The Real Story Of The Rat Pack’s Sammy Davis Jr.

You may have heard stories of Frank Sinatra and his famous group of friends, dubbed the Rat Pack. In the ’50s and ’60s, this group of entertainers, which included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, practically ran Hollywood. They performed together, made films together and participated in some major bad-boy behavior that made women swoon and grandmothers clutch their pearls. The Rat Pack affiliated exclusively with the most powerful and elite people in America, including Hollywood starlets, politicians and even mobsters, which is why they were so compelling.

Las Vegas Was an Oasis for the Rat Pack

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Out of everywhere in America, the Rat Pack gravitated most towards Las Vegas, Nevada. It allowed for the certain level of debauchery the group became notorious for. While in Vegas, Sinatra would play golf, party, and gamble. They’d also create some pretty amazing work.

The Rat Pack filmed two movies that took place in Vegas: Ocean’s 11 and Sergeants 3. They also took the stage at the Sands Copa Room and regularly performed to ecstatic crowds. Back then, the price of a ticket was less than $6, but their chemistry made the show intensely compelling.

They’d Recoup From A Wild Night At The Spa

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According to Paul Anka, an occasional member of the Rat Pack, after partying and gambling until 4 or 5 am, they needed to be greatly rejuvenated. This is when the Rat Pack would have their most intimate hangouts. Frank made each of them matching robes emblazoned with their nicknames. Sammy Davis Jr. was “Smokey the Bear,” Paul Anka was “Kid” and Dean Martin was “Dago.”

They’d strip down naked, sit around in the steam room and chat, while Sinatra ordered women to join them for a rather “special” type of massage. That’s one way to unwind!

John F. Kennedy Allegedly Partook in the Rat Pack Spa Sessions

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Not all of the members of the Rat Pack enjoyed their time in Las Vegas by getting special massages from ladies of the night. Paul Anka admitted he never participated in prostitution, despite watching Sinatra ditch their steam room sessions for private massages.

Though Anka never participated, he admitted that many prominent members of society who were associated with the Rat Pack did. John F. Kennedy, back when he was just a senator, would come to Vegas and hire prostitutes. So did the comedian Bob Hope, who allegedly had massages every day and women “all over the place.”

Sammy Davis Did Not Like JFK

Bettmann / Contributor / Getty
Bettmann / Contributor / Getty

Though president John F. Kennedy was affiliated with the Rat Pack and even went on Las Vegas benders as a senator, he did not see eye-to-eye with Sammy Davis. Kennedy allegedly told Davis not to participate in his 1961 Presidential inauguration for some rather racist reasons.

Davis had married a white actress named May Britt. JFK believed that if a black entertainer stood next to his white wife at the inauguration, it would make Southerners angry. Essentially, JFK sold out his friend to get ahead, and that wasn’t cool. Davis held a grudge that was momentarily eased when he was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1987.

Marilyn Monroe Was Practically an Honorary Rat Pack Member

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What’s a group of handsome men without the women that fawn after them? Several major actresses have been linked to the Rat Pack, including Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine, Angie Dickinson, and Juliet Prowse. Marilyn was undoubtedly the most famous and most involved.

Sinatra and Marilyn were very close friends and had been romantically linked in the past. In fact, the Rat Pack was responsible for one of her most iconic moments ever. Peter Lawford signed her up to sing happy birthday to President John F. Kennedy. Dean Martin got her the lead in Something’s Got to Give, which was never completed because she tragically passed away. It’s believed that Lawford was the last person she spoke to before her death.

Sammy Davis Jr. Was a Child Star

Show business was in Sammy Davis Jr.’s blood from the second he was conceived. His mother, Elvera Davis, was a dancer, and his father, Sammy Davis Sr., was a vaudeville star. He spent his childhood following his father and adopted uncle around as they toured with their dance troupe.

Davis debuted as “Baby Sammy” at the age of three and began performing with his father and uncle. He quickly became the act’s star, and they were dubbed the Will Mastin Trio. In 1933, at just eight years old, Davis landed his first film role in Rufus Jones for President. Throughout the ’30s, Davis worked to become a highly accomplished dancer, singer, comedian, and multi-instrumentalist – all before the age of 18.

