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.
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
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.”
Click Here to Check the Entire Louis Prima Catalog
See the story of Louis Prima with rare performances on this new award-winning documentary DVD.
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This 2-CD Set from Capitol Record’s Ultra Lounge series has all of Prima’s great hits, such as That Old Black Magic, Jump Jive ‘n Wail and Just a Gigolo.
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