Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, and Madness by Matt Birkbeck

Reviewed by Allen Hott

Deconstructing SammyQuite a book if you are or are not a music fan but especially if you are a Sammy Davis fan. No, the book doesn’t show the best side of Sammy but if you loved him for his music and his fantastic style you can put aside the other part of the picture that the book paints.

First off he was black at a time when blacks were not accepted very well. Yet when he was a child he performed on stage in the Will Mastin Trio (Mastin was his uncle and Sammy Sr. and Jr performed with him). At age seven he played the starring role in Rufus Jones for President with Ethel Waters. He served in the army in WWII and really began his big time show business career shortly after. He had a terrible automobile accident in 1954 and lost his left eye which was replaced by an artificial one.

Most of this is somewhat glossed over in the book as Birkdeck primarily looks at what happened in Sammy’s life from a financial side and seems to paint the dark side of everything. No doubt that much of what is written is true as he explains about Sammy’s marital and sex life.

Sammy was married early on to a black woman but the marriage did not last and then he met and married May Britt, a white movie actress in 1960. They had a daughter and two adopted sons. Divorced in 1968 Sammy then met up and married Altovise Gore in 1970 and they had one adopted son. According to the story that marriage was an ongoing sex party with the two of them and many others.

Deconstructing Sammy actually doesn’t go into a lot about Sammy’s early life but mostly discusses the many problems that he had. Most of which seem to center around women, drugs, and drinking. But the book does emphasis that while all of this was going on Sammy was making big bucks with a great career in all phases of entertainment. However there is little doubt that Sammy was not a “money manager” and those that he chose to do that for him in many instances did not do a good job for him. Things got so bad that he quite often associated with members of the Mob to get financial assistance in the worst way.

Sonny Murray, who had earned quite a name for himself as a prosecuting attorney in the E. F. Hutton trial some time earlier, first actually met Altovise Davis when she moved into the Poconos. At that time one of his longtime associates convinced Sonny to help her with her finances as basically she was not only broke but in horrendous debt.

It seems that most all those who supposedly worked for Sammy as money managers and investment advisers had done a terrible job. And at the same time Sammy lived life as he saw fit. That meant spending his earnings on wine, women, and song. Stories of what he and Altovise participated in are somewhat hard to believe but I suppose if you had that much money and more coming in every day it wasn’t hard to live like a king.

However that could only last so long as could Sammy’s life as he became ill with cancer and by the time he died he only weighed 70 pounds. His financial condition by that time was as bad as his health and Altovise wound up pretty much broke. Stories of how she gathered up and hid many of his original recordings and other pieces of property that were worth many dollars have always circulated. But the IRS had been after Sammy for many years and had gained much control over assets as they did become available.

Birkdeck goes into detail about many of the financial matters and how it was all handled. The saddest part of the story is that Sammy Davis, Jr. who was without a doubt one of the greatest entertainers of all time pretty much died in terrible financial condition due mostly to Music, Money, Madness, and the Mob.