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See Classic Photos of Sammy Davis Jr. on the Anniversary of His Birth

Looking back on the life of the entertainer, who was born on Dec. 8, 1925

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:

It seems appropriate that the week Sammy Davis’s autobiography Yes I Can was published, its author collapsed from nervous exhaustion and the New York newspaper strike prevented two prestigious Sunday reviews of his book from being published. Such bad breaks seem to follow the natural order of Sammy’s life. They are almost an unwritten final chapter in this remarkable book.

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.

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