Forget “triple threat” – Sammy Davis, Jr. could do it all. He could sing, dance, play several instruments, do stand-up and great impressions like his friend Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. He was even an accomplished photographer who shot thousands of rare, gorgeous images of his life, work and celebrity friends on and off duty. This was a style icon who could pull off stovepipe trousers, a full-length fur coat or groovy patchwork vest and slacks with the same ease as when he wore a classic, slim-cut suit. In fact, Davis’s “Rat Pack” pal Dean Martin once jokingly asked of Frank Sinatra, “Hey! How come we wear trousers and he wears leotards?” He could pull it off because, he just had that thing if you will. That thing that made psychedelic jumpsuits, cropped, one-button jackets and chic Gucci totes make absolute sense on him.
Born in Harlem in 1925 to a Cuban chorus girl and an African-American dancer, Sammy Davis, Jr. once famously said, “Being a star made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to go and get insulted.” And that was putting it mildly. His life was reportedly threatened when he dated the blonde actress Kim Novak in the late 1950s and a quickie marriage to Loray White, a Black woman he barely knew. After a childhood of touring with his father, Sammy Davis, Sr. and Will Mastin as The Will Mastin Trio, Davis left to serve in the Army during World War II. In the 1950s, he returned to resume an even more successful career that saw him conquering film, Broadway and top-notch nightclubs across the country. His refusal to appear in segregated clubs that did not allow Black performers to stay in hotels where they performed or eat in any of the restaurants contributed to the integration of key places in Miami Beach and Las Vegas.
Later superstars, especially that other legend who began his career as a child – Michael Jackson – would be profoundly influenced by Mr. Davis’s style, his performances and his life. The first Black man to appear on the cover of GQ magazine (1967), Mr. Davis was a style icon to the end. Just as Michael had his famous single glove, the black derby, cane and gold-plated microphone he used when he performed his classic, “Mr. Bogangles,” is also the stuff of legend.
“You have to be able to look back at your own life and say, “Yeah, that was fun.” Mr. Davis once said. “The only person I ever hurt was myself and even that I did to the minimum. If you can do that and you’re still functioning, you’re the luckiest person in the world.” —Nichelle Gainer
Nichelle Gainer is a beauty, fashion and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in magazines and websites including GQ, InStyle, Glamour, Newsweek.com and Essence.com. She is currently working on the book version of Vintage Black Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter at @VintageBlkGlam