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Keely Smith: Out From the Shadows

Her partnership with Louis Prima helped define the heyday of Las Vegas entertainment

Keely Smith
Keely Smith

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.

So, does it concern her to have, much like her pal Sammy Davis Jr., spent a lifetime in the shadow of lesser talents? On the phone from her home in Palm Springs, Calif., Smith doesn’t hesitate for a moment. “Sammy was the best,” she says matter-of-factly. “He loved what he did and lived what he did, and it bothered him sometimes that he should have gotten more recognition. But it never bothered me at all. I was in love, I was happy, I had my kids, I did something I enjoyed doing. I was like a pig in shit. … My daddy was a carpenter, so was my stepfather. My mother worked in a dime store. I come from those kinds of roots. I always feel that, God forbid, if something happened, I could work in a dime store. I don’t have the ego that a lot of show-business people have. I don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Those roots lead back to Norfolk, Va., where she was born Dorothy Jacqueline Keely, of Irish and Native American heritage. As young as age 11 she was singing up a storm, but received no formal music education. Instead, she says, her teachers were “Ella Fitzgerald and June Christy. Those were the two I listened to from my school days on. Also Nat Cole. He is still my favorite singer. I loved Nat, and he was probably the nicest man I ever met in show business.”

It was at age 15, during a family vacation to Atlantic City, that Smith first caught sight of Louis Prima. Her first impression? “I didn’t like him,” she candidly admits, “but I loved him as a performer [and] I admired his honesty. He loved what he did and could do things with his legs that were unbelievable. I’ve always said Elvis copied him, and Elvis actually told me he did take some of his moves from Louis.”

The pair’s professional partnership began a year later when, after persuading a Virginia Beach club owner to book Prima, she discovered he was looking for a girl singer. Six years of touring and recording followed. Marriage was in the cards, but Prima had to first settle his third divorce. He and Smith finally exchanged vows in 1953.

The following year, Smith found herself, at age 22, a naïf in Sin City—intensely shy, pregnant and all but penniless. Prima, long used to playing the plushest rooms in the biggest towns, had hit the professional skids. So he called in a favor. His buddy Bill Miller used to manage New Jersey’s massively popular Rivera nightclub, but was now in Vegas running a brand-spanking-new casino called the Sahara. Prima asked for a gig. Miller apologetically offered what he perceived a massive comedown for the mighty Prima: four weeks, not in the main room, but in the comparatively tiny, noisy Casbah Lounge. Desperate for any work they could get, Prima and Smith signed on.

That four-week engagement would ultimately extend to seven years as they quickly emerged as the hottest ticket in town. Though Prima easily adjusted to the lounge’s boisterousness, it was tougher for Smith. “The service area was right in front of the stage, and when Louis was up there playing, with his trumpet blaring and the band swinging, it would be OK,” she recalls. “But when I was singing a ballad like ‘The Man I Love,’ the waitress would come up and yell, ‘Six beers and four martinis,’ or whatever. One night, Louis stopped the show, leaned over to the waitress and said, ‘That’s OK, honey, we’ll wait ’til you’re finished.’ The next day, that service station was moved to the far end of the room.”

Though Smith is no fan of the garish homage to excess that Vegas has become, throughout the 1950s she found it “absolutely wonderful. I loved the freedom, and the town was very clean. It was a wonderful community. Our kids lived our schedule. We’d get off at six in the morning and often we’d go water-skiing at dawn. Then we’d head home, I’d sleep ’til noon, be with the kids all day, and head back to work after they were in bed. In those days, there were no hookers. Well, I’m sure there were, but we didn’t see them because we had, excuse the expression, whorehouses. And [Vegas] didn’t have any of the other problems that came along later.”

Naturally, with thousands flocking to what was being accurately dubbed “the wildest show in Vegas,” record labels’ interest in Prima was re-ignited. When Capitol came calling, Prima wisely and generously insisted that the deal include a separate contract for Smith. Teamed with producer Voyle Gilmore for her debut album, Smith remembers how “he and Louis and I sat down and played a bunch of songs, all standards, and then he played what he said was a French song, ‘I Wish You Love.’ I never used to talk to anybody in those days, but I turned to Louis and said, ‘Babe, I’ll sing any other 10 songs you want me to, but I want to do the French song.’ And Voyle said, ‘Oh, God, Keely, that song will never mean anything.’ Then Louis turned to him and said, ‘Voyle, if she wants to sing the French song, she’ll sing the French song.’ And that’s how I got it.”

Fortune further smiled on Smith when Nelson Riddle was assigned to craft the arrangements for the album that would become I Wish You Love. Says Smith, “Louis was used to controlling everything—every move we made onstage, all the arrangements, came out of Louis’ head. When we got Nelson, who I got because of Sinatra, all we gave him were the keys to the songs. Louis never opened his mouth to him. He let Nelson write whatever he wanted to write.”

Riddle was also on hand for Smith’s third and final Capitol release, Swingin’ Pretty. In between, Smith was paired for the brassy Politely! with the label’s other virtuoso arranger and orchestra leader, Billy May, whom she fondly remembers as “a character. He’d walk up to the podium, tap his little baton and say, ‘OK, gentlemen, I don’t want any shit out of this, play the notes on the music.’ And that’s how the sessions would start. I remember one time we’d given him an ending to write, but I didn’t sing it his way. He stopped the entire session and said, ‘Keely, you gave me a goddamn ending to write, I wrote it, and you’re going to sing it!’ But Billy was a nice, nice man.”

