Books
12:00 pm
Thu May 8, 2014

Rat Pack's Sammy Davis Jr. Lives On Through Daughter's Stories

Originally published on Thu May 8, 2014 1:59 pm

In his own words, Sammy Davis, Jr. was "the only black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed, Jewish entertainer in the world."

His daughter, Tracey Davis, shares memories and details of his life in her new book, Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father. It's based on conversations Davis had with her father as he battled throat cancer near the end of his life.

He described his start in vaudeville at 3 years old where he was billed as an adult midget. "He didn't have the traditional family life," Davis tells NPR's Celeste Headlee. "He was always working, working, working, and trying to become famous." She says that even after making it, "he was scared that it could be taken away at any minute."

Sammy Davis Jr. was frank about the racial prejudice that he suffered both during his army service and his time in show business. It also shadowed his family life. He married Swede May Britt Wilkens in 1960 — a time when interracial marriage was forbidden by law in 31 states. They both converted to Judaism. As his daughter grew up, she remembers "there [were] times that a swastika was painted somewhere or the N-word was written on a car."

But Davis says that her father taught her that "hatred fades." And thanks to his life and work, he paved the way for future musicians of color.

As she remembers, Michael Jackson, a black pop star of a different generation sang to her father, "I am here, because you were there."


Interview Highlights

On Sammy Davis's lifelong friendship with 'uncle' Frank Sinatra

He did more for dad than anybody. Because he knew of dad, and dad went to go see him perform and they wouldn't let him in. And that was one of the first times, he said, "let him in and put a table down front for him." And that really was what cemented the friendship, and Frank was the biggest star in the world, and I think dad was grateful for that his whole life.

On how her father dealt with accusations of selling out

He was hurt, but I don't think that that's anything new for black artists, even today. When you get to certain level, you kind of need to grow your circle and I think for the black community at that time, they wanted to have a piece of Sammy Davis Jr., and they didn't really understand that he was giving as much as he could give. Somehow, it just didn't seem good enough. You know, to be called names by your own folks is really hurtful, because then, where do you go when times are tough? When your own community, a lot of people, don't think that you're a part of that community anymore? It's a little scary.

On how her parents shielded their children from racism

They did make a pretty good cocoon for us when we were really little. Most of their friends were in show business or music, where there was less racism. If you had talent, then it didn't really matter. If you could play an instrument or do something or be a good singer or a good actor, they really didn't care. So it gave me a little bit of a false sense of security, and that's probably a good thing.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. We turn now to a new book about the only black Puerto Rican one-eyed Jewish entertainer in the world - that's how Sammy Davis Jr. used to describe himself.

His daughter, Tracey, shares that detail in her new book "Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey With My Father." It's based on conversations the two had as he battled with throat cancer toward the end of his life. Through stories and a lot of photos, it captures the extraordinary life of one of the original members of The Rat Pack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONCE IN A LIFETIME")

SAMMY DAVIS JR.: (Singing) Well, this is my moment. My once in a lifetime. When I can explore a new and exciting land. For once in my lifetime, I feel like a giant.

HEADLEE: It's a life that spanned six decades and included nearly 50 albums, 7 Broadway shows, 23 films and countless stage performances. Tracey Davis joins us now to talk more about that. Welcome to the program.

TRACEY DAVIS: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: In the introduction you write I wanted to revisit my father's life with the grace of time having passed and emotions calm down to put everything in perspective. It was very interesting to me, your descriptions of his early life growing up in Harlem and he didn't go to school. He was working as a 3-year-old on stage with your grandfather. And the effect that must have had on him as just - even in his early developing years - always working.

DAVIS: He didn't have the traditional family life. He was always working, working, working and trying to become famous. And then once he was famous, especially in the '60s and '50s before black people could vote, he was scared that it could be taken away at any minute. So he never had that feeling of being able to relax at home. It wasn't until much later when he was very well-established that he felt like he could take time off.

HEADLEE: Tell me the story, if you would, of how they avoided the laws that were meant to keep very young kids off the stage.

