For the past eight years, Lena Prima and her band have been doing regular shows at the Monteleone’s Carousel Bar. For those in the know, it’s one of those special things you can only find in New Orleans: The daughter of music royalty doing a personalized take of classic songs, from her dad and elsewhere. Sometimes it’s a crowd of music fans and sometimes they’re outnumbered by the tourists that come in for cocktails and dancing, but Prima doesn’t mind: Being a natural entertainer is one of a few things that run in her blood.
The family history is hard to avoid, not least because Lena’s father Louis Prima did a residency in the very same hotel (in the upper-level Skylight Room, which is no longer a nightclub) toward the end of his career. Lena seldom does a show without a few of her dad’s greatest hits, at least “Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” “Just a Gigolo” and “Pennies from Heaven”—but her sweeter voice naturally gives them a different spin, and she’ll drop a few nuggets of family history in the song intros. When she includes some of her dad’s humor—say, an ad-lib about ravioli—you can hear her delighting in the absurdity, just as she probably did as a child.
But something subtler been going on through the long residency, and it has to do with Lena finding her footing as her own artist. When she and her husband (and sometime bassist) Tim Fahey moved to New Orleans in 2011, she’d spent many years coming to terms with her musical bloodline—sometimes embracing it and sometimes avoiding it altogether. As a recording artist, she’s been a bit of a chameleon: She’s devoted a couple of albums to her father’s repertoire, but also recorded some non-Prima jazz standards, and done a mostly-original album (2014’s Starting Something) in the entirely different context of locally rooted funky rock. From New Orleans she’s gotten the freedom to try all these approaches; in turn New Orleans has gained a vocalist who can do them with personality and joy.
She’s now about to go national, with the new album Prima La Famiglia (her debut for Basin Street) as the calling card. It’s a bit different and a lot more ambitious than anything she’s done before, less a tribute to her dad than a warm embrace of the Italian pop tradition, mostly from pre-rock eras (while her father sang quite a few of these songs, none are obvious signature tunes). Read between the lines and there’s a lot of affection for family and culture, but she’s also claiming a musical niche that’s anything but crowded nowadays.
“I had a strong feeling about taking these songs and passing them on to this generation,” she says. “Italian people definitely relate to these songs. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin always sang Italian songs. Until I moved back here, I didn’t realize how much Sicilian immigration there was in New Orleans and how many Italian-Americans live here. My dad always addressed the importance of my heritage, and that’s gotten stronger for me over the years. My dad really became a hero to Italian-Americans because he did these songs. It wasn’t always good to be Italian back then, and he made everyone feel proud about their heritage—which included being able to laugh about it.”
Anyone who grew up with Italian pop will understand how passionate love ballads can sit right alongside novelty tunes; it’s all part of the spirit underlying that music. Sometimes it’s all in the same song, like her version of “Come on-a My House,” a tune associated with Rosemary Clooney. Lena treats it as playfully sexy, keeping that mood even when she’s singing about pasta fagioli. “That’s the way it is with Italian women—there’s a sexy factor, but the sexy is funny. And every Italian woman wants to cook for you and have every kind of food you can imagine. The history of that song is interesting because it was presented to Rosemary Clooney and my dad at the same time; they’re so similar that it could be the same arrangement. And I know that Rosemary wasn‘t into the novelty songs, but it ended up being her biggest hit. I really wanted to record that, and we rearranged it so it would have a definite chorus.”
It’s also the largest-scale production of any record she’s made, done in Nashville with co-producer Scott Williamson and with pianist Larry Sieberth (her regular bandleader at the Monteleone) writing the arrangements for a big band with strings as well as horns. “My idea was to take these different songs—some Italian folk songs, some comedy songs and some real swingers—and make them sound modern and unified,” Sieberth said in a separate interview. “It was less about literal transcribing than conceptual transcribing—adding my own twists, sometimes more advanced harmonies, putting in some of that Nelson Riddle-style contrapuntal big-band writing. The overall question was, How can we make this hip?”
