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Tom Clavin: Getting Into the Act

Interview with author of book about Louis Prima and Keely Smith

Cover of That Old Black Magic

Tom Clavin is the author/co-author of eleven books, including Roger Maris, The Last Stand of Fox Company and Halsey’s Typhoon. His articles have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Family Circle, Men’s Journal, Parade, Reader’s Digest and others. He was a contributing reporter for the New York Times for 15 years. His latest book is That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas, published by Chicago Review Press.

Clavin spoke with JT about Prima, Smith and getting the right tone for the subject at hand.


What was the first piece you wrote professionally as a journalist?

I lived in New York City for several years and there was a magazine there that would do reviews of a popular technology at that time called videocassettes [chuckling]. So this is going back to about 1980. It was just a byline, not for money. I was working at that time at the Guinness Book of World Records, proofreading things like “So and so ate the most eggs in one sitting.” People would show up at our office with potty-trained iguanas they wanted to show us. I didn’t feel a long future there. I had always been interested in writing. My very first professional writing experience was writing reviews of videos for this magazine that I’m sure is long defunct. I think it was called Folio. I would write for different kinds of arts publications that maybe paid $15 or maybe not. I was mostly interested in the bylines because I wanted to try to eventually write for better or larger circulation magazines. So I had to start building a resume from scratch.

And you did do that, because over the years you wrote for a wide variety of very large mainstream magazines.

It really was a matter of every few months being ambitious and trying for a bigger publication. My biggest break was in 1984 when I got my first assignment for the New York Times and managed to complete it and get it published. I had an editor there, Stewart Kampel, who was the first one to give me a break and ended up becoming a good friend and mentor. He taught me a lot. I basically worked for him for about 15 years, writing all kinds of pieces, probably hundreds of pieces for the Times. When he retired after 45 years, we kept in touch, but it was time to move on to magazines, because the higher circulation magazines paid better. I was lucky enough to start getting assignments from places like Cosmopolitan, golf publications, Parade magazine and Men’s Journal, again good for bylines and a pretty decent wage.

Did you have a specialty or were you basically a generalist?

My main specialty was in the arts and sports. My biggest break was during the ’80s, when the New York Times made me their environmental correspondent for the New York/Long Island/Metropolitan area. It was a great time to do that because of all the wars over closing of landfills and over water pollution. There were hot-button topics happening in the environment. I was right at the forefront of that. That got me a ton of visibility as the Times writer, but I was more interested in other things. After a few years tramping through landfills, I was ready to trade that in for golf courses and baseball fields. I was very interested in movie, sports and music. Fortunately, I was able to find publications that would give me assignments along those lines and I was able to leave the polluted water behind.

Did you have any formal training in journalism?

I didn’t go to journalism school. I went to the University of Southern California. I was an English major and I was interested in writing. I wrote for the school newspaper there. I also co-founded a literary magazine at USC called Prufrock, which I am sure is long gone. I ran that for a couple of years and that was a great experience. But my training as a journalist really just was a matter of saying yes to every assignment that was offered to me or that I could persuade someone to give me. And just writing over and over again. My training was really on the job.

What is your feelings about editors and how they have impacted your work?

I have been very fortunate over the years. They say you make your own luck and in that regard maybe I have, because I welcome editing and I have had very good relationships with editors. I look back at the books I’ve done, I can only think of one book that I had a problem with an editor. With the other books I’ve done, I’ve had really good experiences with editors. I’m totally convinced that the other books I did are better because of the editors. Stewart Kampel was with the Times for about 45 years and for some reason he took a shine to me and gave me a lot of opportunities and I learned a lot from that. What eventually happened is that I went to work for a newspaper company and was the editor in chief of a weekly chain of newspapers, so I did get to see firsthand the other side of the desk. I had to edit writers who were turning in all kinds of copy, whether it be about sports, arts or politics, and I could draw upon the very good experience I had with editors, especially someone like Stewart. To this day, if I have a question, I can reach Stewart for help. I am so fortunate that we crossed paths.

Your previous books have been on non-music subjects like Roger Maris and A Marine company in Korea. Why Prima and Smith? What about their duo most appealed to you?

