Sammy Davis Jr.

Sammy Davis, Jr. suffered the pains of racial segregation in Nevada years before he was recognized as one of the greatest all-around performers. Born in Harlem in 1925 to vaudeville dancers, Davis learned to dance from his father and Will Mastin, whom he called his uncle. They formed the Will Mastin Trio, and Davis continued that billing with them long after he became a star. Throughout his career, he amazed critics, fans, and fellow entertainers with his ability to sing, dance, and play numerous instruments.

The Will Mastin Trio made their debut on the Las Vegas Strip at the El Rancho Vegas in 1945 before moving over to the Hotel Last Frontier as a top showroom act. "Sammy is definitely a one-man show," wrote Las Vegas Sun critic Ralph Pearl, noting that Davis could sing, pound out drum solos, reprise a Bill Robinson tap routine, and play a variety of instruments in a rousing "Birth of the Blues."

In his autobiography, Yes, I Can, Davis wrote of the stark contrast between how he was warmly greeted in showrooms while he faced segregation in the hotels where he played. Las Vegas Strip hotels did not allow African American customers and entertainers of the post-war era to reside in or patronize the hotel-casinos. Black performers entered and exited through kitchens, and sometimes were lucky to get a meal at the places where they performed. They stayed in boarding houses or motels in racially segregated West Las Vegas. Davis found the situation no better when he played the Skyroom at the Mapes Hotel in Reno.

Davis faced more than segregation and discrimination in Las Vegas. Performing at the Last Frontier in November 1954, he made a late-night ride to Los Angeles for a recording session. His friend, Charles Head, allowed Davis to stretch out on the back seat of his car. The trip ended with a serious collision near San Bernardino, and Davis lost his left eye and suffered a broken jaw and other facial injuries. He recovered at Frank Sinatra's Palm Springs home, with Sinatra reportedly telling his younger friend, "Relax. You're going to be bigger than ever, Charley (his nickname for Davis), bigger than ever."

Sinatra's prophecy proved true, and Davis would eventually return to work as a solo act on Las Vegas, Reno, and Lake Tahoe stages, as well as appearing in films and on Broadway. In the early 1960s, he joined Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop at the famed "Summit at the Sands" shows, where the group—collectively known as the Rat Pack—set a new standard for hip, free-form performances.

Davis was initially denied residence at the Sands Hotel until Sinatra threatened to pull the plug on Rat Pack shows unless Davis got his own suite. Hotel-casino brass acceded to his demands, opening the door for other black performers who had been forced, post-show, to find accommodations in boarding houses and motels in West Las Vegas. Eventually, when Davis performed in Northern Nevada, he enjoyed residing in a home that casino owner Bill Harrah built for entertainers to stay in during their engagements.

Despite missing a Rat Pack reunion show at Las Vegas's new Thomas & Mack Center due to injuries in 1983—Diana Ross filled in—Davis returned in 1985 with renewed energy when he began headlining the Desert Inn despite another setback for hip surgery. He eventually eased his workload by appearing with comedian Jerry Lewis at Bally's Hotel-Casino. The two also starred in a successful 1988 HBO special, An Evening with Sammy Davis, Jr. & Jerry Lewis.

Davis led a controversial life. He converted to Judaism after his accident. He overcame addictions to drugs, gambling, and alcohol. He dated actress Kim Novak, and was the victim of racist threats when he married Swedish actress May Britt; that interracial relationship cost him billing at President John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball in 1961 due to concerns about the political fallout from his appearance. While Davis was active in the civil rights movement, he broke with many in the African American community by openly supporting President Richard Nixon in his 1972 bid for reelection—most African Americans opposed him.

The Rat Pack was a mere memory when Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer. He became the first of the famed group to die on May 16, 1990, leading to many tributes in his name in Las Vegas and elsewhere. In Reno, William Harrah named his main showroom in Davis' honor and today it is still known as Sammy's Showroom. In Las Vegas, Davis was honored in a manner reserved for only a handful of the most prominent entertainers in Las Vegas showroom history. Marquees and neon lights were dimmed along the Strip in testament to Davis's unmatched skills as a singer, dancer, and all-around entertainer.

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