Louis Prima: The Zooma-Zooma Legacy Continues

A review of stellar discoveries on audio and video by the man who plays "Pretty for the People"

It is impossible not to like the music of Louis Prima. In almost six decades as a bandleader, composer, trumpeter and singer, the energy, vitality, charisma and electricity that he brought to every performance was nothing short of incredible.

Saxophonist Sam Butera, architect of the Prima sound from 1954 on, was once asked to describe the music of the man he called The Chief. “It’s just happy music, man,” Butera said.

Prima was also something of a stylistic visionary. He moved and evolved effortlessly from small group dixieland to big bands, jazz, rhythm and blues and even rock. Along with Louis Jordan and Lionel Hampton in the mid-1940s, the music of Louis Prima—to say nothing of his talents as an entertainer and showman--foreshadowed R & B and rock.

His oft-told story is the stuff of legend: When the big band era was over, Prima was scuffling, along with a host of other famed leaders. In 1954, with his then-wife and singer Keely Smith, he got an offer to appear in the lounge of the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Though it was a step down for the pair, having played “the main room” some seasons back with the big band, they really had no choice at the time. It was an offer, as they say, they couldn’t refuse.

With the addition of the New Orleans-based Butera and his boys, The Witnesses, the group effectively combined jazz, dixieland, R&B, comedy, the magic Louis/Keely combination; and plenty of Prima’s Italian novelty hits, jive and scat, to become almost overnight Vegas sensations. The lounge at the Sahara was the place to be. For over six years, Louis, Keely, Sam and the boys were mega-stars, with hit records, motion pictures, dozens of television guest shots and personal appearances at the biggest clubs in the country.

With the well-publicized divorce of Prima and Smith in 1961, things changed. No, the career of Louis Prima did not go down hill as had—and has—often been reported. He continued to work the best rooms, logged hours as a television guest star, recorded dozens of LPs, did a film or two including the famed “Jungle Book” for Disney, and remained among Vegas’ and the country’s top night club attractions.

And Keely did just fine in her solo career, which continues on a limited basis today. Those who have characterized her as almost “homeless” and feeding herself from budget, Vegas buffets after her split with Prima, have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. How do things like that ever get into print?

In the fall of 1962, a 20-year old singer from Toms River, New Jersey, named Gia Maione became the group’s new female singer. A year later, she became the new Mrs. Prima. Taking what was Keely Smith’s spot couldn’t have been easy, but Maione did things in her own, individual fashion as a vocalist and as a stage presence. Her work on the rhythm tunes, particularly on the tongue-twisting “I Want You to Be My Baby,” is forceful but innocent, swinging but not over-bearing, and with perfect time and intonation. She believed in what she was singing ballad-wise as well. Listen to the superb, Prima-produced “This is Gia” for examples. And all this from a 20-year old who never sang with a name band. Talk about poise!

With the birth of her children, Gia toured cut back on her touring schedule, though she did make regular appearances with Prima until 1975. Increasingly, Louis, Sam and The Witnesses were turning more and more toward rock. With the addition of players like the remarkable organist, “Little” Richie Varola, strong guitarists conversant in any style such as Ronnie James, the return of drummer Jimmy Vincent in 1962, and saxophonist Butera’s use of electronics via the line-doubling “Varitone,” the band’s rock was more than credible. It was influential. These players had chops that the rock bands didn’t.

The group was still evolving and quite popular when Louis Prima was operated on for a benign brain tumor in 1975. Tragically, he fell into a semi-comatose state and remained in that condition until his death three years later.

Gia Maione Prima’s contributions as Louis Prima’s vocalist were substantial, though when the history books are written—and I sure hope a good one will be forthcoming—they will say that, more than any other, she was the “keeper of the Louis Prima flame.” As the owner and operator of Prima Music, LLC, she’s been the driving force behind the www.LouisPrima.com web site, issues of rare audio material from what was Prima’s own record label, and discoveries and release of films that were thought not to exist. Her tireless efforts to set the record straight when ever an inaccuracy manifests itself in print or on television are singular. Mrs. Prima is perpetuating a legacy.

A vast majority of the younger contingent who now know and love the music of Louis Prima owe a debt to Gia.

As a Prima fan, as well as one who has written and produced more than 20 DVDs and CDs focusing on the jazz legends—much of it newly-discovered or never thought to exist—I was naturally salivating at the thought of two, “new” Prima discoveries.

In line with the Louis Prima Centennial Celebration of last year—and what a promotion that was and is, complete with great, PBS exposure— we have “Louis Prima: Rarities and Hits,” a 24-track CD covering the post-Keely years 1963-1975.

The DVD, titled “Louis Prima: In Person!” is nothing short of unbelievable, presenting over 30 film clips that have either been rarely seen or never seen. The DVD is a comprehensive overview of the life of the legend, with footage dating from 1937 to 1973.

Both stellar projects help fill in the gaps in terms of what we know about the evolution and influence of Prima.

On the CD, as early as 1963, it’s easy to hear that The Chief wanted to put more emphasis on the guitar, volume-wise and rhythmically. On live and studio remakes of his most fondly-remembered numbers, including “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” featuring a great Gia, Prima enlisted Sam Butera to update the original 1950s charts. Louis Prima never looked back. He knew he had to reprise his hits, as all top-selling artists do, but he insisted that they be done in a new way. As examples, The Chief’s chart-toppers such as “Civilization,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Sing Sing Sing” were re-cast with rock rhythms. He did not, however, tamper with “Just a Gigolo,” "Oh Marie," or “That Old Black Magic,” which were just tamper-resistant.