Davis Had No Formal Education

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In 2017, child actors are forced to have some sort of schooling until they’re 16 years of age. This wasn’t always the case, and Davis somehow escaped having a real education at all. To be fair, it didn’t really seem like he suffered too much since he managed to learn a number of instruments and even develop his own comedy routines.

Most people require years of education to perfect similar talents. Still, Davis’ father would very occasionally hire a tutor, but their nomadic lifestyle made it really difficult. Sammy Davis Jr. never attended college – he barely attended preschool – but he did have a very temporary career in the army.

Sammy Davis Jr. Fought in World War II and Battled Racism

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When Sammy Davis Jr. turned 18 in 1943, the world was nearing the end of World War Two. He was drafted in the U.S. army, where he would discover his true passions. Unfortunately, he also had to deal with extreme racism – something his father managed to shelter him from during his youth. Davis was easy to pick on.

He was of small stature and the mixed race child of a Puerto Rican mother and African American father. Davis was often beaten up by white soldiers and given the most dangerous and dirtiest assignments solely because of his race. One time, he was even forced to drink warm urine from a beer bottle. Eventually, he found refuge in an entertainment unit.

Sammy Davis Jr. Was Frank Sinatra’s Opener

Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra had a major bromance going on throughout the history of the Rat Pack. They were best friends and confidantes, but they became friends in a rather unlikely way. This life-long friendship began when Davis was just Sinatra’s opening act.

After being discharged from the army, Davis jumped back into show business and started performing again with the Will Mastin Trio. He also dabbled in a solo career and started singing in nightclubs and recording records. In 1947, the Will Mastin Trio opened for Frank Sinatra at the Capitol Theater in New York City. This was a turning point for Davis.

Frank Sinatra Was Davis’ Biggest Ally

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From the minute the trio played at the Capitol Theater, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra were the best of friends. Sinatra became one of Davis’ biggest supporters, collaborators, and allies during this time of rampant racism. Davis’ career as a mixed race entertainer wasn’t easy. He wasn’t even allowed to stay in many of the hotels he performed in because they didn’t allow black guests.

Sinatra always supported him, even tearing up his own contract when a theater banned Davis because of his race. Sinatra also paid Davis’ medical bills when he got into a car accident.

Sammy Davis Was Ashamed to Sign Autographs Because He Never Learned to Write

The only way that anyone could tell Sammy Davis Jr. wasn’t an educated man was because he never learned how to write. This was something he tried to hide and was pretty successful because he had strong reading skills.

According to Sy Marsh, Davis’ business partner and a former agent at William Morris, Davis was ashamed to personalize autographs because he couldn’t write. “Till the day he died he could sign his name, but he couldn’t write,” he said. “He never personalized autographs to anyone, because he couldn’t spell people’s names and he was embarrassed.”

Sammy Davis Jr. Lost His Eye in a Terrible Accident

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After performing with Sinatra at the Capitol Theater, Davis went on a tour with Mickey Rooney. This is where he caught the eye of Decca Records, who signed him in 1954. Later that year, Davis went to Los Angeles to record a record and his life was forever changed.

On his way to the recording studio, he was seriously injured in a car accident and lost his eye. Davis wore a glass eye for the rest of his life, but this tragic incident lead him to find his spiritual side.

Davis Converted to Judaism after His Accident

Davis was born a Christian but never really practiced religion – that was mostly because he never found a religion he identified with before his accident. Sammy Davis Jr.’s accident was traumatic, and he was lucky to be alive. He viewed the crash as a miracle, and while he was at San Bernardino hospital recovering, he spent a lot of time reflecting on his life and existence.

This is where he met a Jewish Chaplain and asked him questions about how he could’ve possible survived the accident. He ended up finding a lot of similarities between Jews and African Americans because of their history of oppression. He started studying the religion and eventually converted.

