At age three Davis began performing in vaudeville with his father and uncle, Will Mastin, in the Will Mastin Trio. Davis studied tap dancing under Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson but never received a formal education. After serving in the U.S. Army he became the central figure of the Mastin Trio, not only singing and dancing but also playing trumpet, drums, piano, and vibraphone; moreover, he was an accomplished mime and comedian. He encountered virulent racial prejudice early in his career, but he endured to become one of the first African American stars to achieve wide popularity.
Along with his extremely successful nightclub career, Davis was a popular recording artist, and he was successful on Broadway in Mr. Wonderful (1956) and in a 1964 revival of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy and in films, including Porgy and Bess (1959) and Sweet Charity (1969). He also appeared in a series of motion pictures with friends such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, including Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). Davis wrote two autobiographical books, Yes I Can (1965) and Why Me? (1989).