Some people wanted Sammy Davis Jr. to fight; some wanted him to make peace. Such was the invidious position ‘Mr. Show Business’ found himself in as mid-century America wrestled with its race issues. ‘I didn’t ask to be a trailblazer,’ Davis Jr. said. ‘My passion was to entertain.’
Sammy Davis Jr. skips to his Rolls-Royce in Liverpool, 1963 (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

One night in the mid 1960s, Sammy Davis Jr. was nearing the end of a sold-out show at the Chi Chi nightclub in Palm Springs. He wound up a song and embarked on a Jerry Lewis impression while soft-shoe-shuffling his way offstage. In a holster on his right thigh was a .45 calibre pistol, loaded with blanks; Sammy was one of the fastest draws in Hollywood, and a quick pull-and-fire often served as an explosive finale to his act. Due to some oversight, however, the pistol was, on this particular night, already cocked. As he reached to pull it, the powder from the blank shot through the holster and onto his mohair tuxedo pants. Smoke started rising, and a circle of skin on his calf began to burn. Some members of the audience screamed; Sammy continued to dance while muttering to a stagehand, “Go get a doctor”. He was still mugging into the wings, even as the front rows caught the whiff of singed flesh. For Davis Jr., the show — which often ran to a Springsteen-esque three and a half hours, and encompassed tap-dancing and trumpet playing alongside the crooning and comic riffs — had to go on. He once told an interviewer: “This is what I want on my tombstone: ‘Sammy Davis Jr., the date, and underneath, one word — entertainer’. That’s all, because that’s what I am, man.”


Stuart Husband


August 2020


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