Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., & the rest of the Rat Pack live at the Sands (1963)
“I’d like to thank the NAACP for this wonderful trophy.”
Sammy Davis Jr. (Manhattan 1959, photo by Burt Glynn)
Q: 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?
Sammy Davis Jr.: No question about it…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.
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…
Q: You said “the most concentrated bunch of haters” you ever met was in the Army…will you give us some idea of what you went through?
SDJ: 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. I had never known one white agent, manager or anybody else who hadn’t been friendly…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 from the first 10 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.
Q: Were all the white soldiers that anti-Negro?
SDJ: 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 Women’s Army Corps 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.
-excerpted from Alex Haley’s Playboy interview with Davis, December 1966
Sammy Davis Jr. - I Gotta Be Me
Dean Martin & Frank Sinatra (circa early 1960s)
Q. Do you feel Italian, Dino, or don’t you?
Martin: “I’ll tell you how much I feel Italian. Three years ago, on my birthday, Frank [Sinatra] and I were at the Polo Lounge over there. We were with six other people, minding our own business, and we were a little loud. When we were goin’ out the door, there are a couple of guys, and one of ‘em says, “There goes the two loud Dagos.” Well, Frank got there one split second ahead of me, and he hit one guy, I hit the other,and we picked ‘em up and threw ‘em against the wall. The cops came. We said we didn’t know who did it and walked out. But we did, yeah.
And I did, another time. When my father talked broken English, a couple of people said something. I picked ‘em right up and said, “You aren’t going to say something about a guy who can’t talk English well because he’s been a barber all his life on thirty dollars a week.” When that happens, I just hit ‘em and throw ‘em out, wherever I am. In the past, I’ve been rejected by a lot of prominent people who say, “Well, he’s Italian.”
But I would always punch the guy right on the mouth for this. Even when I was working onstage, and somebody would say “Dago” or “greaseball”, I would jump right on the table - which is why I couldn’t get a lot of jobs: they’d say, “He’s a hotheaded Italian.”
The only one who can call me Dago is Frank. I call him Dago, too. With anybody else, there’s a fight, ‘cause I never call anybody Chinaman or Jew, so why should they say that to me?”
-1967, L’Europeo magazine (reprinted in The Limelighters)
Dean Martin - Besame Mucho
Dean Martin performs at the Copa Room (1957). That’s Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Debbie Reynolds, & Jack Benny at the front table (click to enlarge) (via)
“In 1969, Orson Welles told me that he’d been backstage in his own Dean Martin Show dressing room when, before the taping, Dean knocked, then came in, drink in hand. ‘Hey Orson,’ he said, holding up his glass, ‘you want one of these before we…?’
Orson shook his head. ‘No, no, Dean, I’m fine, thanks.” Martin looked shocked. “You mean you’re gonna go out there alone?!” Welles roared with laughter when he told me the story. ‘Alone!’ he repeated loudly. ‘Isn’t that great!?’ Orson went on, ‘That’s the best definition of addiction I’ve ever heard.’”
-Peter Bogdanovich (via)
Dean Martin - Silver Bells