PrimaSmithLouis Prima

Louis Prima and his  band are gaining a whole new generation of fans. He played a major part of the  film "Big Night," without ever being in the movie. "Jump Jive 'n  Wail" was featured on a Gap TV commercial, and his music has been covered  from diverse artists as Brian Setzer to David Lee Roth. Both Keely Smith and Sam  Butera toured this past year with the catalogue of Prima standards. Yet without  the luck, timing and talent of several different musicians coming together at  the right time, the Prima phenomenon may never have occurred at all.

Prima started out in New Orleans as a jazz trumpeter in the 20s, took his  band to New York in the 30s and had success with several novelty hits. He wrote  "Swing Swing Swing," a hit for Benny Goodman and the perhaps the most  famous song from the swing era.   But by the 50s, things had turned for the  worse, and he was hustling for any gigs he could get.    "He was  wild," said trombonist Milt Kabak. "He loved the horses and  paid lots of alimony, so he was always scuffling for bread, which was why we had  to take any gig that came along."

In 1954 he called the Sahara's Bill Miller for a gig. Bill had owned the Riviera Nightclub back in New Jersey and was hired as Entertainment Director of the Sahara. Louis was blunt...he was broke, his wife was pregnant and they didn™t have a gig. With some persistence  he got him to say yes to a 2 week trial but only in the   lounge, not  the main room. The scheduling was also a letdown -   5 shows a night  starting at midnight.   But with his back against the wall, he agreed. The  story is that the hotel's owners even had pay to get him a suit. And so Prima  took his act into the Casbar Lounge, perhaps thinking this city in the desert  can hold the key to his future.

Within the decade Prima would emerge victorious. A Grammy award, a movie, a  performance at JFK's inauguration and a multi-million dollar contract.    R.J. Smith in the liner notes to "Wild Cool and Swingin'"  writes,  

"Prima had as much to do with our sense of High Age Vegas style and  velocity as anybody...Prima was playing to grownups but he was slipping them the  rock & roll, and they got with it. To the high-livers escorted to their  poker chip-sized tables by Pancho Aliati, the Casbar maitre d', Prima delivered  hokum, ample zooma zooma, groin-level humor and a beat that would have been at  home at the Apollo Theater."

A major ingredient in  Prima's success was his wife and singing partner, Keely Smith, who he first met  on a rehearsal break in 1948 in Virginia Beach and married 5 years later. Their  act can be described as a Vegas version of Beauty and the Beast; Prima with his  on stage comic antics and double-talk Italian, and Keely with her cool,   bell-like voice that could take anything thrown at her. She was a star in her  own right, and also recorded a number of solo albums.

The other lucky piece  to fall into place was Prima's 1954 call down to New Orleans to saxophonist Sam  Butera. He had been playing at the 500 club, owned by Prima's brother, and Prima  asked him to come to Vegas and put together a band. He questioned the idea of  joining a broken-down horse player whose best days were behind him. But Prima  was persistent and gave Butera carte blanche to put a rhythm section together.  "Until Sam came the group really didn't cook," says Keely.  "Sam  was the front Louis needed to work off of."  The sound they put together  was combination of roadhouse r&b, wild saxophones and Vegas standards that  can best be described as rock 'n roll without the guitars.

The band they put together was called The Witnesses, and its cast sometimes  changed, but usually included Lou Sineaux (Trombone) and Willy McCumber (Piano).  Fellow entertainers loved the show and dubbed the act "the wildest show in  Las Vegas," a term they used to title all their albums. ,Yet the wild and  loose nature of the show was only achieved through much rehearsal and practice.

Prima also was influenced by Louis Armstrong, whom he had known in New  Orleans, and evidently learned that he not only was a musician, he also had to  be an entertainer.   Prima sang on most songs in the show as well as did  wild trumpet solos, but solo spots were also given to Smith and Butera.

Before long there was not an empty seat to be had in the Casbar Lounge and  Prima was off to the races. Fortunately for us, actress Betty Hutton attended  the shows and brought her husband, Alan Livingston, the President of Capitol  Records.   He signed Prima to a recording deal, and a number of hit records  followed. Much of the music we still listen to today originates from these  sessions, although he did record for some other labels.

  In 1958, he surprised Keely with a new Corvette as an anniversary  present, getting some showgirls to help him push it into the lobby.   Their  duet of "That Old Back Magic" won the Grammy for Best Song of  1959.  

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Eventually their marriage and partnership cooled, and they divorced in  1961.   He continued to record and had several more hits. Walt Disney was a  fan, and hired Prima to voice King Louie in the 1967 feature "The Jungle  Book," including the duet "I Wanna Be Like You" with Phil  Harris.   He eventually married another girl singer, Gia Maione, and made  some records for the Dot label, including an album of songs from "Mary  Poppins."   By the 70s the act had become old news and he moved back to  New Orleans.

If all this sounds like a perfect story for a movie, well, Hollywood is  working on that. Prima died in 1978, and on his gravesite reads "Just a  Gigolo," one of his biggest hits. But his music is still around. Keely  Smith last year released a new album of Prima standards and toured with it, and  Sam Butera has done albums with a bunch of other stars, and is still touring and working on a project with Van Morrison.      But if you ever become a Vegas entertainer yourself and find yourself booked in  the Lounge, just remember that it's sometimes the coolest place to be

Vital Stats

Name: Louis Prima

Born: December 7, 1910 in New Orleans, LA

Death: August 24, 1978 in New Orleans, LA

Hotel Affiliations: Sahara, Sands, Desert Inn

Name: Dorothy Keely Smith

Born: March 9, 1932

Name: Sam Butera

Born: August 17, 1927 in New Orleans, LA


Louis Prima is the only Las Vegas act ever to have Howard Hughes agree to a publicity blurb. In Billboard, Hughes said “Ever time I see him I like him more and more.”

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