Lena was born in 1965, the daughter of Louis Prima and his fifth and last wife Gia Maione, also the singer who replaced Keely Smith as his featured duet partner. As a child Lena lived both in Las Vegas and New Orleans, attending St. Peter’s in Covington and Covington High School. They also lived on Esplanade Avenue for a time, and during the summers she’d accompany her parents to their Vegas residencies—a life that she says wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds. Asked about bring a showbiz kid Lena says, “It’s funny, I never had that feeling at all. I did a show once with some other children of celebrities, like [Judy Garland’s daughter] Lorna Luft and Dean Martin’s son—they all grew up together in Hollywood, and that wasn’t the case for me. My dad lived in Las Vegas but it was outside the actual city, and he had a golf course there. So I never had that showbiz feeling, it was more like growing up on a farm.”
She was, however, a devoted fan of her dad, and keeps affectionate memories of their short time together (he entered a coma when she was ten, and died three years later). “I looked up to him like he was the most important person in the world, aside from the president. My mom too, I’d watch her putting on her makeup like she was a movie star. It was always exciting to go out with my dad, because he was a joyful, excited guy all the time. We’d drive up and down the strip and he’d say, ‘Hey, look where you are right now! Everybody wants to be right here!’”
Though they had good moments together, she also connected to him via TV and radio, and got to know all the Louis Prima records the public largely missed—like his 1968 cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Bald Headed Lena,” which bugged her because she wasn’t bald. “The gargling solo was great though—how often do you hear that?” She also remembers the first time she heard “Pensate Amore,” a song she revives on the new album. “I was watching the Flintstones on TV, Fred was singing to Wilma at a tower in Rome, and I swore I heard my dad’s voice dubbed. So I ran to my mom and she said I was mistaken, she said ‘He never did anything for Hanna-Barbera.’” It wasn’t until decades later, when researching a book about her childhood she’s working on, that she discovered via Wikipedia that Louis did indeed sing the song in a Flintstones movie. “And I loved it. That’s what my dad’s message was—‘Everything is about love. Don’t think about the future, look at the moon.’”
Another tune she resurrected for the album, “See That You’re Born an Italian,” is even more obscure, but there exists a mid-’60s clip (not on YouTube, alas) of both her parents doing it with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé on the latter couple’s TV show. Her version preserves the bit where the band quotes from “Arrivederci Roma.” Says Lena, “My dad and mom recorded it together, so that was another 45 that I had to search for. It’s such a cute song though, and that ’60s version is just so ’60s.”
Lena made her stage debut at age five, a moment she remembers vividly. “It was at the Sands and I sang ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.’ I remember that I was wearing this little sailor dress, hanging on to the end of my dad’s coat. I remember the spotlight shining in my eyes, and the people up front beaming and smiling at me. Years later someone sent me an envelope of those photos, which was an amazing gift—to see how lit up my little face was, the joy that I felt standing up there. And I remembered the sailor dress—isn’t it like a little girl to remember her fashions?”
The main mystery here is what took her so long to embrace the family legacy and start her career in earnest. The answer to that question is one she’s never really tackled before this interview, and still the toughest one to talk about. But it goes back to her mother’s reservations about her even having a singing career—and to some extent, Gia’s unresolved feelings about being a performer herself. “My mother was part of the ’50s. She was raised in a really strict Italian family where you’re supposed to get married and have children, and still be beautiful so that everyone thinks your husband has the most together wife.
“So when I announced to her that I wanted to be a singer, she didn’t approve. But here’s the part that I didn’t remember before: She said to me, ‘If you’re going to be a singer, you’d better be better than anybody else, or you’re going to be an embarrassment to the family name.’ That’s why I hid out as a singer for so long: I couldn’t in my own mind say that I was absolutely better than everybody. There’s always that thing between mothers and daughters; you don’t want disapproval of a parent. I loved her and she loved me, but my doing this was the denial of the status quo. I decided not to marry [at a young age], not to have children, not to do what my mother did. That was why I didn’t start my career until my late forties. I feel confident in myself now, for the first time ever. And that’s a story I want to tell, for the women who are struggling with it the way I did.”
Her mother bucked the same norms by joining Louis Prima’s band, but Lena feels that Gia never thought of herself as a professional singer. “She was only 20 when she snuck out to audition for the job, without her father’s knowing. She was working as a hostess at the time and the music part was a hobby. And that’s the way she kept it: She was a wife and a mother and a homemaker first, and she sang sometimes; she always told me it was okay if it was a hobby. But I wonder how she really felt about it. That was how that generation worked, they pushed their passions aside. It’s completely possible that she had bigger dreams and resigned herself.”