Aside from jazz artists Charlie Mingus, Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie, who started their own record labels—Debut and Dee Gee, respectively—in the early 1950s, the concept of an artist owned and operated record company was unknown. Talk about a visionary: Though he had lucrative record contracts with Capital, Dot and other record labels over the years, Prima decided to open up his own shop in 1963 with Prima Magnagroove Records.

He could record what he wanted, when he wanted and how he wanted. The product was sold in stores, via mail order, at gigs, and later on television. The idea was innovative, albeit perhaps too early for its time. But the plan inspired artists such as Stan Kenton, The Four Freshman, George Shearing, The World’s Greatest Jazz Band and Anita O’Day, among others, to try their hand at record label ownership. Even Tony Bennett jumped into the fray years later with his Improv Records. And as of 2011, with ITunes, YouTube, downloads and the internet, is seems everyone who sings or plays an instrument has their own record label.

A bunch of the CD tracks come from the Magnagroove years, with highlights being “As Time Goes By,” “It’s Impossible” the oft-requested “Che La Luna,” and the final track Prima ever recorded, “I’m Leaving You” from 1975.

Drummer Jimmy Vincent, who served some time in Prima’s 1940s big band, deserves a good deal of credit for the success and musical validity of the 1970s ensemble. His time is rock-solid and technique incomparable. It’s not for nothing that Buddy Rich loved him. Vincent left in 1974 and was replaced by another great percussion talent, Joey Vespe.

The once, almost impossible to obtain Magnagroove CDs are all available at www.LouisPrima.com.

“Louis Prima: Rarities and Hits” is available at www.CCMusic.com.

In the case of Louis Prima, as wonderful as audio is, you’ve got to see this man on film. It’s indescribable. He is in veritable constant motion, singing, playing trumpet, dancing, mugging, joking, laughing and conducting. I’d bet he would have climbed the walls if he could. It may appear to be musical anarchy, but it is not. The Chief was always in total control over everything that went down on his stage, musically or otherwise.

Though collectors knew a bunch of this stuff was filmed, finding it was another matter. Historic Films' Joe Lauro, director and co-producer of the ground-breaking film documentary “Louis Prima: The Wildest!” explains, “Since that production, a slew of long-lost filmed performances of Prima and his various combos have emerged. Culled from the basements and shelves of television and motion picture archives, ‘Louis Prima: In Person’ presents the very best of these performances; not only the best, but the rarest! In fact, most of the performances have not been seen since their original TV broadcasts or during the week they were shown at the local movie house back in the day!”

The Chief’s early days are represented by clips from the late 1930s and early 1940s. What’s interesting is that, as early as 1937, careful listeners can detect just where Prima would go musically years later. Two “Ed Sullivan Shows,” then called “The Toast of the Town,” are on hand from 1949 and 1951, showing Louis in front of the curtain, trumpet in hand, performing “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Come-on-A-My-House.” The latter, a hit for Rosemary Clooney, should have been Louis Prima’s. He told Columbia producer Mitch Miller the same, but Miller refused. Miller, one-time classical oboist, proved to have the taste and tact of an urn.

The Keely Smith era is amply represented. Most eye-opening are 1955 renditions of “Flip Flop Fly” (Elvis Presley performed the same song in the same year, which proves how open Prima’s ears were) and “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine.” This footage shows Prima and Smith in transition, working out what was to be “their act.” In 1955, it wasn’t there yet. But the influence of rock was, and the parents who claimed that rock was corrupting the morals of youth had no problem listening to Prima’s version of it, especially when Charlton Heston appeared on-screen to introduce the group.

Gia enters the fray in 1962 with her fine renditions of “Undecided,” “Big Daddy” and “I Want You to be my Baby” from the Sullivan show. She had been on the band for a total of one week, only to find herself starring on the number one television program in the country. And she pulled it off beautifully, looking and sounding like she had been on the band—and on television—for years.

There are a couple of very rare 1970s clips, and a slew of neat extras, including a segment that features none other than Louis Prima Jr. and The Witnesses performing the ever-popular “Jump Jive an’ Wail.”

"Louis Prima: In Person" is scheduled to be released May 17.

There is no doubt that the CD and the DVD will be listened to and viewed over and over again.

Author Will Friedwald, in his essential new book, “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers,” explains in his entry on Louis Prima: “He was such a unique figure in American music. First, he was a brilliant musician, an inspired trumpeter and a superlative singer. Even if he were just another singing horn man—on the level of such Crescent City colleagues as Red Allen or Wingy Manone—Prima would easily have earned a place in the jazz history books. But he was something more: Like Frank Sinatra and Artie Shaw, Prima had an intrinsic belief in the value of pop music—that it was no less capable than, say, opera or lieder of moving the heart and stirring the soul, and no less worthy of a permanent place in our collective consciousness.”

“Stirring the soul.” When talking about Louis Prima, that about says it all.

Contact Bruce Klauber on the web at www.JazzLegends.com.

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Bruce Klauber