I didn’t grow up in a household that played Prima. There are some people of Italian descent who will say, “Oh yea, Louis Prima was played in my house growing up.” That was not the case for me. In my household they’d be playing Irish folk songs, like “Danny Boy” and things like that. About ten years ago, I was with a friend of mine, Bridget LeRoy and she’s from an entertainment family. Her great grandfather was one of the four Warner Brothers who founded that studio. Her grandfather was Mervyn LeRoy who produced The Wizard of Oz and directed Little Caesar. And her father Warner LeRoy, who was the owner of Tavern on the Green. Her mother, Gen, was of Sicilian descent and she was a big Louis Prima fan. Bridget became a big Louis Prima fan. She was persuading me that I should listen to the music of Louis Prima and Keely Smith. We actually wanted to do a screenplay based on Louis Prima, Keely Smith and the Las Vegas years. We had been doing some screenwriting projects together ten years ago. We had several meetings with different people and we couldn’t get anybody to back it. So we sort of dropped it and Bridget went on to different things.

I couldn’t let the idea go. I thought maybe some day I could find a publisher, since if someone isn’t going to do this as a movie, maybe I could do it as a book. Eventually I did find a publisher who did like the idea and felt that there wasn’t anything else out there. There was Gary Boulard’s book on Louis Prima, which was originally published in the ’60s, I believe. But there was nothing on Louis Prima and Keely Smith. I wanted to do it and I saw Keely at the Carlyle around April of 2007. She was just a knockout. She did four weeks at the Carlyle. Diana Krall, Bette Midler, Phoebe Snow came to see her. All these people were there to worship at her feet. I thought, “Now is the time.” I put a proposal together and I was fortunate enough that the Chicago Review Press said, “Let’s do it.” You’re not going to get rich writing for a small publisher like this, so it was definitely a labor of love.

Were you able to interview Keely for this book? Was she cooperative? Did she give you her blessing?

No she didn’t. I approached her several times. I sent her letters. I left phone messages. I left phone messages with her daughters. In 2008 when I knew I was working on the book, I was there for the opening night of her show at Birdland and I tried to talk with her then. The response I kept getting from her and it’s the response she’s given to many people over the years is that she’s writing her autobiography and doesn’t want to give away her stories to anyone else. My response at that time when she was 80 was: “Keely, if you’re going to do an autobiography, don’t you think you better get started?”

I initially got some cooperation from Louis’ fifth wife, Gia Maione Prima. She would help me by pointing in the direction of sources of information, but eventually she didn’t want to get involved because the book is about Louis and Keely. And over the decades, Keely and her have not gotten along. She was hoping the book would be more about her and Louie. But I said, “No, the title of the book is Louis Prima, Keely Smith and The Golden Age of Las Vegas.” I gave her the manuscript with the permission of the publisher for her to read in advance. She did or claimed that she did. She said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with it. It’s all about Keely and very little about me.” Which is too bad, because the book is kind towards her and she was a talented person. But Louis was on the downside of his career when they got together.

You really want to credit Prima with more than being a Disney character, known for his voice acting as the King of the Apes in The Jungle Book. What do you think his legacy is?

I think that one of the things that has been overlooked is that he’s a very good songwriter. Most people don’t realize that Louis Prima wrote “Sing Sing Sing” which was a huge hit for Benny Goodman. It’s one of the great songs in jazz or swing history. Also, he was a terrific entertainer. One of the people I interviewed was a drummer of his, with The Witnesses in Vegas and he had sort of an ambivalent feeling about Prima. There were some things that he didn’t like about him. But right away he said that there was no entertainer like Prima. He wanted to entertain people. Other people commented on how he could read an audience. He knew how to get the audience going. That’s one thing I wanted to make sure for people who read the book that they realize this was a guy who people loved to see live. Even if you’re not big fan of his voice or if you don’t want to listen to his records, he was a tremendous performer. I hope that there will be a re-evaluation of him as a performer because he could get audiences on their feet.

How did you do your research on Prima’s Italian-American roots in New Orleans?

I was surprised to find out how large an ethnic group the Italians were in New Orleans. It’s common knowledge about the French influence and the Spanish presence in New Orleans, but it had this gravitational pull on Italian immigrants. I quote Sam Butera talking his grandfather who ended up in one place and said, “No, let’s go to New Orleans, that’s where the other Italians are.” That was a really enjoyable part of the research. There have been books published on academic presses about the Italians in New Orleans. I felt that I was learning something. That’s always a thing about writing a book: where you learn something unexpected. It enriches the writing experience. It’s what make the job fun.

