That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith and the Golden Age of Las Vegas
When you haven’t got much meat, it requires a lot of filler to create a decent sandwich. The meat here is the brief period, beginning in 1954, when Louis Prima and Keely Smith reigned as the hottest lounge act in Vegas, and it is pretty thin. Apart from the pair’s remarkably rapid rise alongside saxophonist Sam Butera, and the white heat of their popularity, there isn’t a tremendous amount to tell: Prima was the untamed, outrageous leader of the pack (hence the indelible nickname “The Wildest”), Butera his trusted sidekick and Smith, whose deadpan guise became as famous as her superb singing voice, the benign observer of their zaniness.
Everyone from commoners to kings crowded into the Casbar Lounge at the Sahara to see them, and the act remained essentially unchanged, right down to the 4 a.m. closing number that was invariably “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It all fell apart when Prima and Smith divorced in 1961 and went their separate ways to distinct, if considerably less seismic, solo success.
But Tom Clavin is a talented enough journalist that the material he adds to fill out the story—Prima’s early years in New Orleans, his many wives (five counting Smith), his rise and fall as a trumpeter and bandleader before uniting with Smith, the specifics of their post-break-up lives and careers, the emergence of Vegas as a national playground—helps make for a mighty tasty muffuletta.