New Book on Louis Prima and Keely Smith: Too Much Jivin' and Not Enough Wailin'

A review of Tom Clavin's book on Prima, Smith and Las Vegas

If Frank Sinatra’s comeback from his early 1950s career doldrums stands as a singular saga in show business history, then the story of singer/trumpeter/bandleader Louis Prima’s astounding comeback from near-obscurity in the mid-1950s runs a close second.

The New Orleans-born Prima was a hit on 52nd Street in New York City in the late 1930s with a dixieland-styled outfit that featured the likes of clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. In the 1940s, Prima’s big band was a wildly popular one, and recorded a bunch of hits, highlighted by the leader’s Italian, jive-styled vocals on songs like “Buona Sera,” “Please Don’t Squeeze the Banana,” “Angelina,” “Civilization” and other novelties. His most famous song, of course, was “Sing Sing Sing,” which he composed, though Benny Goodman had the hit on it.

By the late 1940s, however, the big band of Louis Prima was a victim of its times. The era, hits or no hits, was over for him and a bunch of other leaders.

Prima hung on for several years, helped in no small measure by singer Keely Smith, whom he met in 1948 and later married. According to Smith, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they worked any gig available to them, often for very short money and with sub-par, “house” musicians.

In 1954, things changed. Prima literally begged Bill Miller, Entertainment Director of the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, for work. Years before this, Prima’s crew headlined in the Sahara’s main showroom, but all Miller could offer them were a couple of weeks on the graveyard shift—during Thanksgiving week, yet—in the lounge.

After a tentative , Louis and Keely start, at his brother Leon’s recommendation, Prima brought tenor saxophonist Sam Butera—and his band, The Witnesses—aboard from New Orleans. Butera, a superb player, and a jazz and rhythm and blues stylist in his own right—re-wrote the Prima/Smith charts.

The gang arrived in Vegas the day after Christmas, 1954.
The sound of the ensemble is hard to describe. It needs to be heard. Using a shuffle beat as its basis, Butera effectively combined elements of dixieland, rock and roll, jazz, comedy and a good dose of Prima’s famed Italian jive and scat-singing—along with Keely Smith’s wonderful ballads—to fashion a sound that was electrifying.

Prima’s on stage interaction with Smith—he was the dancing, jiving, cavorting “bad boy” while Smith was fully, no-eyebrows raised deadpan all the way, no matter what her husband did on the stand—really helped put the act over.

As author Tom Clavin accurately points out in his new book on Louis, Keely and the Las Vegas mystique of those years, the cavorting trumpeter/singer and beautiful, deadpan balladeer, were the first Sonny and Cher.

Prima, Smith, Butera and The Witnesses, were a mega hit and the toasts of Vegas. They were hot and they were big, with top-selling records like “That Old Black Magic,” a Capital Records recording contract, movies, television guest spots and national tours. The lounge at The Sahara, when everyone was in residency, was constantly mobbed and was hangout for the most famous entertainers in the world. It was the place to go and the place to be.

All went well until Prima and Smith divorced in 1961.

Smith did well, and continues to do well, as a single. Prima, still a major attraction after 1961, discovered another singer, the great Gia Maione, who became the next Mrs. Prima, and rode into the 1970s with success. He, Butera and fellow band mates integrated elements of hard-core rock, while still maintaining the Louis Prima “sound.” Indeed, some of the group’s later works compare favorably with the best rock of the time (technically, many of his players, led by organist “Little Richie” Varola) were far better than most on the rock scene at the time).

Sadly, it all came to an end when Prima underwent an unsuccessful operation for a brain tumor in 1975 and spent three years in a coma before he died in 1978.

In 1986, a writer by the name of Gary Boulard wrote a wonderful, albeit small scale, biography of Prima, which included extensive interviews with Smith, Butera and many others involved in the life and music of the man who was nick named “The Chief.”

Perhaps because it was published by a relatively small, academic press, Urbana: the University of Illinois Press, the work never got the attention or recognition it deserved, though an updated, second edition did appear in 2002.

“That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith and the Golden Age of Las Vegas” (Chicago Review Press) retells the story. Truth be told, if it were not for Boulard’s book, a couple of dozen, previously-published celebrity bios; and two, great film documentaries on Louis Prima, author Tom Clavin would have no book.

Most of Clavin’s information comes from those sources. He did not interview Smith, Maione, Butera (who was quite ill when Clavin began his work) or more than one or two of Prima’s surviving sidemen, including drummer Paul Ferrara. The few first-hand quotes come from comics Shecky Greene, Jack Carter and Pete Barbutti; singer/actresses Connie Stevens, Sonny Bono’s last wife (!), and Debbie Reynolds, whose association with the life and music of Louis Prima and Keely Smith is, at best, tenuous.

Debbie Reynolds’ story, where she claims to have impersonated Keely Smith on a week-long gig with Prima and The Witnesses due to Smith’s illness, is, at best, preposterous. Those who know Reynolds would not be surprised at a claim like this.

And third-tier Vegas comic Pete Barbutti’s assertions that, after the Prima/Smith divorce, “Louis black balled her. He went to all the casinos and promised them that he would work for them if they didn’t hire Keely. She was close to living on the street. She was going to the hotel buffets and begging.”

Those allegations are simply absurd, and if I were Keely Smith, I would start thinking about hiring a good libel lawyer.

One gets the sense that anyone really associated with the famous pair didn’t want to be a part of Clavin’s book, even though the author’s credits are impressive, including a 15-year stint at the New York Times.

Evidently, Smith and Maione have their own projects in the works, according to the author and others, which is a good enough reason for them not to talk. There are, however, plenty of folks still around who had closer ties with Prima and Smith than Pete Barbutti and Lorraine Hunt-Bono.

This whole situation reminds me of the time when Charles Mingus’ controversial, “Beneath the Underdog” was published. I think it was Lee Konitz, of all people, who wrote a letter to a jazz magazine, saying how disappointed he was in Mingus’ work, in that he had hoped “to read about the ‘cats’.”

No, there wasn’t much about “the cats” in “Beneath the Underdog,” and you won’t be reading much about “the cats” in “That Old Black Magic,” either.

I have—more accurately, had—a vested interest in the music of Louis Prima. I sang and played his music professionally for years, and in 1978, recorded a remake of The Chief’s famed version of “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” seven years before rocker David Lee Roth had the freak hit on it.

For various reasons, my version, which was scheduled for release on the RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization) label, was never issued. Roth’s rendition sold millions.

And truth be told, if it were re-done in 2011, I’d bet that it would be good for another few million in sales, if only because the music of Louis Prima remains timeless, swinging , charismatic, and electrifying.

Clavin, though shoddy and slapdash research and perhaps because his knowledge of music is limited, is just unable to tell us why.

Contact Bruce Klauber on his web site, or via [email protected]

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Bruce Klauber