|Home Page||Biography||Articles||Forewords||Text Interviews||Audio Interviews||Video Interviews||Oprah Videos||Malcolm X||Roots: The Saga of An American Family|
|Roots: The Next Generations||Roots: The Gift||Christmas Story||Queen: The Story of An American Family||Mama Flora's Family||Palmerstown USA||Stories of America|
|Alex Haley Museum||Alex Haley Memorial||Haley Heritage Square||CDF Alex Haley Farm||Alex Haley Testimonials||Press Media Kit||About Us||Resources||Quotes|
|Alex Haley Interviews Sammy Davis, Jr.||Share:|
Alex Haley Interviews Sammy Davis, Jr.
(Alex Haley Interviews Sammy Davis, Jr. was originally published in the December 1966 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)
A Candid Conversation With The Kinetic Singer, Dancer, Comedian, Musician, Mimic, Actor, Best-Selling Author
Whether Sammy Davis, Jr., as so often billed, is really "the greatest entertainer in the world" may be open to debate, but even his critics would admit that no one has worked harder—nor overcome more hardships and handicaps—to earn that appellation. Literally a child of show business (his parents, Sammy and Elvera Davis, toured with a vaudeville troupe headed by Will Mastin, whom he called his uncle), Sammy made his stage debut at the age of one and became a full-time professional when he was three. He had no opportunity for formal schooling and was forced to scuffle for pin money with Mastin and his father during the Depression years. But the younger Davis proved a quick study as a song-and-dance man, and soon eclipsed his elders to become the star of their struggling little act in carnival side shows and those few small-town theaters and nightclubs that would book Negro talent in that pre-civil rights era.
After an eight-month hitch in the Army's Special Services—a traumatic firsthand exposure to racial bigotry and brutality for the 18-year-old entertainer (his nose was broken twice in beatings administered by white GIs)—Sammy rejoined the Trio with redoubled determination to make the big time. It finally happened in 1951, when Sammy (still second-billed to Mastin) electrified audiences—and earned rave notices—during a triumphant first engagement at Ciro's in Hollywood. Suddenly in demand for solo recordings and movie roles (in Anna Lucasta and Porgy and Bess), and celebrated for his kinetic performance in the Broadway hit Mr. Wonderful, Sammy found himself rich as well as famous almost overnight. Living his new part to the hill, after "a lifetime of waiting and wanting," he plunged headlong into the maelstrom of Hollywood night life: punishing the bottle, plunging at the gaming tables, playing around with the chicks and tossing big money away with spectacular—and self-destructive—abandon. His income and his audiences continued to grow, but his performances began to suffer—along with his health—and Sammy was soon several hundred thousand dollars in debt. But his fortunes had not yet reached their lowest ebb: Late in 1954, while driving from Las Vegas to Hollywood for a recording date, he was seriously injured in the automobile accident that cost him his left eye. Although he was soon working again at Ciro's, and even joking about his misfortune, he was privately distraught and depressed, and one night tried unsuccessfully to drive his car off a cliff. His two brushes with death, however, shook him into a fateful decision: A few months later, seeking "a purpose bigger than myself," he converted to Judaism amid a storm of publicity assailing him for insincerity.
If Sammy was looking for peace of mind, he was not to find it yet. When the news leaked out that he was secretly dating Kim Novak late in 1957, despite warnings from Hollywood higher-ups, Sammy became a target for racist hate mail—undeterred even by his brief marriage to a Negro dancer—that reached flood proportions with the announcement of his engagement to Swedish actress May Britt in May of 1960. Defying a barrage of anonymous death threats, Sammy and May were married six months later, with friend Frank Sinatra as best man and fellow rat-pack chum Peter Lawford among the guests. May's movie career was over, but the marriage flourished and Sammy's own successes multiplied—along with his family (they now have three children, two of them adopted). In the years that followed, he continued to make movies (Ocean's Eleven, Threepenny Opera, Robin and the Seven Hoods), performed at more benefits than any other entertainer in history, simultaneously starred in a successful Broadway remake of Clifford Odets' Golden Boy, and in his spare time, co-authored Yes I Can, a painfully candid best-selling autobiography. Saturating television with specials and guest shots, he eventually earned his own weekly series, but low ratings and lukewarm reviews forced its cancellation early this year after 15 shows. Undaunted, Sammy went on to produce and star in his most recent film, A Man Called Adam, but it, too, was indifferently received both by the critics and by the public. Not pausing long enough to regret his mistakes—and well enough established by now as a jack of all entertainment trades to withstand such setbacks without jeopardizing his success—Sammy set out last summer on a nationwide one-man concert tour; the crowds were S.R.O. in every city.
Playboy interviewer Alex Haley caught up with the peripatetic star during an engagement at the Forrest Theater in Philadelphia (shortly before Sammy was hospitalized in Chicago with hepatitis). Haley tells of his experience: "I had been trying to get his ear, and his confidence, for two weeks, dogging his tracks from city to city, trying to penetrate both his shell of reticence and the cordon of cronies and co-workers with whom he surrounds himself, waiting in vain for Sammy to alight anywhere long enough to button-hole him for anything more than a wave and a greeting. Genuinely apologetic, he finally took me aside and vowed that somehow he'd make time for me in Philadelphia. He was as good as his word; but it was still an uphill battle.
"Late every afternoon during the four-day engagement, whenever Sammy woke up, his close friend and secretary Murphy Bennett would telephone me to join them in Sammy's lavish suite at the Hotel Warwick. There, for the next two or three hours, we would try to talk, swimming upstream against a steady tide of bellboys bearing telegrams and delivering packages—mostly gifts from fans, which were added to the vocational and avocational miscellany already overflowing the suite: books, tape recorders, scripts, contracts, cameras, record players, movie projectors and the wardrobe of 50 suits Sammy takes on the road. Adding a note of shrill urgency to the melee, the phone rang incessantly and without mercy. Most of the calls were fielded by Bennett, but a few Sammy had to take himself—among them, one from Vice President Humphrey, inviting Sammy to Washington to discuss a possible Vietnam tour; and several from Mrs. Davis in New York, requesting advice on wallpaper and bathroom towels for the family's new apartment on Manhattan's East Side.
"Each evening at eight, Sammy left for the theater in his $25,000 limousine, custom-fitted with intercom, bar, stereo, television and telephone. His stocky chauffeur, an ex-Marine named Joe Grant, denied that he functioned as a bodyguard: 'Just call me Sammy's right-hand man.' Be that as it may, Joe's own karate-trained right hand can split a cinder block. The marquee at the Forrest Theater—where Sammy had won an amateur free-style dancing contest at the age of three—read, Sammy Davis—That's All. Inside, Sammy sang, danced, did his impressions and his pistol-twirling act, imitated the walking styles of current Western stars, and followed up with a pantomime and an uninhibited drunk routine. Then his dancers took the stage as Sammy quick-changed to finish the show as a wistful clown. The audience gave him a standing ovation. Back in the hubbub of his dressing room, he acted out impromptu ideas for improving the show, accompanying himself with fiercely mouthed sound effects. Then, after several hours, 20 or 30 people set off in taxicabs, following Sammy to one of his almost-nightly private screenings of unreleased feature films. Later, though this relentless round-the-clock schedule was obviously draining his strength (he had been rubbing more and more at his plastic left eye—a sure sign, according to Murphy, that the 39-year-old star was really exhausted), he would talk with me back at the hotel—this time without interruptions and distractions. Often as not, the light of dawn would find us still immersed in conversation. We began with a question about a subject that preoccupies his profilers and perplexes even his closest friends: What makes Sammy run?"
Haley: Sammy, you seem to be in a permanent state of exhaustion—and perpetual motion—trying to keep up with your nonstop schedule of commitments. What makes you drive yourself so relentlessly?
Davis: If you want to be the best, baby, you've got to work harder than anybody else. I'm not in this business to be second-rate. If you've worked and waited for a lifetime, and finally your opportunity comes, do you swing at the ball or do you bunt? Well, I want to swing at it.
Haley: Some might feel that you're trying to swing five or six bats at once.
Davis: So what if I am? I'm not trying to hit anybody with them. I'm not Sammy Glick, stepping on people, destroying people. Why should you be put down because you're ambitious, because you want to succeed—so long as you're not hurting anybody? Jesus! Is it criminal to have drive?
Haley: Of course not. But why do you take on more commitments than you can fulfill?
Davis: Well, nobody starts out to do three or four major things at once. You start to do one thing, and suddenly a chance comes to do another. You're handling these two all right, then suddenly here comes another thing you can't refuse, and so on. After a while, it gets out of hand.
Haley: During the run of Golden Boy, you ran yourself ragged doing free benefits between shows—more than any other performer ever has done in so short a time. Why?
Davis: Well, I wasn't thinking about setting some record. People just asked me. This one, that one, people I knew, people who knew somebody I knew: "Sammy, baby, just a little half hour for us." Another one: "You can't let us down." I'd say, "Yeah, yeah, OK—when?"—even when I knew I shouldn't. The dates always sounded a while off. Word filtered around I'd try to help good causes, and the promises started piling up on me. Man, sometimes in one day I'd be doing two, three benefits, then the show that night. If I tried to beg off because I was beat, they'd say, "Sammy, this organization helps your people; you've got to make it! We'll send a limousine." I had limousines; what I needed was sleep. But if I said no, they'd hate me—and I saw some of that, too. So I'd sleep on the way over in the car; chauffeur would wake me up to walk in the door and do the benefit. I got so run-down I looked it. And you know what I'd hear then? "Sammy, you're too tired! You got to quit doing so many benefits—just this one more for us." I knew something was going to give. I kept feeling it, different ways—warnings, you know. I kept saying to everybody, "Give me some time off. I've got to have some rest." But they never really listened, and I tried to keep going—until finally it happened. I collapsed and had to miss several shows. You can only do so much to yourself, then your body acts to save itself. I learned my lesson. I'm not going to let myself get that overburdened no more. I'll still help, but within reason. Anxiety to help anybody I can is the particular bag I happen to swing in as a human being. But there must be 5000 good causes; I learned I can't help all of them.
