Born: December 7, 1910, New Orleans, LA
Died: August 24, 1978, New Orleans, LA
The first time I remember hearing the name Louis Prima was in 1978, when I read a letter to the editor in The Times-Picayune lamenting the lack of appreciation the city had shown for its recently deceased son.
The writer had a point. There was no jazz funeral, no statues proposed or dedicated, no Louis Prima Day with parades and proclamations. Nothing. It was as if, in the three years he spent in a coma before he died, his career and accomplishments had been swept under the rug and forgotten.
At the time, I didn’t know who this Louis Prima fellow was, and even if I had I probably wouldn’t have appreciated him either. This was 1978, after all, the summer of the Bee Gees, Andy Gibb and Olivia Newton-John.
Years later of course, like many Prima converts, I was mortified to discover how wrong I’d been. Prima was, obviously, the coolest cat of all.
Beginning in the early 1990s and reaching a pinnacle in 1998 with The Gap’s acclaimed “Khakis Swing” television commercial, which used Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” to electrifying effect, a Prima revival swept the country. What was most gratifying about that renaissance is that it was, for the most part, sincere. Fans were responding not to Prima’s hepcat style but to his extraordinarily well-crafted and miraculously well-preserved music. The swing was the thing.
Even in retrospect, it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what made Prima great. While he owed his career to his trumpet, it was more than just his playing. His tongue-defying scat talk and sandpaper rasp produced some truly exhilarating effects, but it was more than his singing. His composition “Sing, Sing, Sing” became Benny Goodman’s signature and one of the most famous songs of the big band era, but it was more than his songwriting as well.
While with vocalist Keely Smith he engineered a broadly funny, enormously popular act that played off the couple’s comic contrast, it was more than his clowning and humor. And while he commissioned saxophonist Sam Butera to write arrangements that many credit with fostering the growth of rock and roll, it was more than his instincts as a bandleader.
In the end, Prima’s unique genius may simply have been his ability to synthesize those many talents into a single, distilled package of infectious joy, a magnificent formula that was intoxicatingly entertaining.
“It’s a wonderful marriage of superb natural talent on the parts of Prima, Keely and Butera, all working together,” said Prima biographer Garry Boulard in a 1998 interview. “That’s why it still sells 40 years later.”
While many fans never associated the entertainer with his birthplace, Prima was in fact an almost quintessential New Orleanian. Born to second generation Sicilian parents on December 7, 1910, Prima grew up on the streets of the French Quarter, where he became enraptured by jazz. Using his brother Leon’s cornet, Prima taught himself to play and dropped out of Jesuit High School at the age of 14 to perform full time.
In 1934, Guy Lombardo caught Prima’s act one night at the Club Shim Sham, one of several nightclubs owned by Leon Prima. Mightily impressed, Lombardo convinced the 24-year-old trumpeter to pack his bags and move to New York, where he might enjoy much larger audiences and much larger paychecks. In New York, Prima put together a five-piece band he dubbed his New Orleans Gang, which featured the great Pee Wee Russell on clarinet, and accepted a job at a new after-hours club on 52nd Street. From its opening night in March 1935, the Famous Door was a fabulous success and Prima a jazz sensation.
It was around this time that Prima recorded tracks for Brunswick Records with his New Orleans Gang, including jukebox hits “Chinatown,” “Chasing Shadows” and “The Lady in Red.”
After six months at the Famous Door, Prima headed to Los Angeles where he opened a West Coast version of the Famous Door and landed a few acting roles. He appeared in a few small film roles (“Rhythm on the Range,” starring Bing Crosby and Frances Farmer, for example), but more often than that, he appeared in company of Hollywood starlets, including Jean Harlow, with whom he had a brief affair. (Without getting into detail, let us just say that Prima’s reputation as a shameless lothario was richly deserved.)
In the late 1930s, Prima abandoned his small group and put together the Louis Prima Orchestra to capitalize on the growing popularity of big bands. The orchestra’s early recordings were largely indistinguishable from other big bands, but as the 1940s wore on, Prima found a niche with comedic songs that played off his Italian heritage. Novelty songs like “Angelina,” “Please No Squeeza Da Banana,” “Bacci Galupe” and “Felicia No Capicia” may not have won him many points with critics, but they sold records and won Prima new fans, which was always his primary concern.
While appearing with the orchestra in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in 1948, Prima staged an impromptu audition for a new female vocalist. It was there that he met 16-year-old Dorothy Keely, whose exotic beauty (she was part Irish and part Cherokee) and familiarity with the band’s repertoire made an impression on Prima. He hired her on the spot, convinced her to change her name to Keely Smith and whisked the teenager off on the road as his new girl singer.
By then, Prima was married to his third wife, his former secretary Tracelene Barrett. Within a few years, Prima and Barrett’s marriage disintegrated and subsequently Prima and Smith began a relationship. The couple married in 1953.
The end of the big band era left Prima at a crossroad. He disbanded the orchestra in 1950 and spent a few years touring with Smith as a duo, performing with house bands at the various venues. In 1954, Prima made a fateful call to his old friend Bill Miller, who had become entertainment director at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Prima was desperate for work, but all Miller could offer him was a two-week engagement in the hotel’s lounge. For Prima, who had headlined the big rooms just a few years earlier, consignment to the lounge was a bitter pill to swallow. With a pregnant wife and three sets of alimony payments to cover, however, he took the job. Louis and Keely opened at the Sahara’s Casbar Lounge on November 24, 1954.
