Sammy Davis, Sr. Taps!

Air Date: August 8, 1954

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Sammy Davis, Sr. appearing on the Summer Colgate Comedy Hour, Aug. 8, 1954.

Most people, when hearing the name, Sammy Davis, Sr., seldom think beyond the obvious connection to his superstar son. However, his place in history is not just the result of that genetic contribution. To understand his importance, and how Sammy Davis, Jr. became a star of stage, television, and movies, you must look at the unique life of his father.

His insistence on performing his role as a father when he and his wife split up was a key decision. Young Sammy was three at the time and his father, Sammy Davis, Sr., retained sole custody of his son.

On the Road

It was unusual for the time for a father to obtain custody of a young child, and it was especially hard for an entertainer on the road most of the time. But the elder Davis took responsibility for his son and began his education on the road.

The pair joined with a Vaudeville touring group headed by the black entertainer Will Mastin (also billed as Will Maston in some shows). Sammy Davis, Sr. joined with Mastin and Howard M. Colbert, Jr. to form an act known as the Will Mastin trio. It was with that trio that young Sammy Davis, Jr., at the age of 5, began to perform on stage, having learned to dance from his father, Will Mastin and the others he traveled with.

Davis, Sr. and his young son traveled throughout America in the 1930’s and 40’s and certainly saw the worst in racism that the country had to offer at the time. Segregated shows, housing, eating, travel was the norm. Yet through this, Davis and other entertainers persevered performing dances styles that were a holdover from slavery. Dance styles that the performers knew had dignity and artistic value, but that were largely ignored in mainstream entertainment.

Movies and TV

In the 1930’s, white entertainers, and especially white audiences, began to recognize the entertainment value of tap dancing. Shirley Temple, Astaire and Rodgers, and countless others brought the form to movies seen by millions. Soon, the originators of the dance form began to find their own way on film, despite the racism and segregation of the day.

Young Sammy Davis, Jr. was first seen in a movie in 1933. His father would have to wait until 1947 before he would appear on screen, with the Will Mastin Trio, in Sweet and Low, a Paramount Musical Parade short film.

Sammy Davis Sr., Sammy Davis, Jr. And Wil Mastin in performance. As audiences began to accept black entertainers and the black dance form of tap, demand grew for talent. In particular, the new medium of television became a venue for black entertainers to connect with national audiences. In 1954, when the Will Mastin Trio appeared on the Colgate Comedy Hour, black entertainers on Classic TV shows  were still rare.

Black entertainers’ acts had to shine, had to grab audiences, when opportunities to appear occurred. In this short clip, Sammy Davis, Sr. shows his amazing drive and enthusiasm for performing. He shows his pride in his artform and his skill as a dancer. It was this pride and enthusiasm for himself, his family and his art, and how he ensured that they all endured and thrived, that makes Sammy Davis, Sr. unique.

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