By Marjorie Rosen
May 28, 1990 12:00 PM

He was a Vegas head-liner, but the “Junior” he unfailingly attached to his name bound him to another musical tradition. His father was a lead dancer in vaudeville, and through him the little boy grew up with a personal link to a vibrant mainstream of American entertainment. He was the heir to such tap dancers as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and a contemporary of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Lena Home. He was one of the first black entertainers to break the color barrier, the first to play mixed audiences in Vegas and Miami, and the first to have his own TV talk show (Sammy & Company). Onstage he poured his jittery energy into virtuoso performances with all the intimacy of a saloon singer. It was only toward the end, when disease cruelly slowed him, when young black entertainers began openly to acknowledge how much they owed him, that he came into real focus—not as a Junior, not as the Rat Pack crony of Frank and Dino and Joey, not with the jewels and quirky mannerisms, not attached to anything but his own talent. Just Sammy.

For once, then, the testimonials that flowed from the stars seemed truly heartfelt. “It was a generous God who gave him to us, and a heaven with his magic gives me warmth,” said Frank Sinatra. “He was the ultimate performer,” echoed Eddie Murphy, “a trail-blazer for all of us who would follow in his footsteps.” Liza Minnelli called him “the most all-around talented person I’ve ever met.” A tearful Michael Jackson pronounced himself “too overcome with grief to talk.”

Sammy Davis Jr., song-and-dance man extraordinaire, died at 5:59 A.M. on May 16 after an eight-month battle with throat cancer and a barrier-breaking career that began before Eddie Murphy, and perhaps even Eddie Murphy’s father, was born. Davis’s final struggle began last August, when doctors found a small carcinoma behind his vocal cords. Fearful that surgery would end his career, he opted for painful radiation therapy. “My throat was raw—if I touched it, my hand would come away stained with blood,” he said later. “I was losing weight. I couldn’t eat. Everything tasted like mush.”

For a while it looked as though radiation had done the trick: The cancer was in remission, and by Christmas, Davis was talking optimistically about resuming the third leg of his worldwide concert tour with Sinatra and Minnelli. In January, however, after joining Eddie Murphy in Chicago to shoot a CBS special, Davis, down to a mere 90 lbs., entered Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles for what he thought was only a dental problem. The truth was much worse: The malignancy had returned with a vengeance, and Davis, 64, had only a few months to live. He spent his last weeks at home, visiting with old friends when he felt well enough. His wife, Altovise, and three of his four children were with him when he died.

Minnelli, breaking down, said, “I expected this, but still it’s hard.” Musician and record producer Quincy Jones noted, “Sammy Davis Jr. was a true pioneer who traveled a dirt road so others, later, could follow on the freeway. He helped remove the limitations on black entertainers. He made it possible for the Bill Cosbys, the Michael Jacksons and the Eddie Murphys to achieve their dreams.”

Ironically, as Davis’s life was slipping away, his reputation and career had been on an upswing, thanks largely to the 1988-89 tour with Sinatra and Minnelli, which won him glowing reviews. Last summer his second autobiograpy, Why Me?, was published, and in November Davis received a tribute from show-business friends who reminded the nation why, during his 60-year career, he had been called Mr. Wonderful and Mr. Entertainment.

Most gratifying of all, however, was the outpouring of love from well-wishers—the hundreds of get-well letters Davis received daily after revealing his illness and the calls flooding the Western Union hotline that was established during his final weeks. “Before all this, I thought the worst thing that could happen to me would be that I’d die unknown, with frayed cuffs, like many of my contemporaries, like Bojangles,” he said recently. In his final days, the knowledge that his fans were once again there for him helped greatly.

Perhaps more than most performers, Sammy Davis Jr. lived for the public’s love. His long career as singer, dancer, impressionist and actor had many incarnations-starry-eyed young black club performer of the ’40s who sounded “white” but danced “black”; buoyant Broadway star (Mr. Wonderful, Golden Boy) and Rat Pack regular of the ’50s and early ’60s; bejeweled hipster of the later ’60s; and Vegas fixture through the ’80s. But whatever the phase, the wiry, 5’4″, 110-lb. entertainer was legendary for giving his all. “You’ve got to make them love you,” he once explained. And he would do so, no matter the cost.

Why such a hunger for love? No doubt it reflected his rootlessness, his early show-business upbringing and his need to prove himself in a white world. Born in 1925 in Harlem, the son of a tap dancer and a Puerto Rican chorus girl who ran off while he was still a tot, Davis was only 3 when he began doing vaudeville turns with his father and his father’s partner, Will Mastin. By the time he was 8, Sammy had earned equal billing; thereafter the act was called the Will Mastin Trio. The young prodigy never went to school (he learned to read later on in the Army), and the stage was his only home. Sometimes, on nights when there was barely enough money for a meal, the roar of the crowd was the only comfort the boy would get.

In those days, as Davis himself once put it, “The ‘colored’ acts were the last hired and the first fired.” It enraged him that while he could play in white clubs and hotels, he couldn’t eat, drink or stay there. But the most glaring racism he experienced was in the Army during World War II, when, during basic training, he was assigned to one of the first integrated barracks. His white roommates broke his nose and painted I’M A NIGGER and COON in white across his chest and forehead. While performing in an Army show, Davis spotted one of his tormentors in the audience. For the first time hatred was absent from the young man’s face. “At that moment I knew that because of what I could do on a stage, he could never again think, ‘But you’re still a nigger,’ ” Davis later wrote. “Somehow I’d gotten to him…. My talent was…the way for me to fight.”

