Sammy Davis Jr. - An Icon Honored


By Byron Craft

Three out of five of the “Rat Pack” are together again! A dedication ceremony was held this fall in Las Vegas at the newly-christened road, Sammy Davis Jr. Drive, where the intersections of Frank Sinatra Drive and Dean Martin Drive also converge.

Samuel George Davis Jr. was born on December 8, 1925, in the Harlem section of Manhattan. Sammy Davis Jr. became an iconic American entertainer. Primarily a dancer and singer, he was also an actor of stage and screen, a musician, and an impressionist, noted for his impersonations of actors, musicians and other celebrities.

At the age of three, Davis began his career in Vaudeville, with his father and Will Mastin, as the Will Mastin Trio, which toured nationally. Over two decades later, Davis became an overnight sensation, following a nightclub performance at Ciro’s in West Hollywood, California. With the trio, he also became a successful recording artist. Then, in 1954, tragedy struck when he lost his left eye in an automobile accident. Depressed from the loss, Sammy thought his career was over, until his friend Frank Sinatra told him that he was at a crossroads, that he could either fade away or overcome the loss and go on to greatness. Several weeks later, at his first public appearance since the crash, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin made a surprise appearance on stage…all wearing eye patches. As it happened, for Sammy Davis Jr., losing an eye wasn’t the end of the world. Some entertainment historians argue that the loss focused his attention on what was important in life and made him stronger. The incident, many believe, also strengthened his faith in God, because several years later, he converted to Judaism.

After that, Sammy Davis Jr. went on to become one of the most popular performers of all time and was often billed as “The Greatest Living Entertainer in the World.” And, of course, Sammy became a member of the famous “Rat Pack”—along with Old Blue Eyes, Dino, Joey (son of a gun) Bishop and the natty Peter Lawford.

Davis starred on Broadway in the 1956 hit, Mr. Wonderful, and in 1960, he appeared in the first Rat Pack film, Ocean’s 11. He returned to the stage in 1964, to star in Golden Boy, (another hit). By 1966 he had his own TV variety show, and in 1972 a number one hit record, “The Candy Man”. Fame followed Mr. Davis wherever he performed and he eventually became a star in Las Vegas, earning him the nickname “Mister Show Business.”

Humor was always one of Mr. Davis’ most powerful entertainment tools and much of it was self-deprecating. One day on a golf course with Jack Benny, he was asked what his handicap was. “Handicap?” he asked. “Talk about handicap…I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.” That was to become a signature comment, recounted in his autobiography, and in countless articles.

Sammy Davis was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP and was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award for his television performances. He was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1987. Samuel George Davis Jr. was laid to rest in 1990, and in 2001 he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.  

Members of the Davis family, including his son, Manny Davis, joined Clark County commissioners Chris Giunchigliani, Lawrence Weekly and Josh Elliott, along with local entertainers, for the road naming event just west of the Strip. County spokesman Erik Pappa told reporters that Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said, “It was fitting to honor the trio of Rat Pack members who helped put Las Vegas on the map in the 1960’s.”

“Sammy Davis Jr., along with the love and support of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, in effect, ended racial segregation on the Las Vegas Strip,” said Commissioner Lawrence Weekly. “Sammy was denied service and his friend Frank Sinatra said: ‘If this man can’t perform here and eat here, then I won’t.’ When I heard this story my heart cried with love and I knew we had to do something as a community to recognize and show our appreciation for what these men did to improve our beloved Las Vegas. We can’t do enough to recognize what ‘Mr. Show Business’ has done for Las Vegas. He began performing for audiences at the age of 3 and excelled for many years as a singer, a musician, an actor, and an advocate for civil rights. In fact, he was a large financial supporter of the civil rights movement. Today is a momentous occasion and I look forward to further development of this intersection where we reunite the Rat Pack.”

The most touching testimonial was delivered by Manny Davis, Sammy’s son:  

“ My father was the true American dream,” explained Manny Davis, Sammy’s son and administrator of his estate. “He had little education and had enormous adversity to overcome. He put himself through the fire because he had something to prove to himself and to society, that nothing could keep him down. Some people were not as courageous to stand up to the oppression of his time. But Sammy did, and he gained the respect of all of his peers, white and black, men and women. The dedication means a lot to our family, because Vegas wasn’t always a town that was tolerant of African Americans. Dad had to go through the back doors and got substandard treatment at all times. Frank Sinatra saw the dehumanization, and the Rat Pack all took a stand. Thanks to their courage, Sammy helped integrate the city, and the impact on the Civil Rights Movement reverberated throughout the country. His music is timeless and will always speak to me and millions of others, because he came from a time when the words to the music actually meant something. Every time I listen to a song of his, I feel the truth in the words, and it makes me cry. It seems like it applies directly to my life.”

Now to make this a perfect “five”—the next thing the commissioners need to approve is a Joey Bishop Boulevard and a Peter Lawford Lane.

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