Haley: Your nervous collapse was only one of many problems—bad reviews, script changes, firings, frictions, accidents, injuries—that seemed to plague the run of Golden Boy. Has that experience soured you on the theater?
Davis: No, I'm going to go back, and I'm going to keep going back until I learn it. Most people cannot understand, even to this day, why a guy who makes a million and a half or two million dollars a year would want to come back and do a Broadway show. Well, I can't say I need the theater to exist as a human being; but it's my vitamins. Legitimate theater is marvelous if you can find the right set of circumstances to work under. In Golden Boy, we just didn't have all the right circumstances. It became too hard to perform—physically and mentally. I got hurt too many times, and finally I got bored with it.
Haley: To judge by its low ratings and lukewarm reviews, your recent television series was even less successful than Golden Boy. Why do you think it didn't click?
Davis: I've got no cop-out. It was nobody's fault but mine. I apologize especially for those first five shows. I'm being as honest as I know how to be. They were horrible. We never got over that bad beginning—even when we started to swing those last six or seven shows. But it was a ball to be on for the 16 weeks it ran.
Haley: Do you plan to try again with another series?
Davis: Someday, sure. I don't know about this coming season, though. If NBC doesn't pick me up, I've been offered other parts—like CBS wants me to be the CBS eye.
Haley: That sounds like type-casting. Your latest film, A Man Called Adam, which you produced and starred in, didn't fare much better than your TV series, either critically or commercially. Were you satisfied with it?
Davis: Not completely, but I liked it. I think we said some things never said before in a picture. I don't think it's as strong, as powerful, as great a picture, as, say, Champion or The Defiant Ones, or any of the others with that kind of punch. But I think it's a good, entertaining picture, in its own way. And even if the critics didn't like it, I'm pleased that a lot of them, and other people, were pleasantly surprised by my performance in it. I never before had a chance to really act in a picture, and I tried to act my ass off in this one, pal. I really did.
Haley: It's often said that everything you do as a performer is characterized by what one critic has called "a fanatical desire for approval." Is there any truth to that?
Davis: Maybe so. I know every time I walk on a stage, or do a television show, or act in a movie, I feel like the cat in the old West who walks into a saloon with the guns on his hips and says, "OK, who's the fastest gun here?" And the audience out there is the cat who stands up and says, "I am. Let's go outside. I'm going to take you." Every audience is like that. Every time I walk on, I'm thinking, "Oh, God, is this it? Is this the time I fail? Is this the time this other cat's going to be faster than me?" But if I win them over, see, it's another notch on my gun. I have said on a stage, when I haven't been able to move them, "Look, you people, I ain't leaving this stage until I find something you all like." And after doing a full show, I have gone on as much as another hour and a half, until I won them. It's like you've got these marvelous paints, and you want to get on that canvas exactly this beautiful thing you've got pictured in your mind, but you just can't seem to get that sun bright enough. I know the audience will courteously applaud just because I'm singing loud, but that's not what I want. I got to have them pulling for me; I want them feeling, "Oh, God, if he doesn't make it, he might run off and cut his wrists." They want me to climb that mountain. And then, "Oh, God—he made it!" That's how I've got to make them feel.
It's a constant challenge, because there's no surefire act, no surefire performer. You can be the world's biggest star, and any night that stage can fall from under you. The way this business is going today, it's getting to the point where you're really only as good as your last performance. I have to fight myself to put that foot across that magic dividing line between backstage and onstage—because I can never be certain what's going to happen out there. Take this show I'm doing right now. Opening night, the audience liked the show all right, but I knew something was wrong. I just sat and sat and sat in my hotel suite after the show and tried to figure what to do. It wasn't till the third or fourth night that it finally clicked. Now it's right. I got them turned on.
Haley: Your nightclub and theater audiences are predominantly white. Do you think there may be some element of race consciousness in your compulsion to win their approval?
Davis: No question about it. I always go onstage anticipating what people out there may be feeling against me emotionally. I want to rob them of what they're sitting there thinking: Negro. With all the accompanying clichés. Ever since I recognized what prejudice is, I've tried to fight it away, and the only weapon I could use was my talent. Away back, when I was learning the business, I had no education, no power, no influence; entertaining was the only way I had to change prejudiced thinking. I could see it happen every time Will Mastin, my dad and I did our act. For as long as we were onstage, our skin had no color; the people were just seeing us as entertainers. We didn't become Negroes again until we stepped off the stage. Again in the Army, especially the Army, where I met the most concentrated bunch of haters I ever experienced: On that stage, for the eight months I was in Special Services, that spotlight erased my color. It made the hate leave their faces temporarily. It was as if my talent gave me a pass from their prejudice, if only temporarily. And when I spotted haters in the audiences, I tried to give extra-good performances. I had to get to them, to neutralize them, to make them recognize me. It was in the Army that I got the conviction that I had to become a great enough entertainer that the hatred of prejudiced people couldn't touch me anymore. See?
Haley: You said "the most concentrated bunch of haters" you ever met was in the Army. Was their hatred directed at Negroes in general or at you in particular?
Davis: We all got it, but being a performer and a little guy besides, I guess I was an especially tempting target.
Haley: For what? Verbal or physical abuse?
Davis: I don't like talking about it—even thinking about it. It don't bother me; I don't mean that. I mean I don't want nobody thinking I'm whining about it. When it was happening, I didn't whine; I fought it. And now it's over; it's past.
Haley: Will you give us some idea of what you went through?
Davis: I met some prejudiced cats—all right? I got pushed and banged around some, got my nose broken twice—all right? But the roughest part wasn't that; the roughest was the psychological. Like, you know, I'd been all my life in show business. I had never known one white agent, manager or anybody else in any of the acts my dad, Will Mastin and I had worked with who hadn't been friendly, see? I don't mean every time we met they hugged me; they didn't. My point is that until the Army, nobody white had ever just looked at me and hated me—and didn't even know me.
From the day I got into the basic-training center—it was Fort Francis E. Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming—from the first ten minutes, I started hearing more "nigger" and seeing more sneers and hate looks than I'd ever known all my life. Walked inside the gate, asked a cat sitting on some barracks steps to show me how to get to where I had to go: "Excuse me, buddy, I'm a little lost—" Cat told me, "I'm not your buddy, you black bastard!" When I got assigned a barracks, cats in there—most of them from the South and Southwest—don't want to sleep nowhere next to me. And there was this one guy elected himself head of the haters. First move he made, he ground his boot heel down on the $150 chronometer watch my dad and Will had borrowed the money to give me as a present. I had treasured that watch. Man, they did all kinds of things, sick things. One time I remember, I had just done my first show there at the center, and I mean I had entertained them. Well, back in the barracks, suddenly they all acted friendly. Offered me this beer—but it wasn't beer, man, it was warm piss. Then a cat "accidentally" poured it on me. Well, I went for him, ready to kill. He was a big cat, and I didn't weigh but 115 pounds. He broke my nose the first punch, but, man, I fought him like a wildcat, and before he beat me unconscious, I broke his nose, too. From then on, nearly as long as I stayed there, maybe every other day I had some knockdown, drag-out fight, until I had scabs on my knuckles! Got my nose broken again. It got so everybody white I saw, I expected to hear "nigger." Somebody ask me if I want my coffee black, I was ready to fight.
Haley: Were all the white soldiers that anti-Negro?
Davis: No, there was good cats there, too—don't get me wrong—at least some that didn't want to get involved, or who didn't hate Negroes that bad. And I had a sergeant who was one of the finest men I'll ever meet. Anyway, I met George M. Cohan Jr., and we got an act going with this WAC captain in charge of us. Well, one time some cats from headquarters came and said the captain wanted to see me, and I went with them into a building where they said she was—but there were four other cats waiting instead. Pushed me into a latrine; some of them held me and the others beat me. They wrote "coon" in white paint across my forehead, and "I'm a nigger" across my chest. Then they ordered me to dance for them. "Dance, Sambo—fast!" Man, I fought to get at them, but they pinned me and punched me in the gut until it looked like I'd have to dance or die. Don't even like to think about it! Sick cats! I danced until I couldn't no more. Then—bam! In the gut again—and I had to dance some more, until finally they saw I was ready to pass out. Then they poured turpentine over me, and told me the reason they'd given me "this little lesson": They'd been watching me "making eyes" at the white WAC captain. She was my boss, man, my commanding officer—and that's the way I treated her. Didn't make no difference. Anyway, they finally left me there. I was so sick, I just wanted to crawl into the latrine walls and die, man; I just lay down and cried.
That was when, for the first time in my life, I didn't want to go out and do my act—go out there and smile at people who despised me. But I made myself do it anyhow. I was fighting myself so hard to stay out there that the fighting made me do maybe one of the best shows I ever did in my life. And I'm glad it did, because I discovered something. I saw some of those faces out there grudgingly take on different expressions. I don't mean for a minute that anybody suddenly started loving me—I didn't want that from them anyway—but they respected me. It taught me that the way for me to fight, better than with my fists, was with my talent. For the next eight months, going across the country doing my act, I nearly killed myself every show trying to make them respect me. Maybe I still am.
Haley: Do you feel any bitterness toward whites because of your Army experiences?
