“Sammy, A Study in Beating the Odds” by Arthur Silber, Jr.
One thing that life continually teaches us is that achieving anything worthwhile will probably involve the following immutable factors: 1) It will take talent, focus, untold hours of sacrifice and hard work, 2) It will bring forth unknowable and innumerable road blocks from elements of society and the laws of nature, 3) The better you are and the higher you rise will often bring out the worst in those who have neither the talent nor the success, 4) The same people who tried to undermine your success will praise you when you are gone.
The life of Sammy Davis, Jr., whose multi-faceted talent was a wonder to behold, is an example of all these rules of human existence. Raised on the boards of vaudeville in the 1930s and ‘40s, with no formal education, he learned his craft at feet of legends and saw many aspects of life experienced by few individuals. His father Sammy, Sr. and uncle, Will Mastin, who both ran the Will Mastin Trio where Sammy Jr., learned to his craft, saw to it that the young boy was shielded from racism by playing in cities and venues that were deemed safe.
Then, during World War II, Sammy was drafted into the U.S. Army and got an awakening to racism in some very nasty ways. Sammy commented much later about his experience, “Overnight the world looked different. It wasn’t one color anymore. I could see the protection I’d gotten all my life from my father and Will. I appreciated their loving hope that I’d never need to know about prejudice and hate, but they were wrong. It was as if I’d walked through a swinging door for eighteen years, a door which they had always secretly held open.”
As Sammy began to come into his own as a solo star in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, it became clear to everyone his overwhelming talent was going to take him to great heights. My father had managed the Will Maston Trio for a number of years, and I started to get close to Sammy during a trip to Hawaii in 1949. This fateful trip began a “brotherhood of choice and destiny” between Sammy Davis, Jr. and myself that lasted the better part of 23 years. We became partners in business and the closest of confidants as Sammy made the transition from a member of a trio to an internationally renowned and beloved performer.
But to get to that place in history, Sammy had to fight every step of the way, and one of the aspects of Sammy’s struggle which I believe he deserves more recognition is in the realm of Civil Rights. When I hear discussions about pioneers in breaking down color barriers, seldom is the name of Sammy Davis, Jr. spoken at all. This is truly shameful. During the 1950s we had to avoid certain cities for fear of retribution for his skin color; and the fact that I was white and Jewish. I shared with him quite, painful moments when he would say, “Arthur, all I really want is to have equal respect.”
Before the major gains were made during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Sammy was breaking down racial barriers all over the country during the 1950s. For example, he was allowed to perform at Las Vegas hotels but not permitted to stay at the hotel, eat in the restaurants or gamble in the casinos. After years of suffering quietly under these pernicious conditions, Sammy had enough and thus began the infighting with management and powers behind the scenes. It didn’t happen easily and it didn’t happen overnight, but that barrier was broken down and the world was better off it being lowered.
In another incident, Sammy, with a bit of help from his good friend Frank Sinatra, was able to break the color barrier at the famous Copacabana Club in New York City. When Sinatra performed at the club, whose owner had a particular dislike for blacks, Sammy was allowed in to watch Frank do his thing, but he was forced to sit at the back of the bar in the shadows.
After this went on for awhile, the proprietor complained to Sinatra about having to allow Sammy into the club. Having had enough of his grousing, Sinatra hold him in no uncertain terms, “If want to book the best, then you are going to have let Sammy Davis, Jr. perform here, and if you don’t book Sammy in you can forget about me ever performing here again.”
Sammy was booked into the Copacabana and proceeded
to break house records while also bringing the first black
patrons into the club, another barrier broken down by
this diminutive yet powerful force of nature.