And he did. After the war, Davis started pushing the Will Mastin Trio into the big time. Boosts from such young celebrity fans as Sinatra helped get the gigs, but the real turning point came on Academy Award night in 1950, when the Trio opened for Janis Paige at Hollywood’s posh nightclub Ciro’s. Sammy danced like he was “barefoot on hot sand,” as he later recalled; he did impressions of Sinatra, Mel Tormé and Jimmy Cagney, and the audience screamed. That night the Will Mastin Trio became the headliners, and Sammy Davis became the most famous black entertainer in America.

He began living that life with a vengeance. In 1954, when he lost his left eye in a near fatal auto accident, the news pushed the Debbie Reynolds-Eddie Fisher courtship off front pages. A few months later he made more headlines by converting to Judaism, saying that “every question I had, the Jewish religion answered. It gave me solace.” His romance with blond actress Kim (Vertigo) Novak made the papers too. As a result, Davis took heat from her apoplectic boss, Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, who rankled the singer when he blustered, “I could understand Belafonte, but him! Short people, they ain’t got no right!”

For flouting contemporary mores with Novak, Davis was threatened by the Mob, and for running with the white Rat Pack (Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop), he was chastised by the black community, whose newspapers asked: IS SAMMY ASHAMED HE’S A NEGRO? To defuse the situation, Davis embarked on what he called a “phony” marriage with black chorine Loray White in 1958. That union was dissolved the following year, leaving him free to marry sultry Swedish actress May Britt, then 24, in 1960. They had a daughter—Tracey, now 29—and adopted two sons, Mark, 30, and Jeff, 25, before divorcing in 1968.

Davis’s Hollywood life-style tended to obscure the fact that even then, long before the civil rights movement, he battled for racial equality. He was the first black to integrate the hotels of Vegas and Miami and the first to gel a table at such elegant nightclubs as the Copa. Later he marched with Martin Luther King in Montgomery and even temporarily shut down his Broadway show Golden Boy in order to do so. He also performed at benefits for the United Negro College Fund, the family of Malcolm X and for ’60s radical Angela Davis.

Those contributions, alas, weren’t enough to save him from later charges of Uncle Tomism. A onetime staunch Democrat and Kennedy friend, he later appeared to grow more conservative. When in 1972 he threw his support behind Richard Nixon, Julian Bond, then a young Georgia legislator, called it “unbelievable, an irrational act.” After a rally at which Davis leapt onto the stage to embrace the President, author Truman Capote observed, “When I saw him kissing Nixon, I thought he was the new Checkers.”

Perhaps Davis was caught between two worlds; in any event, such odd choices and impetuous behavior helped to create an image problem that plagued him for years. Sure, he affected the “groovy” lingo and garb of the day—Nehru jacket, miles of gold chains—but he also seemed to share the vision of the older white establishment. On the home screen too something was out of sync: The breathtaking showman was losing ground to an obsequious alter ego, Hammy Sammy the Glad-hander, who seemed ready to warm any empty guest chair or barren stage, giggling at the host’s insipid jokes, dancing himself into a frenzy, singing himself hoarse. Marlon Brando labeled him an “audience junkie.” A TIME critic, reviewing Davis in a 1978 Broadway production of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, wrote that he projected “the image of an overage child parched for affection, aggressively demanding approval….”

His private life was equally desperate. After splitting from May Britt, who had charged that they had had “no family life to speak of,” Davis began a nonstop orgy of liquor, cocaine and swingers like Deep Throat‘?, Linda Lovelace. Both offstage and on, sniped New York University journalism professor Margo Jefferson, who is black, Davis was enacting “the lurid spectacle of Sambo and Sammy Glick joining hands.”

Davis himself was sensitive to such criticism. “I didn’t like me…. I didn’t like what I had created and what I had become,” he later admitted. But the party didn’t stop until 1983, when a dangerously enlarged liver forced him to give up alcohol. Then came two hip replacement operations that threatened to end his career. The pain of recovery made the Davis-Sinatra-Minnelli tour an especially sweet victory.

During these last years of enforced change and intimations of mortality, Davis managed to put his life in order. He reconciled with Sinatra after a three-year estrangement linked to Sammy’s drug use. He cherished the love and loyalty of Altovise, his wife since 1970, “who went through the tortures of the damned with me.” Last year the couple adopted a 13-year-old son, Manny. “A kid—that was the last thing I wanted five years ago,” Sammy noted optimistically in January. “But it’s a good feeling now, knowing you’re responsible and can give him some of the good things.”

At the end Davis not only made his peace at home, he took pride in the fact that young black performers were recognizing the contributions he had made. As Michael Jackson put it at Davis’s Hollywood tribute, “I’m here because you were there.” Moreover, Davis came to feel more at ease with his own unique place in the world. “I’ve learned, after these many years, you can’t be all things to all people,” he said philosophically. “Maybe I’m not here to be the man for all seasons. Maybe I’m just here to hand on the baton.”

In his time on earth, Sammy Davis made beautiful music with that baton. And blacks and whites alike heard him and were touched by him. He was loved. And that, of course, is what he wanted most of all.

—Marjorie Rosen, Doris Bacon in L.A., and bureau reports