Davis: No, I can't harbor that, based on one very simple fact. If I'm going to look at you with a jaundiced eye because you're white, then how are you going to look at me? Am I going to try to hide my bigotry, hoping that you'll show your tolerance? It makes no sense. I don't know how I can ask to be regarded as a fellow man, as I wish to be, without myself extending that same respect to you. I've met too many decent white people to hold the prejudices of other whites against them—even in the Army. Like that sergeant I told you about. He's the one who got me started reading something besides comic books.
Haley: You were in your late teens then. Is it true, as some writers have claimed, that you could barely read and write, that you'd never even gone to kindergarten?
Davis: Yeah, it's true. What's more, I'll be turning 40 this year, and I still haven't gone to kindergarten. Haven't spent a single day in school my whole life. I say that with mixed emotions. I'm very proud in one sense; I'm very ashamed in another. For instance, you know I'm always being asked for autographs. Say a girl tells me, "My name is Rosemari, with an 'i' ". Well I don't know how to spell the names. I can't hardly write anything but my own name. It's a constant, daily embarrassment. It's even more of an embarrassment because of my articulate facade. People think, "Why, he's got to have education." But I can't even write! Nothing but chicken scratches! That I'm not proud of. I'm proud that I've pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, with the help of some people who cared enough; but I'm not proud of having no education. What little I do have started on the road, when Will Mastin and my dad found someone around the theaters to tutor me to read and write. We'd work between shows in the dressing room—when there was a dressing room—until it was time for me to go on for the next show. Then in the Army, like I told you, this sergeant took a liking to me and started me reading books. Things like The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and some of Carl Sandburg's books about Lincoln; books by Dickens, Poe, Twain; and a history of the U.S. I would read every minute of the day I had free, then in my bunk until taps, then in the latrine until after midnight. At the PX I bought a pocket dictionary, and I would look up words in places where nobody would see me, then I'd read the books over again.
Imagine somebody 18 years old, grown, discovering the thrills of Robinson Crusoe for the first time—reading that kids of 10 take for granted. And a showbiz kid is already 10 years up on the average cat, in street-knowledge terms. Like, man, I'd had my first serious affair at 14, and at 18 I still didn't know what a serious book was. That's a sad paradox. I remember so well the first book I ever read about my own people, and the effect it had on me. It did something to me. That was Native Son, by Richard Wright. Then, later, I read Black Boy. They made me feel something about being black that I had never really felt before. It made me uncomfortable, made me feel trapped in black, you know, in a white society that had created you the way it wanted, and still hated you.
But to get back to your question. People hearing me today don't think I have no education. I've worked hard—hard, man, to be able to give this impression. Blood, sweat and tears went into every combination of words that I use now. I've read, and I've remembered. I've listened and recorded in my mind. Now, I'd be confident anywhere I was asked to speak. But I still make mistakes that infuriate me, especially when I'm corrected. People very close to me do that sometimes. Like Burt and Jane Boyar, who did Yes I Can with me; to this day, one of them will say, when we're alone, "You're pronouncing this word wrong." It infuriates me—but I know they're right. Say, I'll get up and extemporaneously make a speech that would put Burt to shame if he tried it. It'll just come off the top of my knot; it'll roll—brrrrr—and I'll look at Burt triumphantly. Then later on, he'll get me somewhere away from people and say, "You pronounced two words wrong," and that little comedown really kills me, because I've struggled so hard, you know? It took me five years, I guess, to quit saying "Ladies and gennermen—" It just hurts when I'm told I was making a mistake, particularly by someone very close to me, even though I know he only wants to help me. And I want them to help me, but I'm torn between "Help me" and "Geez, I thought I was doing good."
Haley: A friend of yours told us it bothers you that without a day's education, you earn more than the nation's top dozen college presidents. Is that true?
Davis: Yes and no. On the one hand, I feel guilty about making all the money that I do. It's like, say, I talk to a cat, a policeman, that's exposed all the time to crime and corruption, and he's just saved someone's life, and what does he make? You know? But then I think that if I draw the people in, and they're willing to pay the tab, then I'm entitled to it. It's a mixed-up feeling.
Haley: While we're on the subject, would you mind telling us just how much you earn?
Davis: Well, it fluctuates. This year, two million dollars. I know that sounds like an awful lot, but you have to consider that just yesterday my accountant told me that to keep my books even—understand me, just to break even, in terms of salaries, spending money and household things, plus taxes—I've got to make $17,000 a week. After all, I'm in the 90-percent tax bracket. Next year, I'll make less, about a million and a half, because of the six months in London with Golden Boy there. You make a lot less on the stage than in nightclubs as a top act.
Haley: How much of that two million did you earn as a performer?
Davis: I'm not sure of the exact amount, but as you know, I got a couple of other things going for me, too. There's the royalties from my book, for one thing. And I'm now sincerely and honestly in the motion-picture business. A Man Called Adam is on the screens now, and I've bought future film properties, such as Irving Wallace's The Man, which Ossie Davis will star in. I've also got two music-publishing firms—rather, my musical director, George Rhodes, has one and I have one. And I've got a record company: It releases through Reprise Records, but it's my company. All of the masters come back to me. And I've got a personal-management company; they're all part of my overall enterprises.
If you count the household help, and the West Coast office, I've got about 30 people working for me. I don't really know what the weekly payroll amounts to, or what I average spending just myself a week, either. But I know I don't spend as much as I used to.
Haley: During the first few years after you made it big, you spent several million dollars on custom-made suits and shoes by the dozen, expensive jewelry, limousines, parties, chartered planes, and enough photographic and recording equipment to fill a small warehouse. Why? What were you trying to prove?
Davis: Listen, baby, you ever had a mustard sandwich? Just mustard spread on bread—and then tried to dance on the nourishment from that? Will Mastin, my dad and me, we used to heat a can of pork and beans on the radiator, when they were nice enough to have heat in the radiator, and split it three ways, eating right from the can. There were times when for a meal we had a Mr. Goodbar apiece. Or a grape soda. I remember our filling our stomachs with nothing but water! I mean, I paid my dues, baby; don't you ever overlook that, and anybody who does can go jump in the lake! We got stranded more times than I can count! Our beds were benches in drink-water train depots. And once in the winter in Ohio, I remember, it was so bad we went to the jail and asked the man to let us sleep in there. In the Thirties, I remember, we lost the old $90 car we had, and we had to join Hank Keane's carnival. Eight, nine shows a day—and that bally, "Heyyy! Here they come! Three little hoofers, hot from Harlem!" There was no dignities then. Nobody was trooping around saying "Let's have our rights." You were alone out there—every Negro performer was. We danced so hard our feet scarcely touched the floor; but we kept saying inside, "It ain't gonna happen, ain't never gonna happen for us." Jesus, man! We starved. About literally starved. If we got two little one-nighters a week, we were lucky! Like all Negro performers, though, we put on the best front we could. But the insults. The indignities. You haven't known indignity until you have to dance, and have people throw money at you, and you take the money off the floor.
Anyway, we'd go wherever it was, and we'd work. And then we'd go back to my grandmother's little railroad flat and sit waiting for some call, frustrated to death, knowing all the entertainment we had in us to give to people. And I'd sit all day waiting to tune in on Jack Eigen's celebrity interview program from the Copacabana. He'd always say, "I'm at the Copa, where are you?" And I'd holler at the radio, "I'm up here in my goddamned hole in Harlem, that's where I am!" And meanwhile, my grandmother's on relief, and the Man is coming around, checking up. "I hear your son was working"—meaning my father. And she'd say, "But he didn't make anything." And he'd say, "Well, if he's working, you're not supposed to be on relief." That seemed to be the concept in those days—if you were on relief, you were just supposed to sit there, and not even try to work.
It was a frightening thing to think, "Jesus, I'm never going to live, live big! I'm never going to be able to walk in some place and buy something and not ask the price. Never!" Just work, kill myself working, and waiting, and praying. It was like that song from Sweet Charity: "There's got to be something better than this." You know the humiliation for a Negro to walk in a store? You got on your front, that one good suit. You got on your Sunday shoes, the ones you use on the stage—we always prided ourselves on being neat on the stage; you walk in the store, you say, "I'd like to get one of those shirts you've got there in the window." And the man says, "You know that shirt's seven ninety-five." And you want to say, "Then gimme the whole fuckin' store!" You know? Because you knew his thoughts: "Snap, bop, broke, Negro, no money—deadbeat." Man don't want your business! Negro ain't got no money to pay for it! Negro going to ask for credit. Man, you'd dream it in your mind whether that's what he thought or not. If he'd done the same thing to eight white customers, it didn't matter to you. You see what I mean? So suddenly it becomes a personal vendetta with this guy. One time I walked in, taking the last 10 dollars I had, when I had nothing else to eat on, and the man tells me the price of the shirt and gives me the eye, and I said, "Well, then, give me two of them!" And I walked out with my little package, saying to myself, "Boy, I sure showed him!" Who the hell did I show? What the hell did I prove? Nothing! But, boy, what satisfaction! Except that now I didn't have nothing to eat.
Anyway, we worked, and we starved, and we kept hoping that somehow, someday, something would happen. Only it seemed like it never would. You know? And then—suddenly—pfoom! It starts to happen! And you're looking around, blinking, like you're staring at the sun. And all of a sudden it's your world. You run into stores. You say, "Hey, man! Gimme 20 of them! And eight of them! And a thousand of those!" Man—you understand? You walk around with a thousand dollars in your pocket. Like, that had been a year's salary! Nobody else can know that goddamn thrill—nobody! To be able to give a waitress a hundred-dollar tip. Nobody knows that thrill who hasn't been at the bottom of the barrel—where, as the joke goes, the rent was a dollar a month, and you was still 12 months in the 'rears—'cause you couldn't pay even that rent! So when I spend money now, I guess it's because that's how it was for so long, man. It was so hard, baby, I really couldn't tell you.
