Show business legend Sammy Davis Jr. was born to entertain. He was part of the family Vaudeville act, The Mastin Troupe, by age three. He is most remembered as a member of “The Rat Pack” with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Without a doubt, Sammy could certainly hold his own as an entertainer. He was a true song-and-dance man, a superb tap dancer, and an astute impressionist. All of these talents were showcased in his eight appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
After the end of Vaudeville, the Mastin Troupe had dwindled down to Sammy Jr. and Sr. and his uncle, Will Mastin. The trio appeared on Sullivan on August 12th 1951, when Sammy was 25. That night, the three men performed a tap routine to several songs, including an original, “Dancing Shoes”.
The trio returned three months later. In his autobiography, “Sammy: The Autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr.” he recalls, “In the middle of our spot, the coaxial cable broke for the first time in television history and every screen in America was blacked out. Only the sound remained on. We didn’t find out about it until we were off the air. My father and Will, everybody treated it like it was a disaster. But to me it seemed that it had worked for us. Ed Sullivan told us he’d book us again, which was gravy, and the next day’s papers were full of stories about what happened. People all over the country were saying, “Some guy was on Ed Sullivan’s program when the picture went off, and I’d have sworn it was James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart talking to Edward G. Robinson.” It was all Sammy, proving what a skilled impressionist he was.
By their next appearance, in 1955, it was clear that Sammy, Jr. was the break out star and he was booked by himself from then on. On January 6, 1963 Sammy sang a medley, and then showcased his skills as a musician. He jammed on the drums, vibes and piano before dancing to “Put on a Happy Face” and “Me and My Shadow.”
Groundhog Day in 1964 brought a special Ed Sullivan Show with Sammy and Ella Fitzgerald featured. Sammy performed an impressive medley of songs from West Side Story. He also sang “Shelter in Your Arms” and “Without a Song” (which Ed explained was written by three New Yorkers [Vincent Youmans, Billy Rose, and Edward Eliscu], was presented by a New Yorker [Sullivan], and performed by a New Yorker [Davis]). As the night progressed, Davis told Sullivan that being on The Ed Sullivan Show felt like being home. He delivered messages to Ed through impressions of Jimmy Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, and Jerry Lewis, and then performed an unforgettable duet with Ella Fitzgerald of “S’Wonderful.” In an interview, Ella said: “That was a great thrill, for anybody who ever had the chance to work with him, because he was talent. What you call T-A-L-E-N-T.”
Sammy returned on June 14th, 1964 to sing some of his signature tunes: “My Kind of Town (Manhattan)”, “Gonne Build a Mountain”, “What Kind of Fool am I?” and “One More for the Road.” Sammy Davis, Jr.’s performance that evening established him as one of the show’s great artists along with the likes of Nat King Cole on Ed Sullivan, Tony Bennett on Ed Sullivan and Louis Armstrong on Ed Sullivan.
Davis’ last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show occurred on November 15th 1964. When Sullivan brought Davis onstage, they reminisced about what it was like growing up in Harlem. Sullivan praised Davis for a recent Life Magazine spread and for his performance in the Broadway show, Golden Boy. Then Sammy and the show’s cast did the “127th Street” production number from Golden Boy.
Sammy had his only number one hit in 1972 when he covered “The Candy Man,” from the film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Sammy spent the rest of his life performing shows in Vegas, recording, and acting in guest spots on television shows. Sammy was the recipient of an Emmy, two NAACP awards, and the Kennedy Center Honors. He passed away in 1990 from throat cancer, and was posthumously awarded a Grammy lifetime achievement award.