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The multitalented Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr. was born in Harlem in 1925. Called "the world's biggest performer," Davis made his film debut at age seven in the Ethel Waters film Rufus Jones for President. A vocalist, dancer, impressionist, drummer and star, Davis was irrepressible, and did not permit bigotry and even the loss of an eye to stop him. Behind his frenetic movement was a brilliant, studious male who soaked up understanding from his picked instructors-- including Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, and Jack Benny. In his 1965 autobiography, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr., Davis candidly recounted everything from the racist violence he dealt with in the army to his conversion to Judaism, which started with the present of a mezuzah from the comedian Eddie Cantor. But the performer likewise had a devastating side, more stated in his second autobiography, Why Me?-- which led Davis to suffer a heart attack onstage, drunkenly propose to his first wife, and invest countless dollars on bespoke fits and fine jewelry. Driving it all was a long-lasting fight for approval and love. "I've got to be a star!" he wrote. "I need to be a star like another male needs to breathe."
The child of a showgirl and a dancer, Davis traveled the nation with his daddy, Sam Davis Sr. and "Uncle" Will Mastin. His education was the hundreds of hours he spent backstage studying his coaches' every relocation. Davis was simply a toddler when Mastin first put the meaningful kid onstage, sitting him in the lap of a female entertainer and training the boy from the wings. As Davis later remembered:
The prima donna hit a high note and Will held his nose. I held my nose, too. But Will's faces weren't half as funny as the prima donna's so I started copying hers rather: when her lips trembled, my lips trembled, and I followed her all the way from a heaving bosom to a quivering jaw. Individuals out front were enjoying me, laughing. When we got off, Will knelt to my height. "Listen to that applause, Sammy" ... My daddy was crouched beside me, too, smiling ..." You're a born assailant, child, a born mugger."
Davis was formally made part of the act, ultimately renamed the Will Mastin Trio. He performed in 50 cities by the time he was 4, coddled by his fellow vaudevillians as the trio took a trip from one rooming house to another. "I never felt I lacked a house," he writes. "We carried our roots with us: our very same boxes of cosmetics in front of the mirrors, our exact same clothes holding on iron pipeline racks with our exact same shoes under them." wo of a Kind
In the late 1940s, the Will Mastin Trio got a huge break: They were scheduled as part of a Mickey Rooney taking a trip review. Davis soaked up Rooney's every relocation onstage, admiring his ability to "touch" the audience. "When Mickey was on phase, he may have pulled levers labeled 'cry' and 'laugh.' He could work the audience like clay," Davis remembered. Rooney was similarly amazed with Davis's skill, and quickly added Davis's impressions to the act, giving him billing on posters revealing the program. When Davis thanked him, Rooney brushed it off: "Let's not get sickening about this," he said. The two-- a set of somewhat developed, precocious pros who never had youths-- also became excellent buddies. "Between programs we played gin and there was constantly a record player going," Davis wrote. "He had a wire recorder and we ad-libbed all sort of bits into it, and composed songs, including a whole score for a musical." One night at a here party, a protective Rooney punched a guy who had released a racist tirade against Davis; it took four males to drag the actor away. At the end of the tour, the good friends said their farewells: a wistful Rooney on the descent, Davis on the climb. "So long, friend," Rooney said. "What the hell, possibly one day we'll get our innings."
In November 1954, Davis and the Will Mastin Trio's decades-long dreams were finally coming true. They were headlining for $7,500 a week at the New Frontier Gambling Establishment, and had even been offered suites in the hotel-- instead of dealing with the typical indignity of staying in the "colored" part of town. To commemorate, Sam Sr. and Will presented Davis with a new Cadillac, total with his initials painted on the passenger side door. After a night carrying out and betting, Davis drove to L.A for a recording session. He later remembered: It was one of those magnificent early mornings when you can only keep in mind the advantages ... My fingers fit perfectly into the ridges around the guiding wheel, and the clear desert air streaming in through the window was wrapping itself around my face like some gorgeous, swinging chick offering me a facial. I turned on the radio, it filled the cars and truck with music, and I heard my own voice singing "Hey, There." This magic trip was shattered when the Cadillac rammed into a woman making an inexpedient U-turn. Davis's face slammed into a protruding horn button in the center of the chauffeur's wheel. (That model would quickly be revamped because of his accident.) He staggered out of the automobile, focused on his assistant, Charley, whose jaw was horrifically hanging slack, blood pouring out of it. "He indicated my face, closed his eyes and moaned," Davis writes. "I rose. As I ran my hand over my cheek, I felt my eye hanging there by a string. Desperately I tried to pack it back in, like if I might do that it would stay there and no one would know, it would be as though absolutely nothing had happened. The ground headed out from under me and I was on my knees. 'Don't let me go blind. Please, God, do not take it all away.'".