Author’s note: sometimes you don’t want good stories to disappear. This was one of my first magazine features, and because it’s of a historical nature, I think it holds up. It was also a lot of fun to write, and some of the original voices in the story, like sax man Sam Butera, have left us. Anyway, every so often, you may see me resurrect an old story for my entertainment, and for yours. A slightly alternative version of this story originally appeared in the late Atomic Magazine. Ladies and gentlemen, Louis Prima.
To his guys, he was simply, “The Chief,” or “The Boss.” To throngs of admiring women, he was a magnetic, charismatic star with a dazzling and disarming smile. For musicians he was their sensational trumpet player as well as the bandleader who knew how to bring out the best playing they had in them. For children, he remains forever the voice of “King Louie,” from Disney’s The Jungle Book. To a legion of music lovers worldwide, he is the indomitable, gravel-voiced giant of swing that is the one and only Louis Prima.
For Prima fans, a large chunk of the musician’s formidable output has been widely unavailable until now. Louis’ widow, Gia Prima, has recently re-released nine albums that were originally available on Prima’s own Prima 1 Magnagroove label.
“It was a long, hard battle but I’m so proud of them. I think they look beautiful and they sound wonderful,” said Prima of the process of re-releasing the records.
Featuring original album covers and remastered recordings, the discs cover the years from 1962 to 1975. They include such rare albums as Prima Show at the Casbar and King of Clubs that have been out of print since the early sixties as well as regional favorites like Just A Gigalo and The New Sounds of the Louis Prima Show, which sold almost exclusively at live gigs in Las Vegas and New Orleans.
“You close your eyes and it’s like a time machine taking you back to a Las Vegas of long ago,” said New Orleans radio host Ron Cannatella, who has consulted with the Prima estate on the re-releases. “It’s really like being in the audience. You can hear the clinking of the glasses and the crowd really getting into it.”
Through three-quarters of a century, King Louie’s finger-snapping, foot-stomping brand of New Orleans-flavored jazz continues to reign over fans, critics and other artists. His music could fill three lifetimes and has deeply entrenched itself into the fabric of American life. He was a crack big band leader who went on to form the hottest combo in the world. In his later years he became a children’s favorite but never stopped experimenting with style and substance until he passed on into legend with his death in 1978. Since then, he has passed his unique combination of deft musicianship and daft humor onto a broad spectrum of artists ranging from ridiculous remakes to smoking tributes from the neo-swing set.
Prima is also the bridge between two other monoliths of 20th century American music. Alongside him is Louis Armstrong, a more serious horn blower, but one who came out of the same New Orleans tradition that Prima was born into. After Prima comes Frank Sinatra, who took Prima’s reconstruction of the lounge act and forged his own famous “Rat Pack.”
Louis Prima would be a legend if all he had ever done was to compose the now-classic “Sing, Sing, Sing,” around 1935. The big band anthem became hugely successful for the famous rearrangement performed by the Benny Goodman Orchestra and was the first song to be put into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Lucky for all of us, on December 26, 1954, the stars aligned and Louis Prima struck gold again on the night the Witnesses were born. (Keep swingin’ with Louis Prima after the jump).