Born in the French Quarter of New Orleans on December 7, 1910, Louis Leo Prima became one of the most popular bandleaders of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Louis began playing the trumpet at a young age and by the time he was a teenager he had dropped out of school and formed his own band that played Dixieland Jazz. He quickly had gigs playing New Orleans’ many clubs and speakeasies.
In 1934, Louis moved to New York City and formed a band called The New Orleans Gang. They brought the house down at the grand opening of the Famous Door Theatre on 52nd street, and the owner flew them out to Hollywood to open up the west coast version of the club. While there Prima appeared in several musicals, mostly as a bandleader. He also had a hit on his hands when Benny Goodman recorded his song “Sing, Sing, Sing” and it became an instant classic. He stayed in Hollywood though the 1940s and during this time the Gang broke up and Prima formed a big band and turned away from straight jazz and into more pop and swing numbers.
In August of 1948, Prima hired a new singer, a 16-year old girl from Virginia named Keely Smith. Her smooth and clear singing was a stark contrast to Prima’s guttural voice, but they somehow meshed well on stage. They continued to sing together after Prima’s big band broke up and in 1952 Keely became Louis fourth wife, she was 20 and he was 42.
By 1954, swing had fallen out of favor and most of Louis and Keely’s gigs had dried up. So, in a last ditch effort, Louis called an old friend of his who ran the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, and begged him for a job. Louis got a two-week engagement playing the hotel lounge and was a huge smash. He quickly called another friend, saxophonist Sam Butera, to be his backup band. Sam flew out to Vegas with three other musicians and they were quickly dubbed Sam Butera and the Witnesses.
The combination of Louis Prima, Keely Smith and Sam Butera and the Witnesses, became the biggest show in Las Vegas. Performing five shows a night in the Sahara, they would usually leave the stage just as dawn was breaking. Their show was considered to be very risqué (Time magazine called it “doggedly vulgar”). Louis and Keely’s stage banter was full of sexy innuendo and off-color references. The age difference between the two was also a great mine for jokes. Much of their stage show was later stolen by Sonny and Cher for their variety show in the 1970s.
Louis and his group ruled Las Vegas for several years, signed a deal with Capitol records and released several albums. Louis appeared in a few musicals with Keely, most notably Hey Boy! Hey Girl!, which was named after one of their songs. In 1961 Louis and Keely were divorced, but he continued to sing with his fifth wife, dancer Gia Malone. In 1967 he made an acclaimed cameo in the cartoon The Jungle Book as King Louie the Orangutan. This film also gave him his last hit song, “I Wanna Walk Like You.”
After touring for a few more years, Louis and Sam moved back to New Orleans where they continued to play through the 1970s. In 1975, Louis underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. He never woke up after the operation and eventually died on August 24, 1978.
The thing that I love about Louis’ music is the energy and humor in all his songs. His studio recordings have so much enthusiasm you might mistake it for live. Every tune sounds like he just made it up on the spot and he is doing his best to make Keely laugh or the band trip up. I mean, what other singer could do “Beep! Beep!”, a song comparing a wayward girlfriend to Sputnik? Even when he does a ballad it usually ends up with Keely singing her heart out and him ruining it with his bellowing delivery. My favorite song of his is “Closer to the Bone”, a tongue-in-cheek ode to skinny women that serves as an excellent example of his pseudo-improvisational style. For a good sample of his music I highly recommend getting Louis Prima: Capitol Collector’s Series, a best-of collection of his years with Keely and Sam.
Go find a Louis Prima album and just try to not smile and dance.