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Correction appended, Dec. 8, 2015
When LIFE editor Thomas Thompson reviewed Sammy Davis Jr.’s 1965 autobiography Yes I Can, he noted an unfortunate parallel between the story the book contained and the story of its release unto the world:
Davis’ life was, indeed, marked by many hardships. At 28, he nearly lost his life to a car crash that left him with one eye. His remarkable success as a singer, dancer and star of screen and stage did not shield him from the pain of racism, both subtle and overt. (He was once turned away from an Upper East Side supper club as the band inside played the theme song from his Broadway musical Mr. Wonderful.) On the other hand, he felt rejected by many in the black community who criticized him for what they perceived as his ingratiating himself with whites, including his second wife, the Swedish actress May Britt.
Nevertheless, the spirit LIFE photographer Leonard McCombe captured when he spent time with Davis and Britt in 1964 was one of exuberant charisma—the same charisma, certainly, that earned him the nickname “Mr. Show Business.” Davis, who would have been 90 today, died of throat cancer in 1990, but thankfully, McCombe preserved that spirit on film for posterity.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year of Davis’ birth. He was born in 1925.