Haley: A few minutes ago you said you don't spend as much anymore as you used to. Yet you still have a reputation for extravagance. Is it unfounded?
Davis: Not entirely. I still live way beyond my means; I know that. By that I mean I'm living beyond the means that my accountants would like me to live. The difference is now I have the security of knowing my family is taken care of. My wife is taken care of so that she's in good shape if anything happened tomorrow, and so is the rest of my family. My children each have million-dollar insurance policies on me, and money in the bank besides that. And I'm paid up on my taxes. I've got my enterprises and corporations set up—legitimately. I don't want to try to gyp the government out of a goddamned dime. Including back taxes, I was $300,000 in debt when I met May. But you know something? I don't really have any regrets. I had lived good, you can believe that! 'Cause when I did it, baby, I did it. Cats see me come in a town today, cats who knew me then, and say, "Here he comes! My man! My main man!" And I tell them, "Cool it, baby, I'm not doing it anymore." The way I feel about what I blew is that it's a whole lot better to be able to say "I was there," instead of "I never was." You know? A young cat suddenly makes $20,000 a week, he doesn't know how to protect himself. He doesn't know how to move. He's vulnerable to anything, everything. But now I've been there. I've made the mistakes. I've had the love affairs; I've had the controversy. What happened was I met May, and suddenly all the rest of it ceased to be attractive.
Haley: But you said you still live beyond your means.
Davis: Well, I'm not on any austerity kick. I've worked hard, baby, and I still want to enjoy the pleasures and the luxuries of life. Nobody enjoys luxuries more than I do. I've got a limousine that costs $25,000 with all the fixtures. I sit there, I press that button, a television comes up. Ain't no other pleasure in the world like that for me. Press another button: The tape recorder plays. The bar—fix me a drink. It's right there! That's my pleasure, man! Do you understand what I mean? I enjoy opening my closet door and saying, "Oh, what suit should I wear?" So I have 20 suits too many! So I have too many tape recorders! And too many cars! I ain't hurting nobody! I didn't take a gun and stick somebody up and beat them over the head. I didn't rape nobody's daughter to get it! So I've got a lot of gold lighters; who did I hurt to get them? So I bought some gold watches at Cartier's; it gives me pleasure, is all.
Now, I wouldn't do this if it meant my family wouldn't eat, or I'd promised someone money and couldn't come up with it. I ain't taking no dope. If a lens comes out for one of my cameras, I'll buy it, and I don't care what it costs. Everybody has his shtick, that he enjoys doing, to give him personal pleasure. Mine is luxury. I love luxury! If I could wear cashmere underwear, I'd wear it. I love having my underwear made. I love having suits made, sending to Hong Kong for special-made shoes. I'm not going to cop out with "I never had it as a kid," because very few people ever had it as a kid. My point is that it's my pleasure; I love it, and I earn it, and nobody gives it to me, and nobody works any harder for his than I work for mine. That goes for a riveter on a bridge, for a ditchdigger; don't nobody work no harder than me, no matter what he works at. I'm out there sweating blood. So if I feel like having me a little Rolls-Royce, I buy one.
I used to gamble in Vegas—lost more money than I could make. Once I was 40-odd thousand dollars in debt, gambling. Blackjack, craps, anything I could get my hands on. But I don't owe it anymore. Now, I can afford to lose $10,000 at the tables in a six-week engagement in Vegas. I can't afford no more than that. The difference is my accountants would like for me not to play at all. They don't realize that $10,000 gives me some sort of adrenalin, gives me whatever psychological answers make it possible for me to earn at all that other money. See? Ain't nothing going to happen on that stage if I'm bugged mentally. I'd be in a hospital someplace.
Haley: Aside from the things you've mentioned, what do you spend your money on? Do you make any contributions to charity?
Davis: Last year I gave to various charities better than $100,000, and this year I'm going to give more. A man don't just lay around and not contribute something to the society he lives in.
Haley: How much of that amount goes to civil rights groups?
Davis: I don't know—maybe half or more. The rest goes to other causes, right across the board.
Haley: Apart from donations, what do you do for civil rights?
Davis: I give my time—a lot of my time—to benefits, personal appearances and such, as a professional entertainer. You ain't going to find nobody in show business—except for Dick Gregory—giving more of his time to civil rights than I do.
Haley: How about Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier? Do you contribute more than they do to the cause?
Davis: Nobody could contribute more than they do. I could never match them based on their commitment. But I'll match them based on mine. We're all doing whatever we can, however we can, within our abilities to do. I can go to sleep at night knowing I'm contributing all it's possible for me to do, consistent with maintaining my business, which is being out there on somebody's stage about 300 nights of the year.
Haley: Have you participated, like Gregory, Belafonte and Poitier, in many civil rights marches or demonstrations?
Davis: Yeah, I do that, too. I flew to Jackson, Mississippi, and I flew to Selma. I don't like talking about it, though, because I don't go for this "Where were you? I didn't see you in the march!" That bag that a lot of civil rights people are in. Because there are plenty of other contributions as important as marching. Like if you're privileged to be a personality, there's the responsibility of what new image of the Negro do you project when you're reaching all them mass audiences in movie theaters and on national television, and those big live audiences like I play to. The way I see it, my Broadway show fails for me, the movies I make fail for me, if they aren't presenting Negroes in an image that ain't never been seen before—an image of dignity and self-respect. Every night I do my act, I like to think I change at least a few more white people's way of thinking about Negro people. So—I give my money; I give my time. And I'm out there beating at prejudice night after night. What more have I got that I can give?
Haley: Most people would say nothing more. But you didn't start participating actively in the civil rights movement until five or six years ago. Why not?
Davis: During my years of driving myself to get somewhere in this business, and then in the kind of personal reactions I had to making it finally, I wasn't thinking about nothing but making it, and then having a ball; wasn't thinking about nothing else. I didn't give a damn about no race cause. I knew about the problems, but I just didn't care. I didn't care about nobody but me. I can't tell you the truth no more honest than that.
But then different things started to happen. Some of them had to do with me; most of them didn't, until finally I called up Harry and Sidney. I go to them when I'm bugged about something. Harry has been my friend for many years. And Sidney, I named my son after him, Mark Sidney Davis. They talked to me, and so did Ossie Davis. I was confused and angry, and maybe a little guilty.
Haley: About what?
Davis: Well, for a long time I had thought that money, fame, popularity, people asking for your autograph, that was what it was all about; but it was beginning to gnaw at me. It's like a cat that's balling every chick he can meet. Then one day he finds out, floating in this marvelous dreamworld, that having sex per se is not the be-all and end-all of existence. There comes a time when he wants something else, something more. And the fast cars, the fancy clothes, the money, the chicks, all that jazz, they're not enough anymore. It's fun and games; it's adult Monopoly. But it's not enough to justify your life, and any cat that thinks it is had better wise up before it's too late. Well, I finally did—but I didn't know where to turn. I wanted to commit myself, but I didn't know how or to what. So I talked to Harry and Sidney and Ossie, and finally I knew: I wanted to help my people. When I said to them, "OK, where do I start?" they embraced me, they were so happy. Ever since then, I've been trying to make up for what I didn't do in the past. And it's been a gas! This is a glorious time to be alive.
Haley: And to be a Negro?
Davis: Right! That's something I never felt before, that none of us ever felt before: pride in our color and in our cause. Jesus, I'm proud to be black when I can see the moves that I make and that others are making, and the opportunities that are opening up to my people. To me, that's where pride comes from—when it's possible for my people, like everybody else, to accomplish something. Ain't nobody going to feel much pride in being black as long as we let ourselves fall into all the clichÃ¨ categories they use against us: "They don't want to help themselves, they just want to sit back, and whatever we hand out, they'll take." That shows no dignity, no purpose, no nothing. Why can't we all live in a society where it becomes every man's obligation, white or black, to extend his hand, to help—to do what we know in our hearts is the right thing? I'm proud to say that I'm Honorary Mayor of Harlem. I did a lot of work up there with HarYouAct [a Harlem civil rights youth group]. And the most recent thing, a marvelous position, very dear to me: I've been made the head of the life-membership department of the NAACP. It's not something you are; it's something you do. It's the first time the job ever was held by a performer.
Haley: Honorary Mayor or not, weren't you heckled out of the pulpit in the middle of a speech for HarYouAct in a Harlem church a few years ago?
Davis: I was booed right out of the church—by black nationalist rabble-rousers shouting, "You're not for the black man!" "What about your white wife?" Well, I carry a gun, you know. They let me carry one in New York, the hardest state to get a gun permit in, because they realized that I get some kind of threat about every day of my life. I'm not a violent man, but that marvelous day, that fun afternoon, I never in my life felt so much like shooting someone. What's my wife got to do with it? I was there! I'm black!
Haley: Despite your commitment to civil rights, many Negroes seem to feel that you're trying to disavow your race and your responsibilities as a Negro by "mixing" in the white world. What's your reply?
Davis: Baby, the best answer I can give you is the background of all this. Everything rotten about me that's said around, or that's been in the press, was started by a Negro photographer. You remember that picture of me and Ava Gardner that was in Confidential? I was playing the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Ava was in New York publicizing The Barefoot Contessa. She did me a favor to come up to the Apollo and let me introduce her. William B. Williams was escorting her, and a guy from United Artists. Well, the four of us had one quick drink after the show, then later on at her hotel suite, two photographers took a cover shot of Ava and me for Our World interviews, with me in a Santa Claus suit. Then, when I got out of the costume, one photographer shot some pictures of me and Ava together, with the United Artists guy standing right with us. I told the photographer to give me the film, but he said he'd develop it for me. I told him to be very careful, because in the wrong hands the shots could make trouble for Ava. I felt embarrassed even saying that to another Negro, knowing he'd understand. Well, next thing I knew, that picture came out on the cover of Confidential, the United Artists guy cropped out of it entirely; and it had the headline blurb, "What Makes Ava Gardner Run for Sammy Davis Jr. cheek-to-cheeking it in her 16th floor suite at New York's Drake Hotel?" And in the story, the one quick drink the four of us had had together became, "Ava sat glassy-eyed through a gay tour of Harlem with Sammy" and quotes Ava had made about my performance on the Apollo stage—"exciting, thrilling, masculine"—were slanted to make them sound like she meant in bed.
