Inside Tony Bennett's Friendship With Sammy Davis Jr.

With all the famous people in the entertainment industry, it's natural and expected that many will befriend each other and even have close friendships. Such as the one between legendary singers Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr. Both Bennett and Davis had successful careers in their own right. And both men would kick off their singing career in the '50s, which is when they first met. Naturally, given the time period of that era, they had very different experiences in the music industry. Davis encountered a lot of racism, but he would have an ally and friend in Bennett.

Sammy Davis Jr. was the oldest of the two friends. He was born as Samuel George Davis Jr. on December 8, 1925, in New York City, per Biography. His first taste of the performing arts was through his father, who was a dancer. As a result, Davis had a lot of exposure to the world of dance and was taught how to tap dance when he was just a toddler. He proved to be a very talented dancer, too, so his father and uncle formed a group called the Will Mastin Trio. Together, they performed across the country.

The era Bennett and Davis discover music

Sammy Davis Jr. would be part of this trio for most of his childhood and even expand his talents by learning how to sing. After serving in the Second World War, Davis came home and continued to hone his singing talents with the trio. In the mid-'40s, his career took a turn when they got their big break by opening for Frank Sinatra, a rising singer at the time. The opportunity only opened even more doors for Davis, who would eventually land a record deal by the end of 1954. He released his first album in 1955.

One of Davis' most popular songs was "I've Gotta Be Me," which he performed in 1968. The following year, Bennett would also perform the song for his 1969 album, also of the same name. It wouldn't be as big of a hit for Bennett as it was for Davis, but both are regarded for their versions (via Bennett's discography).

They also had a friendship that predated their separate recordings. It's not clear when exactly the two men met and became friends, but Bennett met Davis just when he was getting started and before Davis' singing career took off.

Bennett hits success and befriends Davis

Tony Bennett is the younger of the two. He was born in Queens, New York, on August 3, 1926, as Anthony Dominick Benedetto. Like Sammy Davis Jr., he discovered a love for the arts when he was a child. When he was 10, he loved to sing, and by the time he hit his teens, he sang at local restaurants. Of course, he also served in World War II. When he returned, he picked up where he left off and continued singing. He also added nightclubs to the venues he performed in. It was at one club in 1949 that Bennett met the famous British comedian Bob Hope, who later hired Bennett to sing with him and gave him the name he is known by today. Bennett got a record deal in 1950, and his professional singing career started from there.

At some point in his first year as a signed artist, he would meet Davis, who was then an up-and-coming artist with the Will Mastin Trio. According to an interview Bennett did with the Hudson Union Society, he talked about witnessing the firsthand racism that Davis experienced. In 1950, Bennett recalled an evening in Washington, D.C., where he, singer Rosemary Clooney, and Davis were all performing at the same club. After witnessing a great performance by Davis, Bennett says he and Clooney wanted to celebrate Davis backstage.

A lifetime of friendship comes to an end

Apparently, Davis' piano talents were so remarkable, he could bring people to tears. "He was the greatest jazz piano player that you could ever dream of listening to, and the whole audience was crying because of how beautifully he played the piano," Tony said Bennett in the interview.

En route to see Sammy Davis Jr. backstage, the two were thwarted. In requesting to see his friend, the club management didn't allow them to. The rules of the club stated that they couldn't go and see Davis, but that he would have to come out to see them. Bennet was left stunned, and even years later recalled the incident as a moment of ignorance that changed his perspective. "We could not believe the racial prejudice for one of the greatest artists that ever lived ... and it was the beginning of my realizing [sic] of the injustice of not accepting the beauty of the United States," said Bennett.

Of course, Bennett must've found a way to see his friend eventually, as the two were peers in the same industry and would remain friends well into their careers. They even performed duets together into the '80s (posted on YouTube). Sadly, the friendship came to an end when Davis died in 1990 at the age of 64, per UPI. Tony Bennett lived on for another 33 years before he died in July 2023.