She can be counted, alongside bandleader/trumpeter Louis Prima, among the earliest architects of Las Vegas showmanship. When the very first Grammy awards were handed out in 1959, she was up for two, losing Best Female Vocal Performance to Ella Fitzgerald but scoring, with Prima, for Best Performance by a Vocal Group for their frenetic rendition of “That Old Black Magic.” (She wasn’t in attendance to accept, but made up for it earlier this year, recreating that same “Magic” alongside a clearly out-of-his-league Kid Rock on the Grammys’ 50th-anniversary telecast). Sinatra wooed and nearly married her. Sammy and Dino numbered among her closest friends. So did Bobby Darin. JFK tapped her to perform at his inauguration. She’s walked with kings, but has never lost the common touch. Such is the magic of Keely Smith.
She could (and, a more than a half-century on, still can) sing circles around the preeminent girl singers of her era: Doris Day, Jo Stafford, Patti Page, even Rosemary Clooney. Her power, her range, her interpretive skill and her emotive dexterity rival Ella and Sarah. Her stagecraft outshines them all. But Smith never craved stardom (still doesn’t). At the height of her 1950s popularity, when she and Prima were proving a bigger draw than many of the Strip’s headliners, she’d do her five shows a night (starting at midnight, ending at 6 a.m.), retire to the ladies’ room to read between sets, then head home to care for their two young daughters. Even her trademark demeanor—the deadpan ennui fans assumed was purposefully created as a counterpoint to Prima’s limb-flinging explosiveness—was accidental: While waiting for her turn to sing she’d stand stock-still in front of the piano and simply stare off into space, letting her mind wander.