That's what really started my troubles, black and white, all over the country. Eating me up! I don't care what I did, it was wrong. That "Sammy Davis Jr. thinks he's white" bit. I'd take out beautiful Negro girls, like an old friend of mine, Ruth King, a top model, and the columns would have something like "The Negro girl with Sammy was only a cover-up for the white woman who was really his date." You know? In fact, I sometimes use a line in my act that I got from what I used to really feel during that time. I say, "I buy Ebony, Jet, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender because I can't wait to find out what I'm doing."
One day I'll be proud when I can see my kids not having to bear a stigma for being the children of an interracial marriage, not having to struggle for the rights that every white American takes for granted, and that'll make it all worth while. But in the meantime, it's a pain in the ass sometimes to be Sammy Davis Jr., because I just can't make a right move racewise. My mother was born in San Juan, you know; her name was Elvera Sanchez. So I'm Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored and married to a white woman. When I move into a neighborhood, people start running four ways at the same time. It defies explanation, what it's like. No matter what you do, no matter where you go, you ain't right, even with your own people. It used to be I'd go uptown to Harlem, and all I could feel around me was arms. I could take my wife; it'd be beautiful. It was just downtown I'd get the hissing sounds. Now, uptown, too. The color don't make no difference. Every day becomes a challenge, to keep yourself level, to keep yourself from becoming embittered. Mind you, I'm proud to be black, but I don't want my blackness to be a burden to me. I don't want to have to wake up every morning saying to myself, "What can I do today to prove to white people that I don't fit the racial stereotype? And at the same time, what can I do to prove to my black brothers and sisters that I'm black, and I love them, and I'll help any way I can?" This is what certain groups indicate they want to make you do. It's unfair.
Haley: Have you ever wished that you weren't a Negro?
Davis: Well, not professionally, anyway. Earlier in my life—despite all the barriers—it proved advantageous to be a Negro, because they hadn't ever seen a Negro doing impressions of whites, and all that jazz. I've never wished, or felt, that I'd be making it better in show business if I were white. That's been written about me, but it's not true. On a personal level, though, maybe I really have at least subconsciously wished, like probably every other Negro, that there was some way I just wouldn't have to go through all of it, you know? Because it's all based purely upon the pigmentation of your skin, or the way your hair is. You might be the next Nobel Prize winner, but it don't matter: "If you're black, get back." You'd just like to look like everybody else so that people wouldn't automatically start hating you a block away. White cat sees you walking down the street, maybe from across the street, and he never saw you before in his life, and he's not even close enough to distinguish anything about you except that you're not his color—and just for that, right there, snap, bop, bap, he hates you! That's the injustice of it, that's what makes you cry out inside, sometimes, "Damn, I wish I wasn't black!"
Haley: Some say that's why you wear your hair straight.
Davis: Well, years ago that might have been so, but the only reason I leave it this way is because it's become part of my image. A show-business personality, if he's created a successful image of one kind or another, has to keep that image. Like, I don't want to see Cab Calloway with a crewcut: He's a great performer, but at this late date he'd look pretty silly with kinky hair, and so would I. Am I supposed to cut it short and let it grow in natural just to prove I'm proud to be black? Even if I did, the Negroes who don't like me would find something else to knock me for.
I don't care whatever move I make, some of my own people won't like it. Maybe they'll like me when I die. But I can't die like normal: I got to be shot by some sheriff in Mississippi. Like Dick Gregory got shot at Watts. Shoot me—bam! Then they'll say, "I guess he really was on our side." I don't understand it. I would voluntarily die to have my own people love me as much as they love some of those goddamn phonies they think are doing so much fighting for civil rights! To me, the obligation of being a Negro is to carry the banner of being proud to be a Negro and helping in the areas you can best help in. In terms of the civil rights fighting front, if we're all picketing at Selma, or wherever else the particular locale is this month, then who's left to help put Negroes into motion pictures? Who puts the Negro into mainstream television? I've put dozens of Negro cats to work! I'm not bragging, but that's got to be recognized, too. We're all in the same battle; I'm just fighting it on another front.
Haley: A moment ago, without naming any names, you referred to some civil rights leaders as "goddamn phonies." Would you care to tell us who they are?
Davis: I'd rather not.
Haley: Well, do you number Martin Luther King among them?
Davis: I would give him my good eye. That's what I think of Dr. King. He's one of the great men of our time. They should retire the Nobel Peace Prize with his name on it.
Haley: Despite his Peace Prize and his continuing dedication to nonviolence, Dr. King has been accused—most recently during last summer's Chicago riots—of fomenting violence. Do you think there's any substance in that charge?
Davis: Those who make such charges don't seem to realize that the Negro public's abiding faith in Dr. King's unflinching commitment to nonviolence—in the face of a rising tide of white violence against him and other Negro marchers—is just about the only thing that's kept the lid from blowing off the racial pressure cooker. Without his counsel of patience and brotherhood, the nonviolent Negro revolt could easily escalate into a bloody revolution.
Haley: Among those advocating a revolutionary course are a number of racist groups dedicated to "getting Whitey" and sabotaging "the white power structure." How do you feel about their philosophy?
Davis: They're living in a dream world. They think they're going to "get Whitey" and take over the country. Well, I got news for them: They ain't going to get nobody or take over nothing! 'Cause whenever they get ready, right there is going to be the end of it. The Man will just open one eye and swat them like a gnat, and that will be that. They ain't made no razor yet that will stop an atomic bomb. You know what them cats should do that are so mad? Go down to Mississippi and kill them cats that killed them three civil rights workers. Everybody knows who did it. Find out who bombed that church in Alabama: Wipe them out. If you want to deal in justifiable violence, why kill the man who's trying to learn the right road to walk? Destroy the guy who has already proven to be your enemy. You know who it was that murdered Mrs. Liuzzo down in Alabama; they're out walking around. Go down there and wipe them out, you're so brave. When they bomb your church, bomb their church! 'Cause then that would prove, as it was proved in Africa, "Ten blacks may be killed for every white you kill, but you'll cause such an upheaval that every eye in the world will turn toward Africa. And the world will look and say, 'The sleeping giant is awakening.'
Haley: Are you serious about bombing white churches? Would two wrongs make a right? What if innocent children were killed, as they were in the Negro church bombing?
Davis: Of course, you're right. I don't mean, literally bomb churches. I wouldn't literally bomb where even the most violent segregationists worship. Not for the segregationists as much as for the meaning of the institution. What I really mean is take care of the bombers themselves. I'm saying that if these extremist cats want to get Whitey, let them go take care of all those known murderers, the bombers and the others, who are walking around free because segregationist juries wouldn't convict.
Haley: If they haven't been convicted in a court of law, how can you be sure they're guilty?
Davis: In practically every case I mentioned, the evidence was airtight; their guilt was established by the prosecution beyond a shadow of a doubt. The segregationist juries simply chose to ignore it.
Haley: Then you'd feel justified in taking the law into your own hands?
Davis: Yes—just as long as the law permits whites to kill Negroes, or "white Negro" civil rights workers, and get away with it. I'm for any kind of protest—including retaliatory violence against known killers who get off—as long as Negroes are denied the full rights that any other American enjoys.
Haley: Wouldn't such acts of vengeance—even if the victims were guilty—set back the Negro cause by alienating millions of whites, as well as Negroes, who deplore all lawless violence?
Davis: I imagine millions of whites would be alienated, the same way millions of Negroes were alienated when their church was bombed and their kids were blown to bits. I never will get out of my mind that famous Time cover showing that stained-glass face of Jesus shattered by the bomb that killed those little Negro girls sitting there in Sunday school hearing about peace on earth. That sticks in millions of Negroes' minds—same as that other famous picture printed around the world, of that Alabama white cop's heel on that Negro woman's neck. You see, baby, too many people don't want to face the terrible truth that violence begets violence. American Negroes have been on the receiving end of white violence for over 300 years; it would be a grievous error for anybody not to recognize that, if he wants to understand what's happening—and the consequences of doing nothing about it. Unless white society acts to end that violence by punishing those who commit it, Negroes may run out of patience and take care of the job themselves. And because violence begets more violence, it could spark a bloodbath in which the innocent on both sides would suffer along with the guilty. I'm not applauding it; I dread it. But I'm afraid that's what may happen if something isn't done—soon, and once and for all.
Haley: Are you predicting more riots like the one in Watts?
Davis: I'm predicting riots that would make Watts look like a Sunday-school picnic—unless we get to work fixing what causes them. And you won't do that by blaming everything, like the FBI does, on black revolutionaries and Communist troublemakers. They don't start the fire; they just fan the flames. Put them all in jail, you'll still have riots. But the fact that riots are unplanned don't mean they're nothing but isolated outbursts of spontaneous hooliganism. Riots are simply violent manifestations of what Martin Luther King is protesting nonviolently, of what every black man in America is protesting, one way or another: the fact that our race has wrongly been denied that which is enjoyed and taken for granted by every other American. Rioters are people who have no stake in their country, no stake in their city, no stake in their homes, no stake even in their own survival. How much worse could death be than what they have to live with—and for? They feel they have nothing to lose—and they're probably right.
