Clay Cane is a New York City-based writer who is recognized for his contributions in journalism. Clay is a regular contributor for various print and online publications such as The Advocate and BET.com. He is the author of the highly anticipated novel Ball-Shaped World, which is a fictionalized account of the black and Latino ballroom scene. Also, he is the Entertainment Editor at BET.com and a member of New York Film Critics Online. He can be reached at claycane@gmail.com.


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    Monday, May 19, 2008

    While we are easy to honor Dorothy Dandridge, James Brown, and other black greats throughout history, we are quick to forget who many say was the first black superstar, Sammy Davis, Jr.

    This past Friday, May 16th, marked eighteen years since the iconic singer, performer, and tap dancer died of oral cancer. Today, the "Candyman" would've been 82 years-old.

    Davis was a Harlem native and learned how to tap dance as a child from his father who was a vaudeville performer. After enduring violent racism in the Army, he joined an entertainment group and realized "talent is my weapon." Davis released albums, appeared on Broadway, but was soon a member of the legendary Rat Pack, lead by Frank Sinatra. This would be the beginning of massive success and extreme criticism.

    In many ways, Sammy Davis, Jr. was labeled the first "sell-out" in the black community. Many black leaders looked at him as a token in the Rat Pack, mainly because of Sinatra’s racist jabs that were ignored. In addition, after a life-threatening car crash Davis converted to Judaism. Then, there was Davis' controversial marriage to a Swedish white woman in 1960 (interracial marriages were illegal in 31 states at the time). Davis received death threats and was blasted by the black community. In 1968 he divorced and in 1970 remarried a black woman, Altovise Davis, and was married by Reverend Jesse Jackson.

    Davis was a star, crossed-over, but racism was still part of his daily life. For example, the other members of the Rat Pack were allowed to walk through the front door of venues; Davis had to enter through the back. Even in the 1950s when Davis headlined The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas, he was forced to live in a rooming house, wasn't given a dressing room and had to dress by the pool. Once Davis became an international superstar he refused to perform at segregated venues and helped to integrate the Miami Beach nightclubs and Las Vegas casinos.

    Sammy Davis Jr. was extremely political. He was an outspoken voice against the Vietnam War when it was extremely unpopular for "pop stars" to be political, especially someone with his fame. An interesting fact, Davis once told People Magazine about a gay experience he had in the Army. Lawd, if a major black male superstar casually talked about one gay experience, people would have a conniption!

    Andre 3000 of Outkast is supposed to star in the biopic of Sammy Davis, Jr. ... not sure how I feel about that.

    So thanks to Sammy Davis, Jr., who was once called, Mr. Entertainer, for paving the way for so many artists!

    For all those who think Sammy Davis Jr. was just a crooner, didn't have any soul and only appealed to white audiences, check out this performance with Aretha Franklin. The man had soul.

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    Posted by Clay :: 12:00 AM :: 7 comments

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