Where did you do your research on Las Vegas’ history?

There are several books out from small press publishers by academics who were doing their work in the publish or perish environment of academia. I spent a few weeks in Las Vegas and a big part of being there was to be at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas library. It’s a great facility. I didn’t know what to expect when I got there, but it was really good. And the people were so helpful. When I showed up and said, “Here’s what I need to find out,” they said, “We have this” and “We have that.” They had archives of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the newspaper. And you could go back decades of coverage. I could read an article that was written about Louis Prima that was written in 1957. There were these other publications called Fabulous Las Vegas which doesn’t exist any more. It was a PR publication basically. It wasn’t like you were going to find any exposes in there about the underside of Las Vegas, but still it was page after page of articles about the entertainment scene there. That was pleasant surprise to see how much documentation there was available that covered the period of the ’50s and ’60s.

How long did it take to research and write?

It was about two years, I’d say. I had the contract and was well on my way working on the book when I saw Keely at Birdland in 2008. I was in Vegas in January 2009. So, two years working on this book. And, of course, it’s not a long book. We’re not talking about 450 page book. I had to work on this while I was also working on other projects, but it was something that I enjoyed working on. It was writing about a fun period. Sometimes you have to write about things that are dark or tragic or difficult. Keely did have a tough life in a lot of ways, but most of the book talks about Louis’ success as a solo artist and then their success as a husband and wife collaborative team in Las Vegas at a time when it was going through its boom years. Money couldn’t be made fast enough. So that was fun to come back to that

What did you learn about Prima that surprised you?

I guess what surprised me is that he was so different offstage. You put him on stage and he was this dynamic force. You look at the clips of him performing or Keely and him performing, say, on the Ed Sullivan Show, he was just all over the place. But offstage he was a very private and quiet businesslike person who was unapproachable. When I interviewed people like Shecky Greene, Debbie Reynolds, Jack Carter and others who knew Louis in the ’50, they confirmed this. Even Sam Butera was with Louis for how many years and Sam would say that maybe they would get together and play golf. But when the golf round was over, it was like “See you later tonight.” It wasn’t “Let’s sit around and smoke cigars and swap stories.” So that was surprising that someone so extroverted on stage would be so opposite off stage.

Was there any material you left on the cutting room floor, so to speak?

It was hard to find material about their personal life because Louis was so private. And in so many of Keely’s interviews she would say: “I am the product of Louis Prima and he’s the chief.” So there was very little information or insight into what they were like offstage. From what I could gather, what they projected was pretty much true. He would play golf and she would stay home with the kids and they would get ready to go onstage. Their life was played out onstage. I think at one point in the book I refer to their performing was sort of like a mating ritual. What you saw onstage in a lot of ways reflected the dynamic between them even offstage.

I would have liked to have written more about the larger entertainment scene in Las Vegas in the ’50s, but again this wasn’t going to be a 400 page book. I was glad that I was able to get in some of the racial issues about Las Vegas. There were references at that time to Las Vegas being the Mississippi of the West. I included things like about how Louis couldn’t have a drink with Cab Calloway in the Sahara when he first got there. And how the [African-American] performers could perform in the hotel, but couldn’t stay or eat there. I was glad to get that in there, because I wasn’t looking to write a puff piece about Las Vegas. It was an amazing place, but it had it’s underside too.

As you know, for artists like these, music really is their life and in order to understand one, you have to understand the other. Did you find it hard to balance the life and the music of these figures? Did you have any trouble getting across their musical assets?

That was sort of difficult. I found it was helpful to me that as I was writing, I’d have their music on all the time. Between the two of them, they generated a lot of music. Louis had a long and successful career before he and Keely ever saw each other. Then they had those wonderful albums they did together. And Keely had her solo career. But just trying to discuss more of the music they did or dissect their songs, you could go on for a hundred pages. What I hoped will happen is that people will read the book or read about the book and will check their music out. And so much of their music is on YouTube these days. That would be rewarding, because it’s really feel-good music. You put on some Louis Prima, it really makes you feel better. They had that shuffle beat. A big disappointment is that by the time I started working on the book, Sam Butera was too ill to be interviewed. I really wanted to make sure that Sam got credit, because you see some of the clips of Sam on sax and interacting with Louis and the way he made that band so tight. And he was a loyal guy. He was with Louis until Louis died. One of the rewards of working on the book was finding out what a terrific musician Sam was.