DAVIS: My grandfather was doing a black version of vaudeville. And, number one, I don't think people cared that much about, you know, small black children, but they billed him as a midget and they got away with it because no one could believe that someone that small and that young would be that talented.

HEADLEE: And he had to wear blackface.

DAVIS: Yes, he did. There's a picture in the book where he's little and he's wearing it and it just makes me sad. But that's what they did.

HEADLEE: I wanted to talk about the song "Bojangles." I mean, this is a song that he sang his whole life and I think he ended most of his concerts with it. And it sounded in the book as though you'd never really known before these conversations what his attachment to that song was. Let's take a listen to a piece of the song first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. BOJANGLES")

SAMMY DAVIS JR.: (Singing) I knew a man, Bojangles, and he'd dance for you, in worn out shoes, with silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants. He would do the old soft shoe.

HEADLEE: Now this song is not about the historical - the real Bill Bojangles, it's about somebody else. But your father described it as having a love-hate relationship with the song. What did he mean?

DAVIS: Well, it became a signature classic song for him and he would, almost every show, end it with that. And people were disappointed if he didn't sing it. He sings it so well because they're not just lyrics for dad, it really tells a story. He was always afraid that he would end up like that person. That's what was in his heart sometimes - is like, I don't want to end up like the person in this song. And he thought for a very long time that he would end up like that.

HEADLEE: Tell me about his time in the military as well. And obviously at this point we're still talking about things that happened before you were born, but there was some really moving stories about not only the racism and the physical violence he faced from his fellow soldiers, but also a man - Sergeant Williams - who really kind of looked out for him and protected him and went above and beyond.

DAVIS: Yeah, as dad said, sometimes you find real good in real horrible situations. And I know how rough it was for him and how brutally ugly people could be, but then like you said, there's people that will protect you. He could always sing and entertain, but he learned how to read in the Army. And that was a big deal because he really didn't know how to read.

HEADLEE: Sergeant Williams was one of the men that he was thinking of when he talked about the fact that all the way along, despite terrible racism that he encountered his whole life, there were often white men and women who stepped forward to help him out. And also one of the major ones was Frank Sinatra, with whom he had a lifelong friendship.

DAVIS: Yes, especially Uncle Frank. He did more for dad than anybody because he knew of dad, and dad went to go see him perform and they wouldn't let him in. And that was one of the first times he said you either let him in and put a table down front for him - and that kind of really was what cemented the friendship. And Frank was the biggest star in the world, and I think dad was grateful for that his whole life.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Tracey Davis. She's the daughter of the great Sammy Davis Jr. And her new book is called "Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey With My Father." Obviously one of the reasons The Rat Pack was so successful was the rapport between your father and Frank Sinatra. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

SAMMY DAVIS JR.: I start off by having you meet Mr. Frank Sinatra.

(APPLAUSE)

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) When somebody loves you, it's no good unless she loves you.

SAMMY DAVIS JR.: Well, if you like him, you're going to be wild about me.

(LAUGHTER)

(Laughing)

HEADLEE: I mean, Frank Sinatra was also the best man at your father's wedding to your mother. And many people may remember what a stir that caused because of this interracial marriage at the time. They postponed their own wedding until after the election at which JFK won the presidency because Frank Sinatra was going to be the best man and Frank Sinatra was very closely aligned with JFK's campaign, correct?

DAVIS: Well, first of all, when my mom and dad were dating, Frank was pretending that, you know, mom was his date. That's how they kind of got around - is that mom was his date, not my dad's. And if my mom went to go stay at a hotel, she would stay on one floor and my dad would stay on another floor, and then at night they'd go stay together and then separate early enough to go back to their respective rooms.

And let me just put it this way - I think that my dad was overjoyed that he stood up for them at the wedding, it meant a lot. Then, you know, it became a thing with my father because after all the campaigning and all the work he did and everything like that, he wasn't invited to the inaugural. And I think that really - dad never got over that, he really felt slighted.

HEADLEE: How was it for you then growing up in an interracial family? All the racism that your father went through, and much of it is detailed in the book - it's frankly very painful - how much did that touch you as a child?

