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Hilary Gardner Remembers Keely Smith

Singer raised in Alaska pays tribute to one of her inspirations - the inimitable Keely Smith (3.9.28 – 12.16.17)

Cover of the Intimate Keely Smith album
Cover of the Intimate Keely Smith album

I was introduced to Keely Smith’s singing in the mid-1990s, when I fell in love with the film Big Night and its soundtrack, which prominently featured the music of Louis Prima and his Las Vegas cohorts. I was a teenager in rural Alaska then, and had never been to a nightclub, let alone Las Vegas, but when I listened to Louis Prima and Keely Smith, I could close my eyes and see them holding court in a swanky lounge, blue cigarette smoke swirling atmospherically above Naugahyde booths.

As I continued my informal and peripatetic study of jazz singers and singing throughout my teens and 20s, I came to understand that Keely Smith turned a lot of stereotypes about “girl singers” on their heads. Where the archetypal girl singer was demure, Keely was by turns deadpan and playful, occasionally exuding an air of “don’t mess with me, fellas.” She was unapologetically herself, eschewing the era’s blonde, glamour-girl aesthetic in favor of her signature black bob and minimal makeup.

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