The book has a breezy quality and tone. Is that a reflection of the author or the subject or both?

It was a reflection of the subject, because in other projects I’ve done, I don’t think breezy would be quite the word. The book I did previous to this one was about Roger Maris and Roger had a lot of tough times and he was only 51 when he died. The previous book to that was about a Marine Corps company in Korea in 1950 when 264 guys went into this battle and only 60 came out. So it’s pretty hard to be breezy about a subject like that. When it came time to sit down and write this book, it was a deliberate choice to realize that I can’t treat this like the other subjects. I tried to make the experience of reading this book somewhat similar to the experience of catching a two-hour Louis and Keely show.

The two of them did some lousy movies, but this book would actually make a hell of a movie – with its meet cute premise and rise to success and then fallout.

I’m glad you picked up on that. As I mentioned earlier, this project initially began was something Bridget [LeRoy] and I wanted to do as a screenplay. When it came time to write it, I still wanted it to have that cinematic quality. That’s why you don’t see any long chapters, because you’re cutting from scene to scene. The opening chapter is inspired by Bob Fosse and Cabaret. And you have a great ending when ten years after they broke up and he called her up onstage and they do “That Old Black Magic” one more time. You gotta think of one of the ’40s Hollywood musicals.

Over the years, you’ve interviewed many notable figures. Is there one interview that sticks out for you? And, if so, why?

The one that pops in my mind right away because we’re talking about this book is that I spent a half hour with Gregg Allman talking about Louis Prima. It was last January and I had gotten an assignment to interview Gregg Allman anyway. I didn’t know what to expect because here’s a guy who’s been a rock and roll icon for all these years and you hear about the drugs and drinking and marriage to Cher. He was a totally delightful interview. He couldn’t have been more accommodating and friendly and interesting, telling anecdote after anecdote. I brought up that his band was scheduled to be part of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the end of April and part of the festival will commemorate the 100th anniversary, so I have to ask even though Louis Prima and the Allman Brothers couldn’t be farther apart. He contradicted me. He said, “No, man, I listened to Louis Prima as a kid. He was a great entertainer and songwriter.” We went on for 25 minutes talking about Prima and how he learned from Prima.

Specifically from this book, I think about Shecky Greene telling this story about how he would lead Keely up onstage and hold her hand because she was so nervous. He was trying to get her to revive her career. And the Debbie Reynolds story about how for a week she impersonated Keely Smith at a nightclub gig in Miami. This was when Louis and Keely were on the rocks and they had a contract at the Fountainbleu Hotel. Keely said, “I’m not going, you’re on your own.” And Louis said, “My God, if you don’t show up, we lose the $75,000 for one week.” So Debbie Reynolds, as a favor to Louis, flew to Miami and put on the black pageboy wig. She knew the songs and routines because she’d seen them hundreds of times before. And for a week she was Keely Smith and apparently no one knew. She said, “I never told anybody this story before.” As you know, as a journalist, (a) you love hearing something like that, and (b) you hope that it’s true.

Which writers influenced you as you were developing and coming up in the world of journalism?

Woodward and Bernstein, even though I don’t write about politics. I do remember the profound influence that they had on me as a teenager with the Watergate investigation. I think that was such an exciting time for journalism. Any of this in the business know what a spur that was for enrollment in journalism schools. One of the highlights of my life was about five years ago after my Walter Hagen biography came out, when I was doing a reading at a bookstore. In the middle of the reading, I glance over and who walks in and sits down, but Carl Bernstein. I thought, “Wow, he’s coming to listen to me to read from one of my books?” That was like the ultimate.

I was also very influenced by Hemingway and Steinbeck. Not only their fiction, but also their non-fiction. They were both very good reporters and very good non-fiction writers. I would read Hemingway’s non-fiction pieces, a collection of his work from when was a reporter with the Kansas City Star and books like A Moveable Feast. And Steinbeck’s non-fiction. Grapes of Wrath is in many ways not a novel. When someone re-reads that, there’s a drama with the Joad family, but every couple chapters, is where he steps back and he’s completely just a reporter on what’s happening with the Dust Bowl and the migration to California in the ’30s. I would say the non-fiction work of those two writers was very influential on me. And then Woodward and Bernstein came along and, what can I say, they made journalism sexy.