Amid her three Capitol albums, Smith was also invited by Sinatra to join him on a pair of lightweight duets, “How Are You Fixed for Love?” and “Nothing in Common.” By this point, Sinatra had earned a reputation as “one-take Frank” on both film sets and in the recording studio, but Smith gleefully recalls, “Not with me he wasn’t! You know, as a singer you’re supposed to sing the best you can and, to be honest, you don’t put out crap just because you’re Frank Sinatra. He had the power to say, ‘OK, that’s it, no more.’ When he said it, I was too dumb and too naïve to not know better and say in front of all the musicians, ‘No, that’s not right.’ Frank looked at me perplexed because he knew how shy I was. But when it came to what was right or wrong, you’ve got ears and you can tell if it’s not a good take, so I said, ‘Frank, it’s not good enough. We can do better.’ And he just smiled and said, ‘OK, baby.'”

When the Capitol deal ended, Prima made the ill-advised decision to shift to Dot Records, a move Smith says was “strictly because of money. It was never the caliber of music we did at Capitol. I had no business recording with [people like] Billy Vaughn, but I did because Louis told me to.” In 1961, with their Vegas glory days behind them, their record sales in decline and their marriage in tatters, Prima and Smith divorced, leaving her terrified at the prospect of continuing her career as a solo act. “Louis told me I’d be nothing without him, and I believed him,” she says. “I was petrified and didn’t go onstage for a couple of years. It was Dinah Shore who finally got me working again. Dinah called up and said, ‘I want you on my [TV] show.’ I said, ‘Dinah, I can’t do it.’ She was in Hollywood and I was in Vegas, and she said, ‘Get off your ass and fly in here.’ I thought, OK, let me try this, and it worked!”

Signing with Sinatra’s Reprise label, Smith’s relationship with him turned personal. “At the time,” she says, “whenever I was with Frank we were almost always with Peter Lawford and his wife Pat, who were my best friends in those days. It never dawned on me that anybody thought Frank and I were having a romance, and the funny part is that we weren’t really. I know, given Frank’s reputation, that nobody will believe this, but he treated me like a little princess, a doll. He was very respectful, very sweet, very charming, very tender, and every night I went home by myself, which frustrated the hell out of him!”

He proposed marriage, but she declined. “I’m basically a country girl,” she explains, “and always have been. And I’m extremely honest. As I’ve grown older I’ve become quite outspoken. Frank would have loved the honesty, but he couldn’t handle the honesty. I don’t think he would have liked how outspoken I’ve become. He liked to control everything. He really needed a girl who needed him.”

In the mid-’60s, after the release of her finest Reprise album, Sings the John Lennon/Paul McCartney Songbook (a major success in the U.K., but all but unknown in the U.S.), Smith chose to retire and focus on her children. In 1985, she returned to the studio for a superb one-off, I’m in Love Again for Fantasy. Fifteen years later, at age 68, Smith found herself under contract to Concord, though it happened quite by happenstance. “You’re not going to believe this,” she laughs. “Jimmy Darren was recording at Capitol and I was at a studio next door. Jimmy asked me to come over and listen to a couple of things he’d recorded and while we were listening this guy walked in. I took one look at him and said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen.’ It turned out to be [producer] John Burke from Concord. We started talking. He asked if I was with a label, and I said no. He asked if I was interested. I’d never heard of Concord Records, but said, ‘Yes, as long as they don’t try to control me.’ And that’s how I ended up on Concord. It was just a fluke he walked in that day.”

Over the past eight years, Smith has delivered four superb albums, including the Grammy-nominated Keely Sings Sinatra, her voice sounding as fit and strong as it did a half-century ago. “That’s because I’m still young,” she maintains. “Once in a while I’ll have a drink, but I’m not a drinker. I’ve never smoked and I’m very healthy. I’m a positive thinker and I’m a happy person. God’s been really good to me. I guess my voice is in shape because I don’t abuse it, even though I work quite a bit. And, thank God, I don’t sing incorrectly.”

Though Vegas will never again be in the cards for Smith (“I don’t like it. When Howard Hughes came in, which was toward the end of Louis and I, he changed everything. Overnight, everything was corporate; and you can’t run entertainment based on corporate”), she continues to tour extensively and is toying with the idea of publishing her memoirs. There’s also talk of her life story being made into a film, perhaps by Ray director Taylor Hackford, but only, she insists, if the soundtrack includes “either the original recordings or new ones I do myself. There’ll never be anybody doing me!”

And, there’s even the possibility of a high-profile collaboration. As Smith reveals, “A young man approached me recently about working with Paul McCartney. I said, ‘I’d love to sing with Paul McCartney, but what makes you think he’d record with me?’ He said, ‘They’re talking about rereleasing your Beatles album and adding a couple of duets with Paul.’ I’ve only met Paul once, but I liked him. He was a wonderful young man and a perfect gentleman.”

Her Concord contract calls for at least one more album, which she’s recently begun contemplating. “People think I’m a jazz singer,” Smith says. “Now, I’ve never considered myself a jazz singer, but I figure maybe I should do a jazz album because I’m going to be working some jazz clubs. Recently, I started listening to June Christy again. I’ve never sung ‘Midnight Sun’ or several of the other wonderful songs she did.” Echoing the modesty that has defined her entire career, she quietly adds, “I think maybe I’ll start incorporating those tunes into my act and see how it works, see if people accept those from me.”

Recommended Listening:
I Wish You Love (Capitol, 1958)
Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre (Reprise, 1963)
Keely Sings Sinatra (Concord, 2001)
Keely Swings Basie-Style (Concord, 2002)

Read a review of The Intimate Keely Smith 

Read a book review of That Old Black Magic, on Louis Prima and Keely Smith  Originally Published