Louis_prima_span3
December 2007

Louis Prima
Jump, Jive an’ Wail: The Essential Louis Prima
Capitol Records
Keely Smith
The Essential Capitol Collection
Capitol Records

By the early 1950s Louis Prima was as good as washed up. The veteran bandleader, trumpeter and singer had put together an unbeatably entertaining stage act, with singer (and 21-years-his-junior fourth wife) Keely Smith and wildman saxophonist Sam Butera onboard, but the patrons of the dives they played didn’t seem to appreciate it. Vegas did. With his good-timing, swinging pastiche of pre-R&B/primal rock ’n’ roll jump, cornball lounge appeal and charismatic showmanship, the New Orleans-born Prima drove ’em wild at the Sahara Hotel; Capitol soon signed him and Smith to separate deals and the world-at-large caught on.

Both artists have been served by countless compilations before, but these new complementary sets may be the most concise and fat-free single-disc intros yet assembled from their Capitol discographies. While it’s often tempting to think of Prima as a novelty act—his less-than-polished vocal style, penchant for Italian-accented silliness (“Felicia No Capicia,” “Luigi,” “Oh Marie”) and the band’s quasi-chaotic arrangements would support that contention—there’s no question that once engaged, he and the band kicked serious ass. On standards from “When the Saints Go Marching In” to “I’ve Got the World on a String,” the theatrics are offset by precision ensemble work and steamy soloing (particularly when Butera lets loose). And there’s a reason tracks like “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” (faithfully covered by David Lee Roth in 1985), “Sing Sing Sing” (written by Prima, immortalized by Benny Goodman), “Buona Sera” and the Grammy-winning “That Old Black Magic” (one of four duets with Smith on the Prima set), have held up for so long: Prima was a magnetic, visionary performer whose influence is still felt today—just ask any neo-swing band.

With her pixie hairstyle and no-nonsense demeanor, Smith served as the perfect foil to the kooky frontman. On her own, she leaned toward a more mainstream pop style, trading in the big band for a full, sedate orchestra and leaving the jokiness at home. Her treatments of familiar vehicles like “Imagination,” “Stormy Weather,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” as well as her duets with Sinatra (two are included), reveal a classy, jazz-informed songstress. Smith’s solo work, often encased in arrangements by Nelson Riddle or Billy May, may have been understated in comparison to her Prima collaborations, but it’s no less impressive. Although neither their marriage nor the Capitol gig lasted long—both were over by the early ’60s—Prima and Smith (who is still active at 75) each logged their most significant work for the label, and much of it can be found herein.

Originally published in December 2007
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