DAVIS: A lot. You come out sometimes and there's times there's a swastika painted somewhere or the N-word was written on a car or a windshield or something like that. But they did make a pretty good cocoon for us when we were really little because most of their friends were in show business or music where there was less racism in that because if you had talent then it didn't really matter.

If you could play an instrument or do something or be a good singer or a good actor they really didn't care. So it kind of gave me a little bit of a false sense of security, and that's probably a good thing because otherwise I probably would've been more introverted than I actually am.

HEADLEE: I wonder if you'd recount what your father had to say about the African-American community. He was obviously upset that some blacks were angry with him, some blacks called him an Uncle Tom and claimed that he had sold out in order to please the white community and sell more albums to white people. What was his response to that?

DAVIS: Well, he was hurt, but I don't think that that's anything new for black artists even today. When you get to a certain level, you kind of have to grow your circle. And I think for the black community at that time, they wanted to have a piece of Sammy Davis Jr. and they didn't really understand that he was giving as much as he could give, and it somehow - it just didn't seem good enough.

You know, to be called names by your own folks is really hurtful because then where do you go when times are tough, when your own community and a lot of people don't think that you're a part of that community anymore? It's a little scary.

HEADLEE: And in light of that, it was especially touching when you were talking about your father's 60th anniversary TV special and Michael Jackson performed the song "You Were There." That's a song that Jackson wrote especially for your father, about the way that he broke down barriers for musicians especially of color. Let's take a listen to that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WERE THERE")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) You took the hurt, you took the shame. They built the walls to block your way. You beat them down. You won the day. It wasn't right, it wasn't fair. You taught them all. You made them care. Yes, you were there, and thanks to you there's now a door we all walk through.

HEADLEE: I mean, I got to say, having read your book, that song even now makes me all verklempt. What was...

(Laughing)

HEADLEE: What was your dad's reaction - and yours also?

DAVIS: Well, I think that Michael really loved my father. And he would sneak sometimes to dad's shows and sit on an apple box on the side of the stage and watch him perform. And dad would say what are you doing. And he goes - I'm just going to steal some of your moves. And he's like, OK, you know, because that's what entertainers say all the time - I'm just going to steal some steps.

And if anybody has seen that show - if you look at the outpouring of love between the two, if you see my dad's face - because Michael came out to do that just for him and wrote it just for him. And he didn't really - he's not known as a guy that does television specials so it was really moving for dad. And it was moving for me too. He's just really respectful of my dad and I always appreciated that.

HEADLEE: So your father said to you during these conversations - just don't let me die here.

DAVIS: Yes.

HEADLEE: What did that mean to you?

DAVIS: What it meant was keep me alive not only in your heart or in our family, but he wanted to have a legacy, he wanted to be remembered and thought about. I have these memories and I cherish them and I've ran into so many people. And I still do now, when they find out who dad is, and they start asking me questions and whatever - and that makes me feel good that he's still remembered.

HEADLEE: So during the whole book it was a question of whether or not your father would make it long enough to see the birth of his first grandchild. And he did.

DAVIS: Yes.

HEADLEE: I wonder now with your children all these years later, as you say, with the grace of time, what is it that you most want to pass on to your family about what you learned from your father?

DAVIS: I think that one of the things I learned from dad is that even though he went through all those tough racism times and everything, hatred fades and you bring it up to talk about it so hopefully you change somebody's mind - maybe it won't - but maybe they'll take a softer stance.

And what I try and teach my kids is the patience that dad had for the world, but also the love that he had for people, for his job, for his family. And that he didn't - you know, I'm living in the South right now, and sometimes there's still incidents that come up and you just say to yourself - hello, 2014 - and people don't understand that it's still there. So, you know, every once in a while, there's still a little fight left in me and I try and teach my kids that.

HEADLEE: Tracey Davis's book about her father is called "Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey With My Father." It's out this month. Tracey Davis joined us from a studio in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Tracey, thank you so much.

DAVIS: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.