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.
Keely didn’t go in for any little-girl shtick or coyness. She was funny, mugging and clowning right in step with Louis Prima or Frank Sinatra, but never at the expense of the music; her intonation and time were always right on the money. Her stage presence and singing gave the impression that behind her poised exterior was a woman who could, if necessary, curse a blue streak and drink you under the table. For this kid from the sticks who grew up dreaming of nightlife and a singing career in the big city, Keely Smith was—and is—the ne plus ultra of old-school show-business cool.
Since her passing, I’ve been listening almost nonstop to Keely’s version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” from Politely!, her 1958 collaboration with Billy May; it’s some of the finest big-band singing I’ve ever heard. With her signature raw-silk timbre and forthright delivery, Keely sings the first chorus pretty straight, adhering faithfully to the song’s original melody. In her second chorus, though, she enters fully into that thrilling symbiosis that happens only when a sympathetic arranger and a swinging big band join forces with a singer who knows exactly what she’s doing: Keely both propels and is propelled by the momentum of the band and May’s fantastic chart. By the time Keely sings the phrase “I’d be rich as … hoppin’ Rockefeller,” in the last A section, I’ve got tears in my eyes and the urge to jump up out of my seat and cheer. Every single time.
Both Keely Smith and the Las Vegas she personified are gone now, and I regret that I never got to see either of them in person. But I take some comfort in knowing that, with a record player and a little imagination, I can nonetheless be transported to a town of single-malt scotches and thick steaks, of swinging tunes and snappy banter delivered to an audience of tuxedoed high rollers and ladies in jewel-toned taffeta. And the singer onstage in that Las Vegas will always be Keely Smith.