Sammy Davis Jr. Didn’t Let His Accident Hold Him Back

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imolasejc/Pinterest
imolasejc/Pinterest

Though Davis’ accident was sudden and tragic, he didn’t let it hold him back for too long. He released his first two albums Starring Sammy Davis Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr. Sings Just for Lovers in 1955. They received massive commercial success and pushed him further into the spotlight.

Davis was no longer an opening act for his beloved Sinatra; he was headlining gigs in Las Vegas and New York and performing on TV. In 1958 and 1959, he made appearances on Anna Lucasta, Porgy and Bess and The Frank Sinatra Show.

Sammy Davis Performed 383 Broadway Shows With Mr. Wonderful

In 1956, Sammy Davis got his first break in Broadway, though admittedly, it seemed a bit late considering his commercial success and extensive performing background. It was almost like Davis was born for the part – and that’s because he was. The play was written specifically to showcase his talents.

He played Charlie Welch, an entertainer struggling in show business. It was essentially an expansion of Davis’ Las Vegas nightclub act. The show, which also cast Davis’ uncle and father who he performed with as the Will Mastin Trio, was a massive success. It ran for 383 performances.

Sammy Davis Jr.’s Relationship with Actress Kim Novak Was Scandalous

Davis was quite accustomed to racism after his experience in the army, but it would spill over into every aspect of his life including his relationships. In 1957, he was at the height of his career making a whopping $25,000 a week by performing at the Sands in Las Vegas. This is when he fell in love with the blonde, blue-eyed model Kim Novak – a scandalous move for an African American man at the time.

Eventually, rumors of their relationship leaked to the gossip magazine Confidential. When the news broke, he called Novak and apologized, saying he had nothing to do with the story. Instead of bailing because of the controversy their relationship caused, she ended up going against her studio’s wishes and inviting him over for a spaghetti dinner.

Sammy Was Widely Regarded as Ugly Despite His Luck with the Ladies

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Sammy Davis Jr. was not a looker – which is why you should never judge a book by his cover. Davis was widely regarded as ugly because of his height and facial features. What attracted people to him was his charisma and talent. Still, he was deeply hurt when people mentioned his looks.

Bob Sylvester, a New York Daily News columnist, cruelly wrote that “God…hit [Davis] in the face with a shovel.” He was reportedly devastated but eventually saw his unique features as a sign of power. He’d say, “It’s getting me where I’m going.”

Sammy Davis Jr. Had One of the Most Famous TV Kisses of All Time

Sammy was always one to break down racial barriers and fight for equality. Sometimes this meant raising quite a commission. This was the case for Davis when he landed the most controversial and famous TV kisses of all time.

In 1972, Davis appeared on All in the Family as himself. He was visiting the Bunker household to get a briefcase he’d left behind in Archie’s taxi cab. Archie spewed racist comments throughout the episode, and Sammy generally ignored them. It finally came to a head when Sammy planted a kiss on Archie’s cheek before leaving. The episode was nominated for two Emmy’s.

Sammy Davis Had a Poor Relationship with His Daughter

Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr.

Sammy didn’t have much luck with the ladies. He dated beautiful women and was married three times. He even had a daughter, but his relationships always seemed strained.

According to his daughter, Tracy Davis, Sammy was an absent-minded father who was hyper focused on his work. He once missed her fifth birthday and tried to make it up to her by giving her $100 (as if a five-year-old cares about cash). He also skipped out on her college graduation and frequently lost her phone number. “I am not saying that he didn’t love us,” she said. “But work was his driving force.”

A Misunderstood Relationship With His Son

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While Sammy only had one biological child, his daughter Tracy, he still had three other sons who were adopted. One of his adopted sons, Mark, at one point discovered that Sammy was actually his biological father. Although he knew he was adopted after reading about it in a 1960’s article in Life magazine, Mark Davis found his original birth certificate in 2013, which listed Sammy Davis Jr. as his father.

Unfortunately, after verifying with a DNA test, he found that Sammy was just his adoptive father, but still a father nonetheless. Mark recalled that his father’s last words to him were, “You are my son.”

