Bishop and the rest who were given entre into the club, fell below him when the credits ran. I have come to believe that Martin and Sinatra had his back and never really faltered from that.