EW remembers Sammy Davis Jr.

For the generation that came of age in the 1950s and early ’60s, Sammy Davis Jr. was a gem in the cultural mosaic: a polished performer and a high priest of hip. People who grew up in the decades following, however, knew a different Sammy: a guy who used the word ”groovy” to excess, laughed too hard at bad jokes on talk shows, sang ”The Candy Man,” and hugged Richard Nixon when thousands of young Americans were protesting the President’s policies. Davis was both swinging singer and sycophant, but the former image is what should endure: A look back at Sammy in his heyday is a crash course in cool.

Davis, who died of throat cancer on May 16 at age 64, starred in movies, on records, and on stage. In the 1960 Vegas flick Ocean’s Eleven — a classic Rat Pack caper picture — he and Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford defined their era’s Zeitgeist with skinny ties, leggy babes, cigarettes, gin, and a vocabulary that leaned heavily on terms like ”big daddy.” Ocean’s Eleven was the Rat Pack’s A Hard Day’s Night. Davis later played the same sort of character in Robin and the Seven Hoods. (Both titles are available on video.) In Tap, released last year, he won critical praise for his performance as Gregory Hines’ tap-dancing mentor. (Davis had his right hip replaced in 1987, but that didn’t seem to slow him down.)

On record, Sammy Davis, Jr./Greatest Hits, released in 1988, and this year’s Greatest Hits, Volume II (both DCC Compact Classics) show off his smooth style and a voice that was brighter than the gold chains he favored. He swings through ”That Old Black Magic” and ”If My Friends Could See Me Now” and decrees, in his anthem, ”I’ve Gotta Be Me.”

Davis sang and danced and joked and acted, but he was best at, well, being him. He considered himself ”a variety artist” and filled his nightclub act with impressions of two movie-star Jimmys (Cagney and Stewart), soft-shoe dancing, and lots of songs. For years, his shows ended with a drawn-out, highly dramatic version of ”Mr. Bojangles,” a song by countty singer Jerry Jeff Walker that Davis turned into a signature piece.

Davis’ greatest legacy, however, is undoubtedly the pioneering role he played in integrating show business; he was the Jackie Robinson of popular entertainment. Davis emerged from his father’s vaudeville troupe (where he began performing at age 3) to lead black performers into mainstream show biz. As Michael Jackson sang during a salute to Davis last year, ”Thanks to you there’s now a door we all walk through/I am here ’cause you were there.”