His Son Thinks He Might Be Illegitimate

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Despite the negative DNA test results and his adoptive mother May Britt’s insistence that she did not give birth to him, Mark Davis told Daily Mail, “I am a huge living question mark and this is because I have never understood anything 100 percent about where I came from… If I am Dad’s natural son, and I believe very much that could be the case, then there could have been many reasons why I was put down as adopted.

Maybe it was the whole showbiz thing and the scandal it might cause or the color thing or even that my natural mother’s identity had to remain secret too. Dad was very loving when I was a kid, but being adopted never made sense to me as Dad and Mom had a daughter Tracy who is a year younger than me.”

Mark’s Whereabouts Today

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ramonnekevanmae/Pinterest
ramonnekevanmae/Pinterest

Despite being the biological son of one of the most famous singers in the world, Mark Davis lives a completely ordinary life. In fact, he’s near penniless and works at the photo counter at a Costco store outside Hollywood, California. The IRS took his father’s estate when he died.

Mark now has two sons of his own, and has opened up about what it was like being estranged from his dad when he was younger. He revealed that without a strong father figure, he began to drink heavily. “Luckily, I grew out of it after rehab three times,” he said.

A Forerunner For Integration

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Photo by Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard/Getty Images
Photo by Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Because Sammy’s past experiences made him all too aware of the blatant racism in America during the ’60s, he was an avid financial supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. During the height of his career, Sammy refused to perform anywhere that practiced racial segregation. As a result, venues from Miami Beach to Las Vegas began to practice integration and let loose on their segregation rules.

Sammy’s efforts towards racial equality earned him induction into the Hall of Fame of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as well as honorary degrees from predominantly black colleges.

Guilty By Association

RNC PRESIDENT NIXON DAVIS JR.

Despite being a Democrat, Sammy Davis Jr. supported Richard Nixon by publicly endorsing him at the 1972 Republican National Convention. Sammy had won Nixon’s respect for his participation in the Civil Rights Movement and the two became close friends for some time, much to the dismay of many of Sammy’s fans. Sammy made a USO tour to South Vietnam at Nixon’s request and Nixon invited Sammy and his then-wife, Altovise, to stay at the White House in 1973. It was the first time African-American’s were invited to sleep in the White House, where Sammy and his wife stayed in the Queens’ Bedroom.

He Should Have Saved His Support

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Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images
Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Nixon’s run as president obviously didn’t work out so well for him and Sammy Davis Jr. later admitted that supporting Nixon was one of his deep regrets. Sammy explained that he regretted supporting Nixon after Nixon failed to follow through on some civil rights promises.

A lot of people in the African-American community at the time were livid that Sammy was supporting Nixon, that the both of them received death threats. Not only was he threatened for his support of Nixon, but Sammy was hotly criticized at the time for living what many considered a “white” lifestyle.

Performing For The Cause

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Photo by Larry Ellis/Express/Getty Images
Photo by Larry Ellis/Express/Getty Images

The threats after Sammy’s public support of Nixon were so severe, in fact, that Sammy’s manager, Sy Marsh, sought a solution. According to a 2003 article in The Washington Post, Marsh reached out to Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson on a solution to alleviate to anger between Sammy’s relationship with Nixon. Jackson founded Operation PUSH, an anti-poverty organization in Chicago that was often funded by celebrity endorsements.

Marsh recalled, “Jesse said, ‘If you can come up with $25,000 for my charity, then [have Davis] come to Chicago.” After borrowing money from Vegas casinos, Sammy came to Chicago to perform for disgruntled Civil Rights activists.

An Unwelcomed Visitor

'Sunday Night at the London Palladium' TV Programme - 01 Oct 1961
ITV/REX Shutterstock
ITV/REX Shutterstock

Despite the fact that Sammy Davis Jr. arrived in Chicago to support Jesse Jackson’s organization, he was still met with hatred. Vanity Fair reported that he was booed when he appeared on stage, performing only one song before leaving and telling Marsh, “Never again. Never again am I going to extend myself.” A member of Davis’s entourage said, “If you were there that night, you’d think, No wonder he hugged Nixon.” Because of Sammy’s success as a performer for the masses and his friendly relationships with predominantly white people, the African-American community looked at Sammy with a certain amount of disdain.

