The elite of Hollywood gathered to honor him: Michael Jackson. Bill Cosby. Ella Fitzgerald. Liza Minnelli. Eddie Murphy. Frank Sinatra.
And Whitney Houston.
She was only 26, still an MTV video star, but it is her showstopping performance of One Moment in Time sung to Davis as he sat teary-eyed and proud that is remembered most from that night.
"You're a winner," she sang boldly, sashaying up to Sammy's onstage box, "for a lifetime, if you seize that one moment in time. Make it shine!"
Whitney Houston was impossibly beautiful that night (find the clip on YouTube), regal in a pink-topped gown, her voice trilling over the words "I will be free" at the song's end like a bird in glorious flight. It was, as the lyrics said, a moment in time.
Sammy Davis Jr. died three months later, and Houston's career did fly to heights rarely seen in show business. Her long, hard fall from iconic grace ended with her drug-induced accidental drowning in February at the age of 48. But it cannot, and should not, erase those moments when she was the brightest star in entertainment.
That's because every one of us, ordinary or grand, is defined by our own moments in time by the choices we make, the obstacles we surmount, the dreams we achieve, the people we love and maybe most of all by the goals we don't quite reach.
Whether in victory or defeat, how we choose to handle those moments is what marks the best of us, long after we are gone. It is, in the end, how we are remembered.
We hope those kinds of moments are what you'll find in this year's Passages, USA TODAY's annual look at notable deaths of the year. These are people whose lives helped define their times, whose moments changed them, and us, forever.
They range from George McGovern, 90, the earnest anti-war presidential candidate of 1972 to Norman Schwarzkopf, 78, the single-minded U.S. general who led coalition forces to victory over Iraq in 1991.
The hard-fought moments of social change in America can be traced from the wise and homespun sheriff portrayed by Andy Griffith,86, in trouble-free Mayberry to Sherman Hemsley,74, the edgy and unstoppable dry cleaner "moving on up, to the East Side."
The music world, especially, lost an all-star assemblage in 2012: the comfortable sweater music of Andy Williams,84, the disco rhythms of Bee Gee Robin Gibb,62, and Donna Summer, 63; the country swing of Doc Watson,89, and Kitty Wells,92; the "fight for your right to party" defiance of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, 47; and the composer who could write songs for all of them, Marvin Hamlisch,68.
There were the great translators: Soothing jazzman Dave Brubeck, 91, introduced Main Street to what was being played uptown; Ravi Shankar, 92, brought the lush rhythms of India to the West; and the yin and yang of Dick Clark, 82, who signed off each Bandstand with a salute, and Soul Train's Don Cornelius, 75, who promised, every Saturday, "love, peace and soul."
Beyoncé had her inaugural moment in 2009, but she'd agree that At Last belongs to Etta James, 73. And anyone who ever heard The Band's The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down recognizes Levon Helm, 71, in the lyrics "Virgil, quick come see, there go the Robert E. Lee."
Odd couples are everywhere in the deaths of 2012: female astronaut Sally Ride, 61, and shock-topped comedienne Phyllis Diller, 95. Urbane writer Nora Ephron, 71, and everyman actor Ernest Borgnine, 95.Sex and the Single Girl's Helen Gurley Brown, 90, who was the ultimate Cosmo Girl, and Boston Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky, 93, who has a foul pole named after him.
And, of course, Jack Klugman, 90, the last of the 12 Angry Men jurors, and Andrew Breitbart, 43, one of the first of new media's angry political activists.
Artists left their moments in pen and ink: underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, 72, a fixture in Zap Comix of the 1960s; comic book artist Joe Kubert, 85, who created Sgt. Rock; and gently subversive illustrator Maurice Sendak, 83, known for Where the Wild Things Are.
And there were such icons as Mike Wallace, 93, whose smooth voice and tough stance spanned the entire history of television journalism, and Joe Paterno, 85, a monument to the best college football had to offer until he fumbled one of those fragile moments in time.
But the person who had the greatest moment of them all, not only of the 20th century but arguably of the millennium, was Neil Armstrong, 82, the reluctant hero of the moon landing who took that first "small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" on July 20, 1969.
Unlike Ray Bradbury, 91, the space-age prophet who wrote of "rocket summers" in 1949, Armstrong was neither muse nor poet. He became a near-recluse after the lunar landing and never felt compelled to tell the rest of us what it was like to stand on the moon.
Not that we didn't try to get that story. In 1983, this writer flew to Lebanon, Ohio, to try to interview Armstrong. He was selling oil drilling equipment then, and came to the phone only to turn down the request. "I hope you understand," he said.
"But I've come a long way," I replied. The absurdity of saying that to Neil Armstrong hit me only later.
To compensate, I found Dick James, a local golf pro who played with Armstrong at the Ohio city's nine-hole course every Wednesday.
"It's partly shyness," James explained. "I tried to talk about the moon when he first got here, but you could just tell he didn't want to hear it. He'll talk all night about his kids and other things."
A half-billion people saw Armstrong's extraordinary moment; maybe moving on wasn't so bad a choice, even for a triumphant spaceman. Heroes, after all, come in many forms:
The war in Afghanistan may be winding down, but another 307 U.S. troops have died there this year.
Daniel Inouye, 88, served as a Democratic U.S. senator from Hawaii for a half-century. But his story goes back to World War II, where after enlisting as a second-generation Japanese American he lost his right arm leading an attack in Italy, later earning the Medal of Honor for valor.
Far too many unlikely heroes had their last moments stolen. A dozen moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., were gunned down in July, with some choosing to block a girlfriend from the bullets, or die trying to help a stranger in the next row.
And at year's end, teacher Victoria Soto, 27, died while protecting her students from the shooting attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Twenty children and six adults died there less than two weeks before Christmas, and Soto became a defiant symbol of resistance to the epidemic of mass shootings in recent years.
The images of the tiny victims tug at us still. Their names are Charlotte Bacon, 6; Daniel Barden, 7; Olivia Engel, 6; Josephine Gay, 7; Ana Marquez-Greene, 6; Dylan Hockley, 6; Madeleine Hsu, 6; Catherine Hubbard, 6; Chase Kowalski, 7; Jesse Lewis, 6; James Mattioli, 6; Grace McDonnell, 7; Emilie Parker, 6; Jack Pinto, 6; Noah Pozner, 6; Caroline Previdi, 6; Jessica Rekos, 6; Avielle Richman, 6; Benjamin Wheeler, 6; and Allison Wyatt, 6.
However heartbreakingly brief, their moments in time will never be forgotten not by their families, their neighbors nor the nation. This year's presentation of USA TODAY's Passages is dedicated to them.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)