Haley: Do you feel that enough is being done in Negro ghettos such as Watts, Harlem and Chicago's South Side to eliminate the conditions that breed riots?
Davis: Baby, you got to be putting me on! They ain't even scratched the surface in any of those places. You know what always seems to happen after every riot? Immediately, committees are formed to find out why it happened, and they investigate, and they study, and finally they turn in a fat, reassuring report—full of all the standard sociological platitudes—recommending further study and investigation and urging "better understanding between the white and black communities." The concrete results, if any, are way-out things like a new pocket park just about big enough to pitch pennies in, a front-page rat-extermination drive in one block where a baby was last bitten, a ceremonial street-cleaning campaign presided over by the mayor, and if we're really lucky, maybe a biracial civilian review board empowered to investigate police brutality and "make recommendations" for reform and discipline. Is it any wonder, when the next summer rolls around, that there's another riot? You can't bail out a sinking ship with a teaspoon.
You want to end riots? Fumigate their breeding grounds: Wipe out the black ghetto and the slums. It's a chain of cause and effect: Give the Negro the same chance whites have to get a decent education, so that he can qualify for a decent job, so that he can live in a decent home, so that he can lead a decent, self-respecting life—so that he can live in dignity as a human being, side by side with his white brothers.
Haley: Many whites, particularly in Northern suburbs adjoining newly integrated neighborhoods, regard the Negro drive for equality of opportunity as a threat to their homes and jobs. Do you think there's any justification for that feeling?
Davis: Negroes don't want to take away nothing that belongs to white folks. White folks ain't giving up their own rights by giving the Negro his. There's enough human rights for everybody; don't need to fight over them. But you know, the real gut reason whites are afraid of us isn't a matter of job security and property values. It's because we're not the same color. Anything that's different they don't understand, and anything they don't understand they fear—and anything they fear they hate. Well, they're just going to have to get used to the idea of having us around as equal partners in this society. We share the same land, just as we share the same aspirations. We're stuck with each other, baby, so let's make the best of it. You accept our faults, we'll accept yours, and let bygones be bygones. 'Cause if we don't learn how to live together, we're sure as hell going to die together.
Haley: How do you mean?
Davis: The Negro's destiny in America is America's destiny as a democracy. Malcolm X said it: "As the black man walks, so shall all men walk." Well, if the Negro falls, American democracy will fall, because all of the things it stands for will have been betrayed. But I don't think that's going to happen. It may sound hopelessly idealistic and unattainable, when you look around at all of the worsening racial strife we're confronted with today, but I honestly believe that the day is coming when the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizen's Council will be relegated to the history books along with CORE and SNCC, when there'll be cobwebs not only on racist hate literature but on these NAACP life-membership cards that I try to get just about everybody I meet to sign up for. I may not be here to see it happen—even if I live to be 80—but I think my kids will be around to witness the birth of a truly color-blind society.
Haley: As you know, extremist groups such as the Black Muslims share the view of the K.K.K. that American whites and Negroes will never be able to live together in peace and should therefore acknowledge the inevitability of racial separation. How do you feel about it?
Davis: I feel that the vast majority of Americans, white and black, want to get along with one another, and they're willing to do whatever they have to do to iron out their differences. That's what this country is all about. I think all those cats who don't believe in that, who don't think it'll work and don't want to try, who preach racial hatred and want to separate black and white, they should get the hell out of America and go to some desert island and live among their own sick kind. We don't need them.
It may sound hokey as hell, but I love my country. It's no paradise, God knows—and it never will be, color-blind or not—but it's my country, like the man said, right or wrong. If you're outraged by its racial injustices—and you ought to be—then fight to do something about them; don't be a defeatist and a dropout. If you don't like its foreign policy, then bitch about it as loud as you like, 'cause that's your privilege as a citizen; but don't put down the country that allows you that right.
Haley: You sound like a patriot.
Davis: Maybe so. I'm a nut, I guess. I love America. It's given me opportunities that no other country in the world could've given me. If I had to go and fight, and lose my good eye, or die for this country, I would. Because there's no country better. I've traveled the world, and there ain't no place God ever created like America. Even with all the troubles we've still got to solve, if a guy doesn't want to let me into a hotel here, if I make enough money, I can buy the joint.
Haley: As a major star, Sammy, you're not likely to be turned away by many hotels anymore, even in the South. In fact, you might be offered the red-carpet treatment at a hotel that refused patronage to other Negroes.
Davis: If I was, I'd tell them what they could do with the carpet. It's not any big, banner-waving thing with me; I just don't want to stay anyplace my people can't, and I don't care if they roll out an ermine carpet.
Haley: Would you refuse, for the same reason, to perform in a white-only club?
Davis: Absolutely. I'd never even consider it. Even when I was poor and hungry, I didn't do it.
Haley: In those early days with the Trio, were there many clubs that wouldn't book you because you were a Negro act?
Davis: I lost count of them. For years I remember telling Will and my dad that eventually we'd be able to make our way into clubs that had never booked Negro talent, if only we got good enough and pushed hard enough. But they kept telling me, "You can't. White folks ain't gonna let you get but so far." I been hearing that all my life. But I kept insisting, "Yes I can!"—say, there's a good title for a book—and I kept believing that somehow, someday we'd be able to break down the wall of prejudice that was blocking us. Well, we finally did; but the battle still isn't won, because there are big clubs today—two of the biggest right in Las Vegas—that still won't book no Negroes on the stage; don't even want to see your black face inside the nightclub, star or no. And there are other clubs that wouldn't touch me with a 10-foot pole if I wasn't having the luck to be hot and swinging now and people weren't lining up to see me.
Haley: On the whole, though, wouldn't you say that the opportunities open to the Negro performer today are considerably wider than when you were starting out?
Davis: Much wider, overall, and getting wider every year—in clubs, movies, television, theater, everywhere. But we're still on a trial basis, in terms of both the onstage and offstage attitude. They're still watching us. I know certain clubs that will book only Negroes who "behave themselves." That's such a marvelous line—"if they behave themselves." How about the drunken, loudmouthed big-time Charlies in the audience? How about their behavior? I'm not knocking them for it, as long as they don't mess up my act. My point is that we're not allowed the luxury of getting as drunk as others can, the luxury of being as loud as others can get.
It wasn't long ago that you could make $20,000 a week in Las Vegas, but you couldn't live in a hotel on the Strip. I worked at one of them—packed in the people, could have rented a whole floor of the hotel with what I was making—and I wasn't allowed to go into the main room. You had to have your dinner served in your dressing room; and if you got a room to stay in, it was in the back. And you stayed there, you cooled it—no relationship with any of the people. It's not quite that bad anymore. But now there's kind of a gentleman's agreement going on. "Hey, baby, we love you, but do us a favor and stay in your suite as much as you can between shows, OK? It's nothing personal, you understand. It's the customers; we get a lot of them from the South." It's never "us" it's always "them." At least they're ashamed of it now. That's some kind of progress. But we still got a long way to go.
Haley: Do you think Negro entertainers have reached the point where they can succeed—or fail—on the strength of their talent alone?
Davis: Yes—most of the time. Only we're expected to have more than whites if we're going to make it—and I don't mean make it big; I mean just get by. Let's face it: Every Negro jazz group ain't Louis Jordan in his heyday; every Negro band's not Count Basie; every Negro singer ain't Nat Cole. We've got, proportionately, just as many bad bands and bad performers as the whites could ever boast of. Some of the saddest acts I've ever seen were colored—sad as McKinley's funeral, man. My point is that just as we've earned the right to be judged on our merits as entertainers, we've earned not only the right to stardom but the right to mediocrity, the right to be adequate, OK, unsensational—and still make a living in this business. At this point, though, Negro performers aren't allowed that luxury; if they're going to make the grade, they've got to have something going for them besides their good looks or their sex appeal.
Haley: Shouldn't they?
Davis: Of course they should—but whites should have to meet the same requirements. And that brings up something else that bugs me about show business today. Young performers, black and white, are getting caught up in the overnight-star syndrome. Some electronically augmented rock 'n' roll group makes it big with one hit record, and audiences go flocking to see them; yet they'll ignore 17 highly talented, maybe more talented performers who've been around for years refining their talent, getting better and better, turning out one great song after another—only nobody's listening! Somebody like Damita Jo. Marvelous! One of the best voices in the business. Well, one night I went to catch her singing, and you could have shot deer in the place! There's no justice in it.
The kids breaking in today have plenty of ambition, and some of them even have talent, but they don't want to pay their dues; they don't want to earn their success. They're not interested in becoming pros—just stars. And they don't seem to have whatever it is that turned my motor on. You know, the all-consuming, almost disastrous desire to make it. I remember going into penny arcades and dropping a quarter into those Record Your Own Voice machines. I'd sing like Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong; I'd speak like Edward G. Robinson; I'd sing in my own voice; then I'd play the records over and over at home. And talk about envy: I'd go to the show at the Roxy and the Paramount, and all I could think about was, "Why ain't that me up there?" I'd go back home and dance before a mirror, copy a cat. And I wasn't afraid to ask for help. I'd go to Larry Storch and say, "Teach me how to do Jimmy Cagney, Cary Grant. I want to learn." And he taught me. Same with Mel Torme, who taught me how to handle guns—which I've made a standard part of my act. Even when I had started making it, I was still asking, still listening, still watching, still learning, experimenting, accumulating, practicing, polishing. I learned, in time, something a lot of your young performers today don't appreciate, really—the importance of every single thing you do on that stage. Every gesture, every inflection, every tiny thing the audience sees, hears and senses about you makes a positive or a negative impression. Each one alone may seem insignificant, but cumulatively, they can make the difference between a good act and a great one.