A Conditional Marriage

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Photo by Chris Wood/Express/Getty Images
Photo by Chris Wood/Express/Getty Images

Vanity Fair writes that “Davis had spent the first half of his career making himself loved by the white world, and the second half trying to make himself loved by the black world,” with Marsh saying, “That’s the reason he married Altovise Gore. She was a black woman. It would open up more doors to his being accepted.”

Sammy Davis Jr. met Altovise Gore when she played his sister in Golden Boy and they married in 1970. Of the relationship, Gore recalls that Sammy loved her “unconditionally. We loved each other very much. I was like a kid in a candy store, and he wanted met to have the best.”

Sammy’s Oscars Flub

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Actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway may have made history at the 89th Academy Awards when announcing the wrong winner for Best Picture—the all time most important award at the Oscars—but they weren’t the first. Sammy Davis Jr. had his fair share of Oscars mishaps when he did the same thing in 1964. For that year’s Academy Awards, Sammy Davis Jr. was chosen to announce the winner for Best Music Score.

It was supposed to be Andre Previn for Irma La Douce, but the wrong envelope Davis was given read John Addison for Tom Jones. Sammy played it off though, saying “wait ’till the NAACP hears about this,” to a laughing applause from the audience.

Wanting What You Can’t Have

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For all the bad rap that Sammy Davis Jr. received as a celebrity of color, he was still generally well-liked by his fellow actors and musicians. Sammy was known to have a preference for dating blonde bombshells, so it’s no wonder that he and -then-rising-star Kim Novak hit it off. Actor Tony Curtis is credited with introducing the two in 1957.

Curtis recalled to Vanity Fair, “[Sammy] didn’t want to create problems, so I said, ‘I’m going to have a party at my house. Come on by, and I’ll invite Kim.’ They both came over and they spent the evening together—deep in thought, deep in talk. I could see right from the beginning that they were getting along in an intense way, and that was the beginning of the relationship.”

Their Forbidden Romance

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Not only was Sammy Davis Jr.’s relationship with blond-haired, blue-eyed actress Kim Novak forbidden, but both parties were actually threatened about ceasing the relationship. National Enquirer reported in 2015 that the 1957 taboo interracial relationship was broken up by Columbia boss Harry Cohn, who had a domineering reputation. Cohn allegedly hired a hitman to scare Sammy, who was threatened to stop seeing Kim or he would lose his other eye.

Novak confirmed, “That DID happen. [Cohn was] surrounded by all these men, including people in the Mob. He told me that my career was in jeopardy if I continued to see Sammy… It was very disturbing, but we knew there was no use fighting it.”

The Other Serious Threat

Speculation about their affair took over headlines and was blown out of proportion. Apparently, Harry Cohn was so upset about the rumors, that he approached Sammy’s father, Sammy Davis Sr., at an LA racetrack in 1958. Cohn allegedly told the senior Davis, “Listen. I got some terrible news for you. I just got a call from Chicago to hurt Sammy.

I tell you what, there’s one chance. I’ll give him 24 hours. Sammy has to get married—to a colored girl,” Vanity Fair reported. This prompted Sammy Davis Jr. to scramble to follow the request in order to protect himself and Kim.

Sammy’s Unknown Marriage

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Sammy Davis Jr. scoured his address book to look for a suitable wife and picked Loray White, a former Broadway dancer and bit actress who was in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in 1956. He allegedly sat her down and gave her the proposition of marrying him for an undisclosed amount of money and that they would end the marriage a year later. She agreed and they tied the knot.

Sammy was heavily congratulated and Loray was happy to reap the benefits of being Mrs. Sammy Divs Jr. However, she realized that the fantasy was just a façade. Six months after the marriage, Sammy paid Loray $25,000 to divorce him.

