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.

One of the few items I have from my father is a tattered old LP vinyl record of Louis Prima called The Wildest. Louis was a very charismatic individual, and this was the album that finally captured this nutty performer.

Louis Prima was born in 1911 to Italian immigrants. Even though he’s famous for his trumpet work, he started out playing the violin. When he did pick up the trumpet, he became so good at playing the jazz tunes of the day, inspired by such greats as Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, that he picked up his first gig at age 17.

His first job was playing at a New Orleans theatre, eventually building up enough prestige to form his first group in the 1930’s called The New Orleans Gang. They recorded many hits, including their signature piece, Way Down Yonder in New Orleans. Many of the tunes made the Hit Parade.

Louis tried his hand at writing, eventually coming up with the swing classic Sing, Sing, Sing, which was a huge hit for the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Louis also delved into acting, eventually landing a small role in Bing Crosby’s Rhythm on the Range. He made a good impression with his playing and his acting, and won a few small parts off and on. His true passion remained music.

When playing at a nightclub in 1943, he asked the audience of anyone wanted to sing. An underaged young girl by the name of Keely Smith volunteered, and she wowed everyone with her amazing vocals. Louis asked her to join his band, and they left that night for their first gig together. Keely was the opposite of Prima – he was the wild, raucous musician and she was a stony-faced singer. She made an excellent straightman for Louis’ antics.

They collaborated on several songs, one of which became a big hit for them in 1950 – Oh, Babe! They had been flirting and romancing for many years, and after this success, Keely married Louis a couple of years later. In the meantime, they had one of the hottest acts on the nightclub circuits. Eventually, Louis, Keely and the group, Sam Butera and the Witnesses, landed a steady gig in Las Vegas, where it was billed as the wildest act on the strip. Louis danced around and acted crazy, played some amazing trumpet, and poked fun at himself and his fellow musicians in a wacky broken Italian accent. Keeley remained calm, cool and collected, and the crowd begged for more. The landmark album The Wildest was released in 1956, and a typical crazed performance was recorded in Tahoe in 1957 and released under the same name. They also won a Grammy in 1958 for their performance of That Old Black Magic.

Prima and Keely eventually divorced in 1961 after signing a contract to play the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. The group rested a bit on its laurels, although Louis did attempt to find other work to feed his interests. He landed the role of King Louis in Disney’s The Jungle Book, which grossed over 26 million dollars. Louis eventually played all over Vegas up until 1975, when he underwent surgery for a brain tumor. He never recovered from the operation, and he died three years later, still in a coma, in a New Orleans nursing home.

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