Which is why Lena chose to enter music pretty much incognito; at 19 she joined a cover band that was playing the Vegas circuit. As the featured “girl singer” she sang all the obligatory hits of the time—’Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” Scandal’s “Goodbye to You” and the rest. “It was the ’80s, so my hair had a magenta tint. I would copy everything—my voice had a similar tone quality to Ann Wilson of Heart, and I did a lot of Journey because that was also in my wheelhouse. I was hiding out, because I still felt that I wasn’t supposed to be a singer. So I could just be the girl singer, working under the band’s name; I felt comfortable doing that. And I stayed that way for 20 years.” Even when a new generation discovered Louis Prima in the wake of David Lee Roth’s cover of “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” (a version virtually identical to the original, down to tempo and nuance), she kept her history under wraps.
The turning point came in the early ’90s, when she did the cruise-ship circuit with the Spiral Starecase (still riding its early-’70s hit “More Today Than Yesterday”). Someone in the ship’s office caught her name and put her up front, to the rest of the group’s chagrin. “That’s when people started telling me these amazing stories about my dad. One woman told me she’d cut school to see him play. She was sitting in the front row and my dad took a bite of her sandwich, that picture got in the newspaper and she got busted. But she said it was worth it.”
She continued trying to summon the confidence to put on her own show, getting input from some of her dad’s associates—notably his longtime drummer Jimmy Vincent and another Vegas connection, Wayne Newton’s piano player Glenn Smith. “I kept telling him the reasons I had for not going out on my own, and his response was always ‘Bullshit.’ But I really didn’t think I was supposed to be a singer. After my dad died I didn’t have another family member who was supportive about it. But I remember, the night I talked to Glenn, I went back to my cabin and the movie they were showing was Field of Dreams. That struck a chord.”
She finally invested money for an arranger and band, and launched her own show—which would seem a slam-dunk in Vegas, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Bookings got hard to come by, and after a time she was working more in her other line as a jewelry designer. “Vegas really changed. There were nightclubs and DJs, but there weren’t any venues for the kind of music I was doing, my dad’s music.” It was her other hometown, New Orleans, that gave her the kind of reception she couldn’t find in Vegas. She was booked for the Jazz Fest in 2010, where she, her brother Louis Jr. and Keely Smith all played separate sets to celebrate Louis Prima’s 100th birthday (he also got the Fest poster that year painted by Tony Bennett). For Lena it was a pivotal trip that felt just like coming home.
“We booked a couple of dates around that Jazz Fest and it was amazing. WWOZ played the whole show live, I got to play the Louisiana Music Factory and [Irvin Mayfield’s] Jazz Playhouse. It was all a completely different feeling in regards to the music I was playing and what I was. And when we got back to Vegas, there was a distinct difference in the way it felt. In New Orleans there was always music, there was art and a vibe, there was something going on—in Vegas I didn’t have that feeling. It was more about the gambling and the money and the big corporations. So my husband and I just said, ‘Let’s move’. We couldn’t even afford to do it, the market was really bad. We sold our house to a real estate investor and got half of what we wanted—but we didn’t care.” And it didn’t take long before the move paid off: They took residence in New Orleans on Christmas 2011; the first Monteleone show was on January 6.
The next couple years should involve a lot of moving. Prima has wound down the Monteleone residency for the time being, to concentrate on touring; shows in Vegas and New York are now being planned. The local CD release party is planned for February 7th at the Royal Sonesta Jazz Playhouse from 5 to 7 p.m. She’s also formed a nonprofit, CIAO Women!, which honors Italian-American women who’ve done positive things in their communities. Between that and the album she seems set to carry on the family business of spreading a little Italian-style cheer.
Between that and the album she seems set to carry on the family business of taking Italy to the world. Her band is also ready to take things to the next level. “I think she’s really elevated her performance as well as her individuality, taking it from the bar scene to the concert stage,” says Lawrence Sieberth. “There are a lot of offspring performers out there, and they don’t all have an easy time. My feeling, and my hope, is that she’s elevated herself to the point where it’s less about her being Louis Prima’s daughter, and more that he was her father.”