Haley: Other than your father and Will Mastin, who would you say has contributed the most to your success as a performer?
Davis: Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney and Jerry Lewis—in terms of guys who really went out of their way, who did tangible things, who stood up and were counted where it needed to be done.
Haley: You named Sinatra first. Why?
Davis: It would embarrass Frank if I told even half of the reasons why. I first met him in 1941 when he was singing with Tommy Dorsey in Detroit, when he was in his 20s. He just walked over, matter-of-factly, to Will, my dad and me, and stuck out his hand and introduced himself. That might sound like nothing much, but the average top vocalist in those days wouldn't give the time of day to a Negro supporting act. But every night, for the rest of that engagement, Frank would sit down on the dressing room stairs with me, and we'd talk show business.
After that, every chance I could, I'd show up at his radio shows. He'd see me in the autograph line and invite me to his dressing room. I'm talking about when he was big, and I was a nobody. Then, months later, out of the blue, we were playing Portland when a wire came for us to open in the Capitol Theater in New York with the Frank Sinatra Show—and at $1250 per week! For us then, that wasn't just great money—it was incredible. Later I found out that Frank had insisted the management find us and book us with him. Introducing us to the audience, he'd say, "We've got three swinging cats here. Keep your eye on the little one in the middle; he's my boy!" After that show, Frank heard me do my impressions in his dressing room and gave me hell that I hadn't used them in the show. And he insisted that I needed to sing straight, using my own voice. I took his advice—and it seems to have paid off pretty good.
I guess a dozen times over the next several years, every contact I had with Frank, he went out of his way to do something for me, to help me up. That's the kind of guy he is: a sweet, outgoing, bighearted soft touch who'll do anything—literally anything—to help a friend. I don't know how many times—and he wouldn't want it known if I did—he has quietly picked up the tab for some friend in the hospital, or some other tight spot. But you don't hear many of these stories, and that's part of the reason Frank's such a misunderstood man. You don't hear about the real Sinatra, the father and the friend; you only hear about the legendary Sinatra, the swinger, the idol, the king, with guys supposedly standing around biting their nails to please him. You don't hear about what a kind, gentle guy he is; you hear about how he's supposed to be so rude to people. I can say, honest to God, I've never seen him say or do anything rude to anybody. If there are people asking for his autograph—and there always are—he signs, he's kind, he's courteous. Yet still he gets that bum rap. I've seen him order away guys trying to protect him from the autograph hounds and say, "Wait a minute, these are the people who make my career for me. Yes, of course, darling, it will be my pleasure." He ain't got to take no rudeness, though. He don't sit still for no stranger, drunk or not, coming up to him with a big "Hey, Frankie!" and a playful punch on the shoulder.
Haley: With Sinatra's help, you were just beginning to make it really big when you had the accident that cost you your eye. How did it happen?
Davis: I was driving from Vegas to Los Angeles to do the sound track for Six Bridges to Cross. In Vegas, our act was playing the New Frontier—$7500 a week, the most we'd ever made—and to celebrate, my dad and Will had just given me my first Cadillac convertible. Charley Head, my valet, was with me. He'd been driving, then I'd taken over. We were keeping her under 50 that first 500 miles, taking it easy; I wanted to break her in nice, you know? When I took over the wheel, I remember I turned on the radio, and I heard myself singing Hey, There. Talk about a gas feeling, man! Then up ahead after a while was this green car—women in it; I could see their hats. The driver was pulling left, then right, then she'd straddle the lanes. I didn't dig what was happening with her for sure, so I stayed to the far right. Then suddenly she started into this wide U-turn—and stopped broadside across both lanes. No room for me to go right. My only move was to try swinging around her into the oncoming lane. Started around, saw cars coming at me, hit my brakes, cut hard right—but I knew I couldn't stop in time to miss her. I cut for her rear fender, trying to miss a broadside where the passengers were. Then, this crash! Never will forget that sound; you don't know what it's like unless you've been in a car crash. I saw her car spinning around, and then my forehead hit the steering wheel.
Man, the pain! But I saw my hand moving, so I knew I was still alive. Blood was running down my face. Charley was in the back seat moaning. I opened the door and got out to help him. I saw his jaw hanging all loose, blood running from his mouth. I had just gotten my arm around him, trying to help him out, when he looked up at my face, and he made this gargling sound. I reached up, feeling with my hand—and man, there was my eye, hanging by a string! I was trying to stuff it back in when I started sagging down, blacking out. I was on the ground praying. After all them hard years, our act was just starting to get somewhere. "God, please don't let me go blind. God, please don't take it all away now." And I heard a siren, and felt some movement; kept hearing the siren, and knew I was in an ambulance.
When I came to, I was in the hospital, and this doctor was standing beside my bed telling me very calmly that he'd removed my left eye. How do you take that news, baby? In that bed, my head wrapped up like a mummy, everything dark, I did a whole lot of thinking. I might have gone off the deep end if it hadn't been for that public. Stacks of letters! Thousands of them! So many flowers the florists ran out; couldn't even get them all in the hallway! The nurses were reading names off letters, and flowers, and Bibles, and all kinds of things—from everybody I ever knew in show business and out, and people I never heard of, white and black, all over America, even the deepest South. People sending me their prayers and best wishes. Man, that's one of the reasons you can't tell me the different races have to hate each other; I've seen too much of the good in people, white and black.
Then, finally, came the day when the doctor took off the bandages. When I saw the first gleam of light, baby, I was ready to jump up shouting! And then I saw the doctor and the nurse and my dad and Will Mastin all standing there at the foot of the bed, and I knew I wasn't finished. I had another chance.
Haley: Did you have much difficulty adjusting to monocular vision?
Davis: It wasn't easy. For a while, right after the hospital, I'd reach for something and miss it by two, three inches. And the first time I tried dancing again, I kept kicking myself in the other leg and tripping. I knew I'd have to learn how to dance all over again. Wasn't nobody going to be saying, "He's nearly as good as before." I had to be better! But everything's pretty straight now. I'm still aware that I'm seeing with one eye; things look flatter to me than they do to you, and I've got a blind side that I have to keep aware of. But with this one eye, I see more now than you would if you closed one of your two good eyes. My field of vision has expanded to make up for the missing eye, like a wide-angle lens.
Haley: For a year or so after the accident, you wore a black eye patch. What made you decide to take it off?
Davis: Humphrey Bogart convinced me to quit that. He asked me, "How long you gonna trade on that goddamn patch? How long are you gonna keep using it for a crutch? You want people calling you Sammy Davis or 'the kid with the eye patch'?" Well, you know, I'd had myself figured with a glamorous trademark, but what Bogart said kept on bugging me—especially knowing he was right—until one night in Vegas I took it off and threw the goddamn thing away. I don't need no pity, and I got nothing to hide.
Haley: It wasn't long after the accident that you converted to Judaism. Did one have anything to do with the other?
Davis: In a strange way, yes. After one show I did with Eddie Cantor, he saw me looking at his mezuzah—that's a holy Hebrew charm for good luck, health and happiness—and he insisted on giving it to me. He told me that his religion had the basic belief that every man should have freedom to face God in his own way. Well, I wore that charm around my neck all the time from then on—until that day in my car, just before the accident, I missed it; I had left it in my hotel suite. If I had followed my impulse to go back and get it, I'd have both my eyes today—but I didn't.
Anyway, when the bandages were removed after my operation, I noticed a clear outline of the Star of David cut into the palm of my right hand. Then I remembered Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh walking alongside me as I was being wheeled to the operating room, and Janet pressing something into my hand, saying, "Hold tight, and pray, and everything will be all right." And I had clutched what she gave me so hard that it had cut into my flesh. It was kind of like a stigmata; it shook me.
Then one Christmas I read a history of the Jews, and it astonished me to see the affinity between Jews and the Negroes: their oppressions, their enslavements—despised, rejected, searching for a home, for equality and human dignity. For thousands of years, they had held onto their belief in themselves and in their right to a place in the sun. It got to me so much that I visited a rabbi, who gave me books to read. There were already a lot of Negroes converted to Judaism, but my talking about converting worried the rabbi, because it could so easily be taken by people as a publicity stunt. He insisted that I not rush into it just because I was filled up with what I'd read about Judaism. He told me that neither he nor anyone else could make me a Jew, that only I could do it.
Anyway, around this time, I was getting into deeper and deeper trouble—debts piling up into the hundreds of thousands; my performances weren't what they should have been, and all my high-lifing, until finally I tried suicide, as you know. I tried to race my car over a cliff, but right at the edge the drive shaft hit a rock and snapped, and the rear half of it jammed into the ground and held the car right there at the edge like an anchor. God had his arms around me. The hardest thinking session I've ever had was after that—until finally I said to God, as a Jew: "Here I am."
Haley: Do you observe all the rituals and holy days of your new faith?
Davis: Well, in those orthodox terms, I couldn't rate myself the best Jew; but I'm certainly not the worst one, either. If it's possible, I'd say today I feel even more committed than when I converted. It took me a long time to really learn the truth about commitment, but finally I have, and it's one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me.
Haley: It was only a few months after your much-publicized conversion that your name hit the headlines again, this time linking you romantically with Kim Novak. Were they true?
Davis: Yeah, they were—but, ironically, not until after the first stories appeared about us, and maybe, in a sense, because of them. It all started so innocently. Tony Curtis asked me over to his house one night for a drink. He was having some people in. Kim Novak was there, and we were introduced. I doubt we exchanged 20 words. She was just one of the group. Well, the next day one of the columns carried an item: "Kim Novak's new sepia love interest will make her studio bosses turn lavender." I called Kim. She knew I'd had nothing to do with the item. She said, "Come on over and let's talk about it." She was cooking spaghetti and meatballs. I went over. She said her studio had called, wanting to know if she'd seen me, and when she said yes, they wanted to know how many times. When? Where? What was going on between us? It would have to stop! Well, like me, Kim just naturally rebelled against anybody making rules for her. And so we became conspirators, drawn together by defiance.
