International Tap Dance Hall of Fame

 

The International Tap Dance Hall of Fame is the only tap dance hall of fame exclusively focused on tap dancers. It features founding and innovative 20th and 21st century professional tap dancers.With a collection of photographs, biographies, and videos, the Hall of Fame is becoming a colorful and diverse retrospective of America's seminal tap dance personalities.

 

2005 - Sammy Davis Jr. (8 December 1925-16 May 1990), singer, dancer, actor, and musician (who played vibraphone trumpet, and drums), was born on December 8, 1925 to the Puerto-Rican-born tap dancer Elvera "Baby" Sanchez, and Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American vaudevillian who was the lead dancer in Will Mastin's Holiday in Dixieland. As an infant, he was raised by his paternal grandmother, Rosa B. ("Mama") Davis, in an apartment on 140th Street and Eighth Avenue in New York City. When he was three years-old his parents separated and his father, not wanting to lose custody of his son, took him on tour. As a child, "little Sammy" learned to dance from his father and his adopted "Uncle" Will, who led the dance troupe his father worked for. In 1929 at the age of four, Davis joined the act, which was re-named the Will Mastin Trio, and toured the vaudeville circuit, accompanying his elders with flash tap dance routines. Called "Poppa" by his father and "Mose Gastin" by Uncle Will, he traveled and performed with the Mastin troupe, taking time off to make his motion picture debut in Rufus Jones for President (1933), a black short subject two-reeler filmed at Brooklyn's Warner studios, in which he played a little boy who falls asleep in the lap of his mother (Ethel Waters) and dreams of being elected President of the United States. Small and slightly-built, he was dubbed "Silent Sam, the Dancing Midget" and became phenomenally popular with audiences. He was reportedly tutored by his idol Bill Robinson, from whom he took tap dance lessons. In short time, the act was renamed Will Mastin's Gang, Featuring Little Sammy; and still later, The Will Mastin Trio, Featuring Sammy Davis Jr." In 1942 at the age of eighteen Davis was drafted into the Army where he encountered, he says for the first time, blatant racial prejudice, which he countered with his fists. "Overnight the world looked different," he later wrote. "It wasn't one color anymore. I could see the protection I'd gotten all my life from my father and Will. I appreciated their loving hope that I'd never need to know about prejudice and hate, but they were wrong. It was as if I'd walked through a swinging door for eighteen years, a door which they had always secretly held open." He was subsequently transferred to Special Services where he performed in army camps across the country, "gorging" himself on "the joy of being liked," as he wrote in his 1965 autobiography, Yes I Can. He writes that he combed every audience for "haters," and when he spotted one he would give his performance an extra burst of strength and energy because he "had to get those guys," to neutralize them and make them acknowledge him. "My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight," he wrote. "It was the one way I might hope to affect a man's thinking." In 1946, upon being discharged from the Army, he rejoined the Will Mastin Trio and perfected his performance by doing flash-styled tap dancing and impressions of popular screen stars and singers, playing trumpet and drums, and singing to the accompaniment of Sammy Sr. and Uncle Will's soft-shoe and tap as background. He also recorded some songs for Capitol Records and one of them, a rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight," was chosen the 1946 Record of the year by Metronome magazine, which also named him the year's "Most Outstanding New Personality." The addition of comedy and tap dancing brought new life to the group, so by the beginning of the next decade they were headlining venues including New York's Capitol club and Ciro's in Hollywood. It was in this period that Davis met Frank Sinatra, who was then with Tommy Dorsey's band, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson; the popular "Mr. Bojangles" tune, written by Jerry Jeff Walker and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, later became a standard song in Davis' act.

By 1952, at the invitation of Frank Sinatra, the group played the newly-integrated Copacabana in New York. In 1954, Davis signed a recording contract with Decca Records, topping the charts with his debut LP Starring Sammy Davis, Jr., and another LP, Just for Lovers. After recovering from the loss of an eye in a car accident, he continued to score a series of hit singles including "Something's Gotta Give," "Love Me or Leave Me," and "That Old Black Magic," and "Too Close for Comfort." After a succession of successful club appearances, Davis he made his Broadway debut in 1956, with Sam Sr. and Will, in Mr. Wonderful, a musical comedy that was created just for him. He made his solo debut on television on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and did some serious acting in episodes of the "General Electric Theatre" and "The Dick Powell Show." In 1965 on the "Patty Duke Show" he played himself in "Will the Real Sammy Davis Please Stand Up?" Meanwhile, his recordings were making records--"Hey There," "Birth of the Blues," The Lady Is a Tramp," "Candy Man," "Gonna Build a Mountain," and "Who Can I Turn To?" In 1958 he played the role of a jive-talking sailor in the film Anna Lucasta; and in 1959 played the mischievous Sportin' Life in the screen version of Porgy and Bess. In the 1960s, Davis became an official member of the so-called Rat Pack, a loose confederation of actors, comedians, and singers that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. They appeared together in several movies, including Robin and the Seven Hoods and the original Ocean's Eleven. After achieving success by refusing to work at venues that upheld racial segregation, his demands expanded and eventually led to the integration of Miami Beach nightclubs and Las Vegas casinos. But he continued to press buttons. In 1960, when he married the Swedish-born actress May Britt, interracial marriages were forbidden by law in 31 US states out of 50 (it was not until 1967 that those laws were abolished by the US Supreme Court). The couple had one daughter and adopted two sons. In 1966, he was given the role of a television series host in The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show. After divorcing in 1968, Davis began dating Altovise Gore, a young and talented dancer in one of his shows; they were wed in 1970 by the Reverend Jesse Jackson and remained married until Davis' death. While he remained a multi-talented performer, Davis was revered as a proponent and popularizer of tap dance, performing in his own shows, such as Sammy and Company (1975) and Sammy Davis, Jr. the Golden Years (1980). In 1988, he co-starred with Gregory Hines as the patriarchal master of tap dance in the movie Tap! Hines, who worshipped Davis, paid homage to him, in the television special Sammy Davis Jr. 60th Anniversary Show (1990), in a tap solo after which he called onto the stage to dance and trade steps, and in the end, bent down and kissed Davis's feet. Davis died soon after in Beverly Hills, California from complications due to throat cancer, a result of his many years of smoking. Davis will be remembered throughout his career as one of the world's greatest entertainers, as a remarkably popular and versatile performer equally adept at acting, singing, dancing and impersonations -- in short, a variety artist in the classic tradition. He is among the very first African-American performers to find favor with audiences on both sides of the color barrier, and remains a perennial icon of cool, which could also be said of his tap dancing-- quick-fired with crystal clarity and rhythmically swinging flourishes of flash.

 

Constance Valis Hill