Love That Can Never Be

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While Sammy was caught up in his scam marriage, he was allegedly running around with Kim in secret. But she later told Vanity Fair, “It was a very dangerous relationship then—a white woman and a black man, no matter his status—it simply didn’t mix publicly. I was suddenly in the eye of a hurricane. . . . My agent told me my career would be over if I continued to see Sammy. Some of my friends wouldn’t even return my telephone calls.”

Although they never ended up together, Sammy and Kim reunited in 1979 Academy Awards where they were able to catch up and dance with one another.

His Hidden Talent

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Photo by Ian Turner/Evening Standard/Getty Images
Photo by Ian Turner/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Aside from being a musical prodigy, Sammy Davis Jr. found another hobby that he was incredibly talented with in his later life. He was quoted as saying, “Jerry [Lewis] gave me my first important camera, my first 35 millimeter, during the Ciro’s period, early ’50s and he hooked me… Nobody interrupts a man taking a picture to ask… ‘What’s that [expletive] doin’ here?'”

In 2007 Burt Boyar published a book of Sammy’s work, titled Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr. that features rare photos of the Will Mastin Trio, his Rat Pack cohorts, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedy’s, and more.

A Life Of Vice

Sammy Davis Jr. was notorious for his dalliances in drug and alcohol abuse back in the day. When he worked on Ocean’s 11 with his fellow Rat Pack cohorts, Sammy recalled to The New York Times that “[they were] drinking Salty Dogs—gin and grapefruit juice—at 8 in the morning, just to get the blood flowing… I drank so much my left eye would start to close, and they’d have to stop filming.”

He was drinking up to two bottles of bourbon a day until nervous exhaustion and a misaligned liver caused him to collapse. He told The New York Times, “I looked at my liver on the electric scanner in the hospital. It was the shape of the state of Texas.”

Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Fun?

Of his blatant drug abuse, Sammy told The New York Times in 1972, “Today when I meet guys in my own corporate structure and they tell me about some girl they had at a party, I tell them about the way I used to have three… I went on acid trips, smoked pot. But when I came down from some trip I was still black.”

He continued, “It was a period had to go through to appreciate what I have now. There’s nothing left to do—I’ve done it all and even invented a few things. Now I have what every cat really wants—the homey thing of sitting around having coffee with your old lady.”

A Killer Move

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Sammy may have given up gratuitous drinking and drug use back in the day, but one thing that he still kept up was smoking. Vanity Fair reported that “Davis liked to inhale cigarette smoke in the middle of a song and exhale with the note and the smoke pouring out,” a move to which singer Nat King Cole warned, “Don’t do that. You’re burning your vocal chords with all that heat—you’re making it worse.”

In the late 1980s, manager Sy Marsh took Sammy to a specialist who discovered that his singing and smoking caused inflamed nodes on his vocal cords.

The Invisible Sickness

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By 1989, Sammy Davis Jr. was diagnosed with throat cancer after doctors found a tumor growing on his throat. His best chance of survival was a laryngectomy, but he said that he would rather keep his voice-over having his throat removed. Instead, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation.

Many people say that despite his ailment, his singing voice was still beautiful. Reporter Burt Boyar recalled to Vanity Fair, “It was stunning. Here’s a man dying of throat cancer, and his voice was glorious, like a nightingale. It was almost unreal.”

A Legend Lives On In Memory

Photo by Michael Fresco/Evening Standard/Getty Images
Photo by Michael Fresco/Evening Standard/Getty Images

After his cancer diagnosis, Sammy went through one surgery in which his entire larynx was removed. But a few weeks later, cancer ultimately took his life. Sammy Davis Jr. passed away in Beverly Hills on May 16, 1990 at the age of 64. After news of his death became public, the Las Vegas Strip paid its respects by darkening the neon lights for ten minutes.

In 2001, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He is survived by his children and his latest wife, Altovise Davis, who was left to deal with the $7.5 million that Davis accrued in tax debt.