E.B. GO Vision Media has been promoting Arthur Silber, Jr.’s book, Sammy Davis, Jr.: Me and My Shadow, for a number of years. Recently this included building a new website, http://www.SammysBook.com, and creation of an Arthur Silber-Sammy Davis You Tube Channel. Early on E.B. GO conducted a detailed interview of Arthur that is featured below in two-parts.
It is undeniable that no one knew Sammy Davis, Jr. better than Arthur Silber, Jr., for they were practically inseparable for 25 years (1949 to 1975) when Sammy went from a player in the Will Mastin Trio to international superstar lauded for his dancing, singing and acting talents. When Sammy broke the Vegas color barrier at the casinos, Arthur was with him; when Sammy was threatened over the Kim Novak affair, Arthur’s neck was on the line too; when Sammy unsuccessfully tried to drive his car off a cliff in Hollywood, he called Arthur for help.
Sammy, A Study in Beating the Odds
by Arthur Silber, Jr.
One thing that life continually teaches us is that achieving anything worthwhile will probably involve the following immutable factors: 1) It will take talent, focus, untold hours of sacrifice and hard work, 2) It will bring forth unknowable and innumerable road blocks from elements of society and the laws of nature, 3) The better you are and the higher you rise will often bring out the worst in those who have neither the talent nor the success, 4) The same people who tried to undermine your success will praise you when you are gone.
The life of Sammy Davis, Jr., whose multi-faceted talent was a wonder to behold, is an example of all these rules of human existence. Raised on the boards of vaudeville in the 1930s and ‘40s, with no formal education, he learned his craft at feet of legends and saw many aspects of life experienced by few individuals. His father Sammy, Sr. and uncle, Will Mastin, who both ran the Will Mastin Trio where Sammy Jr., learned to his craft, saw to it that the young boy was shielded from racism by playing in cities and venues that were deemed safe.
Then, during World War II, Sammy was drafted into the U.S. Army and got an awakening to racism in some very nasty ways. Sammy commented much later about his experience, “Overnight the world looked different. It wasn’t one color anymore. I could see the protection I’d gotten all my life from my father and Will. I appreciated their loving hope that I’d never need to know about prejudice and hate, but they were wrong. It was as if I’d walked through a swinging door for eighteen years, a door which they had always secretly held open.”
As Sammy began to come into his own as a solo star in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, it became clear to everyone his overwhelming talent was going to take him to great heights. My father had managed the Will Maston Trio for a number of years, and I started to get close to Sammy during a trip to Hawaii in 1949. This fateful trip began a “brotherhood of choice and destiny” between Sammy Davis, Jr. and myself that lasted the better part of 23 years. We became partners in business and the closest of confidants as Sammy made the transition from a member of a trio to an internationally renowned and beloved performer.
But to get to that place in history, Sammy had to fight every step of the way, and one of the aspects of Sammy’s struggle which I believe he deserves more recognition is in the realm of Civil Rights. When I hear discussions about pioneers in breaking down color barriers, seldom is the name of Sammy Davis, Jr. spoken at all. This is truly shameful. During the 1950s we had to avoid certain cities for fear of retribution for his skin color; and the fact that I was white and Jewish. I shared with him quite, painful moments when he would say, “Arthur, all I really want is to have equal respect.”
Before the major gains were made during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Sammy was breaking down racial barriers all over the country during the 1950s. For example, he was allowed to perform at Las Vegas hotels but not permitted to stay at the hotel, eat in the restaurants or gamble in the casinos. After years of suffering quietly under these pernicious conditions, Sammy had enough and thus began the infighting with management and powers behind the scenes. It didn’t happen easily and it didn’t happen overnight, but that barrier was broken down and the world was better off it being lowered.
In another incident, Sammy, with a bit of help from his good friend Frank Sinatra, was able to break the color barrier at the famous Copacabana Club in New York City. When Sinatra performed at the club, whose owner had a particular dislike for blacks, Sammy was allowed in to watch Frank do his thing, but he was forced to sit at the back of the bar in the shadows.
After this went on for awhile, the proprietor complained to Sinatra about having to allow Sammy into the club. Having had enough of his grousing, Sinatra hold him in no uncertain terms, “If want to book the best, then you are going to have let Sammy Davis, Jr. perform here, and if you don’t book Sammy in you can forget about me ever performing here again.”
Sammy was booked into the Copacabana and proceeded to break house records while also bringing the first black patrons into the club, another barrier broken down by
this diminutive yet powerful force of nature.
Sammy Davis, Jr.: Me and My Shadow by Arthur Silber, Jr. is an insightful biography,, because Arthur was there for all the events portrayed in it, about one of the most exciting, talented and amazing entertainers in American history. During their decades long association Arthur and Sammy were best friends, business partners, soldiers in the cause to break down racial barriers, traveling companions, the closest of confidants and committed to furthering Sammy’s career so more of the world would truly know how much talent this diminutive and powerful force of nature truly possessed.
Years after their association had ended, when Arthur broached the subject of writing a book about all that had happened during their time together, Sammy told him in a heartfelt and rather tragic tone, “You do that Silber, and tell the truth, just tell the truth.” That is what Arthur Silber, Jr. has done and continues to do with anyone who will listen to recounts those years with, he only needs one word, Sammy!
The other aspect that Arthur often touches on, and this goes back to breaking racial barriers in the 1950’s well before the Civil Rights Movement, Arthur muses on Sammy’s deep desire to be treated farily. His life started in showbiz at the age of 3 and encompassed years learning his craft on the boards of theaters big and small during a time when blacks were restricted from many aspects of society throughout the country.
Sammy fought against it when he could, such as famously breaking the Vegas Casino-Hotel color barrier or playing the Copacabana with help from his friend Frank Sinatra, and swallowed his pride when he had to, such as giving up his love affair with Kim Novak because of death threats towards him and Arthur, and sincerely wished he could just be appreciated for the talent he had worked so hard to create and and which brought so much joy, laughter and wonder to the world.