The limited engagement wasn’t an enormous hit, but it did well enough for Miller to offer Prima a regular gig. Not long after, Prima called Sam Butera, a tenor sax player from New Orleans who had worked for his brother Leon, and asked him to throw together a band and meet him in Vegas. Butera, an established performer in his own right in New Orleans with a number of local hits, accepted the invitation, and on the night of December 26, 1954, Louis and Keely with Sam Butera and the Witnesses played the Casbar Lounge for the first time together.
Up until that point, Prima had been using stock arrangements. At Prima’s demand, Butera wrote new arrangements that featured Prima’s signature shuffle rhythm but also incorporated a raucous, driving R&B beat. The band’s electrifying new sound and relentless beat served notice that lounging was out at the Casbar Lounge. It was now the home of the “Wildest Show in Vegas.”
Prima and Smith also polished their stage act, although to this day Smith insists there was no acting involved. Naturally shy and reserved, Smith developed a habit of staring blankly into the audience as she awaited her vocal numbers. Prima, whose manic energy threatened to erupt from his body, was her exact opposite in appearance as well as temperament, and he made it his mission to provoke a reaction out of his taciturn partner. The subtext was often sexual and the late-night audiences loved their often risqué exchanges.
Word soon spread that Louis and Keely put on a show that was not to be missed. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Dean Martin were fans and friends and frequented the Casbar when they got off work. Actors, actresses, politicos and scene makers packed the Casbar night after night.
In 1955, Prima signed with Capitol Records and went into the studio to record an album to showcase his Casbar Lounge material. The idea was to capture the energy and spontaneity of the live act and producer Voyle Gilmore succeeded brilliantly. The Wildest (Capitol 1955) documents the humor and excitement of the lounge act beautifully. Over the next six years, Prima recorded seven albums for Capitol that comprise most of the material he’s today best remembered for—“Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Oh Marie,” and “Embraceable You/I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” among others.
From 1954 to 1961, Louis and Keely were the toast of Las Vegas and among the nation’s most beloved stars. They scored hit records, won a Grammy Award, and were frequent (and enormously popular) guests on the Ed Sullivan Show. In 1958 they appeared in the film “Senior Prom,” and in 1959 they starred in “Hey Boy! Hey Girl!” Through Sinatra, they were invited to perform at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural celebration. In 1961, Louis and Keely finally graduated to the big room, signing a five-year $3 million contract with the Desert Inn to bring their show to its main stage. Prima really did appear to have the world on a string.
But around that time, Smith says, Prima began to change. He started to drink and smoke and, most seriously, he began to philander. Smith remained silent for as long as she could be, but when Prima’s mistresses began to call the family home, she took the couple’s two children and moved out. Their marriage, and their act, was finished.
Although Prima continued to perform with Butera, adding the fifth Mrs. Prima, Gia Maione, as a female vocalist, he never again enjoyed success comparable with the Casbar Lounge days. A memorable performance as King Louie the Orangutan in Walt Disney’s 1967 animated film “The Jungle Book” gave Prima one last taste of the spotlight with his swaggering “I Wanna Be Like You.” By that time, however, Prima, like many of the old-line entertainers, had been nudged out of the mainstream by rock and roll.
In the early 1970s, Prima tried to return to New Orleans with a residency at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, but within a year he had returned to Vegas. Even in New Orleans, the audience was not there.
Perhaps surprisingly, Prima was throughout his life a fitness nut. He stayed away from cigarettes and alcohol (quite a feat in Las Vegas) and exercised regularly. Even as he entered his 60s he remained in excellent shape, which is why friends and family were so worried when he began to complain of severe headaches. After reaching the point of being reduced to tears between sets, Prima went to the Mayo Clinic, where an MRI revealed a benign tumor at the base of his brain. Following surgery to remove the tumor, Prima slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness. For a man whose career was built on his wild, manic energy, it was a sad way to go indeed.
If there is any justice in the world, the fan that wrote that letter to The Times-Picayune 22 years ago is still around today. Hopefully, he or she was able to see “Khakis Swing” and the film “Big Night” and the “retro swing” phenomenon. Hopefully, he or she was able to hear musicians like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Brian Setzer, whose performances amount to unabashed Prima tributes. Hopefully, that fan is finally at peace, confident in the knowledge that Louie Prima is finally earning the respect he deserves, exalted today as the undisputed King of Swing.
Much of this information was gathered from writer Garry Boulard’s 1989 biography “Just a Gigolo”: The Life and Times of Louis Prima (University of Southwestern Louisiana).
Louis Prima and Keely Smith featuring Sam Butera and the Witnesses
Capitol Collectors Series (Capitol 1991)
Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang
1934-1935 (Classics Jazz 1999
1935-1936 (Classics Jazz 2000)
Louis Prima and Keely Smith featuring Sam Butera and the Witnesses
Wild, Cool and Swingin’: The Artist Collection (Capitol 1999)
Louis Prima Orchestra
Jazz Collectors Edition (Laserlight 1991)
Say It with Slap (Buddha 1999)
Louis Prima and Gia Maione
Let’s Fly With Mary Poppins (Disney 1998)
Just A Gigolo: The Life and Times of Louis Prima by Garry Boulard (University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1989)