Well, from that point on, the press columns took it and ran. I mean, they made sure everybody found out about it—and they added a few trimmings of their own. Everybody I knew started advising me; and everybody she knew was telling her, "Don't wreck your career!" The scandal columns were running items that I'd been warned by Chicago gangsters if I ever saw "that blonde" again, both my legs would be broken and torn off at the knee. And the Negro press started riding me harder than ever. Stuff like: "Sammy Davis Jr., once a pride to all Negroes, has become a never-ending source of embarrassment. Mr. Davis has never been particularly race-conscious, but his recent scandal displays him as inexcusably unconscious of his responsibility as a Negro." That kind of thing.
Meanwhile, I rented a beach house at Malibu so we could meet secretly, and I had a guy drive me there incognito, like in the spy stories. The press was so hot on it, we didn't know if they wouldn't have movie cameras hidden on the road, so I got to hiding on the car floor while we drove there. Well, one night down on that car floor, it hit me in the face: What the hell was I doing there, sneaking around in the middle of the night? I was just confirming what they were saying: "You're not good enough to be seen with a white woman." I got up off the floor, told the driver to turn around, and that was that—the end of it. I never saw her again. If only I'd known my heart troubles were just beginning.
Haley: You mean your first marriage?
Davis: If you want to call it that.
Haley: Why didn't it work out?
Davis: It was doomed from the start. You got to understand the shape I was in. Deep in debt, from all my high-lifing. Tax problems. Losing my eye. Then this Kim Novak thing down around my neck. For the first time in my life, I started drinking the hard stuff. I felt like a man being pulled down into quicksand, with mosquitoes buzzing around his head. I was taping my TV shows, and they were hollow. Then one night, after a show at the Sands, I got drunk in the lounge, then got in my car and drove over to the Silver Slipper. The show was letting out when I saw Loray White—a Negro girl, one of the dancers. Once we'd had a little thing going. We'd broken up when she couldn't play it for laughs. Well, I took another look at beautiful Loray, and the thought occurred to me that if I had a Negro wife, maybe the papers would get off my back. I was drunk, I proposed, and Loray accepted on the spot. It was unreal. Drunk, I pulled her up to the bandstand and I announced our engagement. The club's press agent brought a photographer. It was done. By morning, it was all over America. I wake up, my head's splitting, it's on the radio, front-paged in Vegas, long-distance calls from all over, telegrams pouring in. What had I done? But what could I do? All my career needed now—all Loray needed—was for me to back down.
Next time I saw her, she said, "You don't have to marry me, Sammy." "Yes, I do," I told her, and I explained why. She said OK. So we got married, and afterward there was a party in a West Side saloon. I drank like a fish. Finally we left in my car, a buddy of mine driving us. Well, something snapped inside me, and the next thing I know I've got my hands around Loray's neck trying to choke her—as if it was all her fault. When I realized what I was doing, I must have, like, gone into shock, 'cause my buddy had to carry me into the hotel, like a baby, up to the bridal suite. Loray was in hysterics; even he was crying. Man, it was a mess. Well, every paper in the country smelled it was phony, and all kinds of rumors started. I began to draw bigger crowds than ever—but for the wrong reasons. To the public, I wasn't a performer anymore; I was a geek, a side show. I was close to the bottom, professionally and emotionally. Well, of course, Loray and I got divorced. It's not a pretty story. I'm not proud of it.
Haley: Two years later you met May Britt in Hollywood, and three months after that you announced your engagement, precipitating a storm of protest and hate mail from whites and Negroes throughout the country. Did you expect that kind of reaction?
Davis: Well, I didn't think it would win me any popularity contests, but I didn't expect such a flood of venom. As long as I've lived with prejudice. I'm incredulous every time it hits me in the face—and this time it just floored me. Threats. Obscenities. Ravings. I've never seen anything as sick, as vitriolic as some of the letters I received. Things like: "Dear Nigger Bastard, I see Frank Sinatra is going to be the best man at your abortion. Well, it's good to know the kind of people supporting Kennedy before it's too late." When I played the Geary Theater in San Francisco that month, there were threats to bomb it, and letters, including one with a bullet drawn on it and the heartwarming message: "Guess when I'm going to shoot you during your show?" Man, how would you like to perform, wondering which burst of audience applause will help to cover the sound of a gunshot? When I played the Lotus Club in Washington, the Nazis were picketing me—carrying signs like "Go back to the Congo, you kosher coon." And a black dog wearing a swastika, with a sign on his back, "I'm black, too, Sammy, but I'm not a Jew." It makes you ashamed that a country like America has to be tainted with people like these. But when I walked on stage in the club, the audience in a body stood up, calling to me, "The hell with 'em, Sammy. We're with you." The world is 98 percent filled with nice people, see? It's only the other two percent who are idiots.
Haley: As you know, there was a wide-spread feeling among both whites and Negroes that you were marrying May in order to gain status in white society.
Davis: Yeah, I know. It's a sad commentary that so many people's minds would jump to that conclusion about me. Even if they think I'm low enough to do something like that, they should give me credit for not being stupid. If I had been thinking about improving my status in the white world, baby, the last thing I'd do is marry a white girl. Don't take no genius to figure that out. I stood to lose whatever status I had, not gain. I got a sneak preview of that right after we announced our engagement: Friends started dropping off rapidly, both hers and mine, and suddenly they were nowhere to be found—and we're not looking for them. That's why I feel bound by hoops of steel to those who proved tried and true when the chips were down, who were risking a lot themselves, in the convictions they exhibited. You know? Like Frank—standing up with me, being my best man. Pat Kennedy, coming to my party, and Peter Lawford, then the President's brother-in-law, and others that I haven't mentioned. They knew, and they risked a lot to prove their friendship.
For the information of those who may not have been able to figure out yet why I did marry May—despite everything we knew we were letting ourselves in for—it was love, sweet love, baby. How corny can you get, right? Well, I didn't care whether she was white, black, blue, green or polka dot—I loved her. And, miracle of miracles, she loved me. It was as simple as that. Well, maybe not quite that simple, because I kept asking myself why I loved her; I had to know, because it had to be for the right reasons. Well, I mulled it over a lot, and finally I realized it was because May, as my wife, in just being the kind of human being she is, would help me to make a better human being of myself; and that's just the way it's turned out. I'm not a new man or anything, but gradually, and in some ways rapidly, I'm getting to be a better person. She understands my drives, my needs, my frustrations, and she bends to them. She has been patient enough to let me develop in my own time and in my own way. And our love has been deepened and broadened by the things that we've had to face and to fight together—and I don't mean just the special problems of an interracial marriage.
Haley: How have you faced the problem of adjusting your marriage to the demands of your work schedule? In the two weeks we've been following you around, you haven't had time even for a visit with your wife and children—except on the phone—let alone for a night at home. Certainly that's not a satisfactory arrangement.
Davis: Of course not. Even though May joins me on the road during the longer engagements, we're not together nearly enough, and I don't spend as much time at home as I wish I could. But at this point I've got no choice—and this is another area of her understanding. After the debts I piled up before my marriage, this is the first year I've been on my own financially. She understands that I need about two more years of this kind of working before I can afford to stay home more.
Haley: You've already collapsed once because of the pace. How much longer do you think you can keep it up?
Davis: God willing, as long as I have to. I was told two years ago in this very room that I'd never sing again, that there were nodes at the bottom of my throat, and three specialists were going to strip my vocal cords, they were in such terrible shape from overwork. But I stuck by my guns, and I'm still singing today. So I think I'll be able to hold out long enough to get where I want to go professionally.
Haley: Where do you want to go?
Davis: I'd like to work my way up to the class of the Duke, or Durante; they're so well established it doesn't matter whether they've got a show on or a movie running. They're liked, they're accepted, they're respected. But when you've devoted as many years to show business as I have, you know that it could all evaporate overnight, no matter how big you are. Things are really swinging for me now, but I can't help thinking that I might wake up some morning and find myself out of vogue, kaput, the way Frank did when the bobby-sox craze died out. He made a comeback; but I might not be so lucky.
You know what else haunts me? The thought of dying before I finish what I have to do. Like a few weeks ago: I'm in a plane, and Murphy is sitting next to me, and things have been going tremendously, and suddenly this cold feeling comes over me and I say to Murphy, "I'm going to die, because things are going too well. I'm going to die and I'll never finish it." If I can legitimately make the mark that I want to make as a human being and a performer, I'll be willing to go then. But I'm still hungry. I need more time. I need at least another good 10 years in the business to try and create what I want to create.
Haley: And what's that?
Davis: I want two kinds of success: One, I want to build—for myself and my family—an organization of enterprises and investments such as has made millionaires of some of my close friends. Like Frank. And to make all my own decisions. Frank don't let nobody tell him what to do. The other kind of success I want is as a human being. That don't have nothing to do with making money. Some friends I've got—visit their house, they ain't got this, ain't got that, have to borrow dishes, all that jazz, but I got to envy how successful they are as human beings. Before I die, I want to be able to know that I gave my full share of the blood, sweat and tears that millions of both white and black people have got to give to win freedom for their kids and mine. Whenever death comes, I'll consider my life's been full and fruitful if I can get these things accomplished.
Haley: One more question, Sammy: If you could choose an epitaph for yourself, how would it read?
Davis: That's easy: "It's been a gas."
(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the December 1966 issue of Playboy. © 1966 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)