Whom do you enjoy reading now?

I going to be very biased and tell you about a fellow named Bob Drury who I’ve done my two previous books with. He just got back from Panama doing a story for Playboy Magazine and he just did a story for Men’s Health and he does other piece. He’s not only a friend, but I think he’s one of the finest writers I know.

What non-fiction or biographies outside of the world of music do you admire and find yourself re-reading?

There’s another friend of mine named Danny Peary who I did the Roger Maris book with and there’s no finer baseball mind on the planet as far as I’m concerned. He’s so knowledgeable about baseball. When he writes something about it, I always learn something. I know I’m being biased, but I really enjoy reading the work of my friends. I’m so happy to work with them.

What are your feelings about the future of the print media (newspapers, magazines and books) and its effect on journalism?

I teach at a local college. I teach two writing courses every semester. I get kind of worried, because it seems to me that kids don’t read that much. It doesn’t seem like their high school experience had involved enough reading. I’ll talk to them about contemporary writers and I’ll bring in material recently published in newspapers and magazines and it doesn’t seem like they’re familiar with a lot of this. They get so much of their information from each other, with Twitter, Facebook and texting. I can’t say that much of it is accurate. We all know that there are some excellent websites out there, but there are also websites that the quality control is suspect, so there is some false information out there. I get concerned about it.

But having said that, it doesn’t seem that there are any fewer books being published every year. You look at Publisher’s Weekly and it’s still reviewing hundreds and hundreds of books every year. I don’t think there’s going to be necessarily a cutback in the amount of material. It’s just that people are going to read it differently. There was a story circulating recently that there won’t be books in five years. That could be true. Look what happened when Amazon announced a couple of months ago that during the first six months of 2010 its electronic books outsold its physical books and that had never happened before. I personally have not made the transition yet. I know it’s inevitable to own an electronic reading device. I still like the feeling of cracking open a book and the smell of a new book and the smell of newsprint. I subscribe to a bunch of magazines. Maybe I’m singlehandedly trying to keep them in business, but I still love the feeling of opening up a new magazine and poring through it. Inevitably with the next generation, the majority of them will get their information from electronic devices and downloads.

What’s next as far as another book project?

There are actually two books I’m working on simultaneously. One is done and in the can. I have a book coming out in March on the golfer Jack Nicklaus. It’s specifically about him and the 1986 Masters Golf Tournament, because it was his last win in a major at 46 years old. Many people consider it to be the finest tournament in Masters history and next spring is the 50th Anniversary of that tournament. It’s divided into four parts-Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday-what’s happening on the golf course and also a biography of Nicklaus and an overview of the Masters.

With my friend Bob Drury, our next book will be out in May from Simon and Schuster and it’s called Last Man Out. Many people of a certain age know that on April 30, 1975, we got everybody out of Saigon as it fell to the Communists. There’s that iconic photograph of the helicopter on the roof, which for 35 years has been erroneously believed to be the last helicopter out of Saigon, but it’s not. What most people don’t know is that when everybody got out of Saigon in a hurry, there were 11 locked and loaded Marines left behind and this book is their story of the last 24 hours. There were thousands of people trying to be evacuated. It remains the largest helicopter evacuation the world has ever seen. The good news that thousands of people were evacuated, but the bad news is that some people were left behind. There were hundreds of Vietnamese that were assured that they were going to be taken out of there and they weren’t. And also there were these 11 Marines who stayed until the very end making sure that everyone else got on the helicopters. That last helicopter left and there was a mix-up in communications and the people out in the Seventh Fleet didn’t realize that there were still 11 Marine waiting for evacuation. That book is going to be out in May. It’s really one of those tick-tock kind of things, with the last 24 hours to find out what the fate is of these last 11 Marines.

And the project after that is a biography of the baseball player and manager Gil Hodges. Unlike the Roger Maris biography in which the family did not want to cooperate, the Hodges family is happy that this book is being done. A lot of people assume that Gil Hodges is in the Hall of Fame, but he’s not.

Originally Published