Hispanic Heritage Month: Two Hispanics with Disabilities in the Entertainment Industry

Hispanic Heritage Month 2012 has focused our attention on well-known Hispanics with disabilities in various careers – from Supreme Court Justices to artists to actors to musicians to writers and so on.  Today, we will be highlighting two amazing entertainers: Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jerry Garcia, both of whom were astounding in their fields.

Sammy Davis, Jr.
Samuel George “Sammy” Davis, Jr. was born on December 8th, 1925 in Harlem, New York City, New York to vaudeville star Sammy Davis, Sr. and Elvera Davis, who is of Puerto Rican ancestry. Although, Sammy never attended school (he began performing at the age of five), he was self-taught and was always articulate. He was primarily a dancer and singer, who began his career in vaudeville as a member of the Will Mastin Trio. Sammy was known to be able do it all – dance, sing, play instruments, do stand-up,  and act. He served in the Army during World War II, during which he was assigned to an integrated entertainment Special Services unit. He found that the spotlight lessened the prejudice. He was quoted as saying, “My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking.”

He returned to the Will Mastin Trio after being discharged from the Army. Shortly thereafter, Sammy began to achieve success on his own, releasing several albums, and was praised by critics. He soon was hired to sing the title track for the Universal Pictures of the film Six Bridges to Cross in 1954 that starred Tony Curtis and he then appeared in the Broadway play Mr. Wonderful in 1956. On November 19, 1954, Sammy was on his way to record the theme song for Six Bridges to Cross when he was in a car accident and lost his eye. He wore an eye patch for some time after the crash; however, Humphrey Bogart convinced him to remove the eye patch after Humphrey told Sammy that he did not want to be known as the kid with the eye patch. He was fitted for a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life.

In 1959, Sammy joined the famous “Rat Pack”, which was led by his friend Frank Sinatra and which included Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. In the mid-sixties, Sammy starred in Golden Boy at night and shot his afternoon talk show during the day. On days off, he would record new songs in the studio, perform live, or do television variety specials. By the late 1960s, his musical career had sputtered, even though he was still a big draw in Las Vegas. He revitalized his career with the hit Candy Man. In the 1970s, he landed occasional television and film parts, including cameos on the television shows I Dream of Jeanie, All in the Family (in which he famously kisses Carroll O’Connor on the cheek), and on Charlie’s Angels with his wife Altovise Davis.

Sammy Davis, Jr. died on May 16, 1990 of complications from throat cancer. He was interred next to his father and Will Mastin. On May 18, 1990, the neon lights of Las Vegas were darkened for ten minutes in tribute to Sammy. Throughout his life, Sammy Davis, Jr. broke many barriers and he received many honors for his work in the entertainment industry.

Jerry Garcia
Jerome John “Jerry” Garcia was born on August 1st, 1942 in San Francisco, California to Jose Ramon “Joe” Garcia and Ruth Marie “Bobbie” Garcia. He is the younger of two brothers (Clifford was born in 1937) and their ancestry is Galician (Spanish), Irish, and Swedish. From an early age, Jerry was influenced by music. His father’s extended family would often sing during reunions and who had emigrated from Spain in 1919. At the age of four, two-thirds of the middle finger of his right hand was amputated during a wood chopping chore. Within a year, Jerry’s father died during a fly fishing accident and his mother began working full time. Jerry and his brother would go live with their grandparents. It was during this time that Jerry would play his first stringed instrument, the banjo. In 1953, his mother remarried and the brothers went to live with their mother and step-father. During that year, his brother would introduce him to rock and roll and rhythm and blues. Clifford often memorized the vocals for his favorite songs and would make Jerry learn the harmony parts. Jerry later attributed his early ear training to this move.

In mid-1957, Jerry’s troubles with drugs began. Yet it was during this time that he began a program at the San Francisco Art Institute after he and his family moved there in June of that year. One of his teachers was Wally Hedrick, a prominent artist during the 1960s, who would encourage Jerry in his drawing and painting. On his fifteenth birthday, his mother bought him an accordion, which he begged her to exchange for an electric guitar. She exchanged the accordion for a Danelectro with a small amplifier. His step-father helped tune his guitar to an open tuning.

In early 1960, Jerry joined the army, but he was given a general discharge in December of that year. In February 1961, he was in a car accident in which the impact would eject him through the windshield with such force that he does not recall the ejection from the car. He later commented that the accident served as an awakening. It was at this time that he realized that he should play the guitar in earnest. Between 1962 and 1964, Jerry sang and performed mainly old-time, folk and bluegrass music. It was during this time that Jerry would begin experiment with LSD. In 1965, after various name changes, the band Jerry was in chose the name “Grateful Dead.” He served as lead guitarist and as one of the principal vocalists and songwriters for their 30 year career. Jerry was well known for his soulful extended guitar improvisations. The band’s fame, along with his, rested on their ability to not play a song the same way twice. Jerry and the Grateful Dead toured nearly constantly during their career and would play over 2,000 shows. Some of his side projects include the Jerry Garcia Band, the Black Mountain Boys, Legion of Mary, Reconstruction, and the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band. He would also do studio work with the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Tom Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Bruce Hornsby and more.

Jerry went into a diabetic coma in July 1986 which was precipitated by bad eating habits. During the Grateful Dead’s summer tour in 1992, he became extremely sick, many thinking that this was a replay of the diabetic coma. The band had to cancel the fall tour so he could recuperate. Jerry would quit smoking, become a vegetarian and lose weight after this episode. By 1995, Jerry’s mental and physical condition began to decline. Due to his frail condition, he began to use drugs again to dull the pain. He began treatment for his drug use in July of 1995. On August 9, 1995, Jerry died of a heart attack after a life time struggle with drug addiction, weight problems and a long standing cigarette habit. He also had sleep apnea and diabetes.

What is remembered most about Jerry Garcia is his contribution to music during a 30+ year career.  He not only was a talented guitarist, but could also play piano, banjo, bass, and pedal steel guitar and was a phenomenal songwriter.

About mpgarcia

I'm the Bilingual Information/Media Specialist at NARIC.
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