December 2010

Tom Clavin
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.

1 Comment

  • Dec 02, 2010 at 11:34AM Bruce Klauber

    Your JT colleague, Bruce Klauber, here. Having been intimately acquainted with the music of Louis Prima for many years--both as a performer and via my friendship with several of his close colleagues--I was very, very disappointed in Clavin's book. You were being kind, which is the honorable thing to do in this business.

    Most of Glavin's material came from the Prima documentary and Gary Boulard's book on Prima from years ago. When your only original sources are Jack Carter, Connie Stevens and Shecky Greens, you know you've got a research problem on your hand.

    Gia is very much alive, as is Keely. Obviously, they wouldn't sit for interviews because they likely have their own books in progress. There are, however, a bunch of Prima's sidemen still around, including Philadelphia's Ronnie James, who could have provided great insight to the man himself, and his very, very heavy involvement with rock music in the early 1970s.

    Though I believe Sam Butera was hospitalized by the time Clavin got to Vegas, he could have spoken to Sam's wife, Vera, who could have at least given some first-person insight into what Louis was actually like.

    There is still a lot of the story to be told and Clavin's book, sadly, reads like a term paper he bought online. Louis deserved more. Clavin owes you one.

    Your work continues to get better and better.

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