by Herb Boyd
In his autobiography “Yes I Can,” Sammy Davis Jr. often referred to his mother–who was really his grandmother–Rosa Davis. Wil Haygood in his biography “In Black and White––The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.,” the gifted entertainer’s mother, Elvera “Baby” Sanchez, is thoroughly and thoughtfully profiled.
Born Sept. 1, 1905, Elvera was known as “Baby Sanchez.” She began performing as a dancer during her teen years. If Elvera is hardly mentioned in Davis’s autobiography, he did acknowledge her, but explained that she was Puerto Rican and born in San Juan. Haygood wrote that Davis did this in order to avoid being entangled in the politics at a time when anti-Cuban sentiments were raging in the U.S. He elaborated on this point, noting that she was born in Harlem and was the daughter of Cuban Americans Marco Sanchez and Luisa Aguiar.
These revelations Haygood learned only after Elvera was dead and disclosed to him by her grandniece.
Elvera launched her career in the chorus line at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, and continued it in the chorus line at the Apollo. In 1923, two years after her debut at the Lafayette, she was performing in “Holiday in Dixie,” where she met and married Sammy Davis, Sr. As a tot Davis, Jr. traveled with his parents, making his first appearance on stage when he was three. By the time he was 10, he was deemed a tap dancing prodigy, trained by his father but with genetic help from Elvera. When Sammy finally appeared on the stage of the Apollo, Elvera was in the chorus line.
Being in the various chorus lines meant that Elvera was a versatile dancer capable of executing all the routines from tap to swing to ‘boogie woogie’. “But her specialty was the soft-shoe,” Haygood said, “a seductive glide across the dance floor in step with the other dancers. The girls in her chorus were doing eight shows a day, and yet, hardly anyone complained. The hours were long, but the work was thrilling. Thrilling to catch a glimpse of Ellington’s smile, to see some Negro musicians lined up — your mailing address in their pockets — ready to hit the road, their long coats as kind on their backs as capes. Thrilling to wade into show parties, to hear the illicit whispers, to taste the chilled champagne. But most exciting to simply be up on the stage as the velvet curtains parted and the music rose.”
In 1928, Elvera’s second child Ramona was born and soon she and her husband went their separate ways on the entertainment trail. There was a long separation between Sammy, Jr. and his mother, but one day in 1941 in Boston, she was working the bill with the dance team of ‘Buck and Bubbles’ when the son saw his mother on stage. Even so, the two did not bond and eventually drifted apart once more. “Elvera danced her last paid gig at the Club Paradise in Atlantic City. In Atlantic City, she met and befriended Grace Daniels, a Negro woman who managed the Little Belmont nightclub,” Haygood wrote. “Daniels offered her a job as a barmaid, and Elvera accepted it. She had no savings and was quite happy when her new employer advanced her some money to get settled. She aimed to stay put awhile.”
It was not until 1947, that mother and son got together. But again nothing came of it much as it did with Sammy’s father, who asked for divorce. She told him that the price would “be $10,000.” When her son married May Britt, Elvera was not there unable to take the hastily arranged event seriously. “She stood behind the bar where she worked in Atlantic City,” Haygood noted, “and let an assortment of scenarios flow in and out of her mind about why her son was about to get married. ‘He married her because if he had not, they would have broken his legs,’ she would say years later.
In 1963, after Elvera was viciously assaulted, Sammy hurried from Los Angeles to be by her side. One news account reported she had been beaten by her boyfriend. Attempts to confirm this proved futile and so there is no conclusion to this incident. “The last time I saw Elvera Davis,” Haygood wrote toward the end of his book, “she was walking back inside her apartment building. She was leaning on the cane that had been given to her by Sammy and given to Sammy by Will Mastin.”
Elvera passed away, at home, on September 2, 2000 at 95. According to Haygood, none of Sammy’s children attended her funeral. “Mark Davis, Sammy’s adopted son, actually confided to his aunt Gloria that he was intimidated by his grandmother’s demeanor.”
The curious among you can go online and see a clip of Elvera dancing and some of her moves could be added to Sammy’s corpus collection of moves by other performers.