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).
“I chose him over Louis Armstrong because I thought I would have more fun. I did, too,” chuckles Sam Butera, the New Orleans-born sax man Prima called to Las Vegas to help his struggling gig at the Sahara Hotel. Along with Butera’s rhythm & blues, five hot players and his talented, poker-faced wife Keely Smith, Prima began to forge not only a new sound but also a new form of entertainment: the Vegas lounge act.
“We walked on stage with no rehearsal,” remembers Butera of his first night on stage with Prima. “After the show, people went crazy. He would always say on behalf of Keely Smith, Sam Butera and… he never met the boys so he said, ‘The Witnesses.’ Everybody laughed and so he told us to leave it like that.” So Sam Butera and the Witnesses followed Louis’ lead for more than 20 years.
“Louis was the one who innovated things and said to use the shuffle beat,” describes Butera. “I wrote the background, which was a rock n’ roll background with the licks and everything. So, the both of them combined was a new style of music and it stayed new all along.”
Even the enigmatic siren Keely Smith admits that was the year that changed everything. In the 1983 documentary, Louis Prima: The Chief, she admits, “I have to be honest and say this. Until Sam came, the group didn’t really cook. They were nice guys and they were pretty good musicians but Sam was the front that Louis really needed to work off of.”
Bugsy Malone might have built the city in the desert but it was Louis Prima who put Las Vegas on the map. By changing the lounge act from a staid progression of singers into a rowdy and raucous party, Prima created the “Vegas Sound,” and turned places like the Sahara’s Casbar Lounge into destinations instead of distractions with a risqué humor and his stellar repartee with his band and his audience. In front was Louis, directing the band with his frenzied hands, making a star out of the whole act instead of just the headliner.
“What I learned from Prima is to feature other guys in the band,” said Ray Gelato, who leads his UK-based Ray Gelato Giants in the same larger-than-life flavor that Prima perfected. “It wasn’t just Louis Prima getting up and singing one song after another. He would present Sam Butera and he would present Keely Smith and that’s what I try to do. It’s almost like you’re hosting a party when you’ve got an audience out there. You’re part of what’s going on that evening. That’s what I hear from Louis’ live shows and that’s what we try to put on.”
“The whole entertainment business in Vegas changed for the better,” said Butera. “He could read an audience and knew just what they wanted to hear. He had that feeling, man. He called out the tune that people wanted. It was remarkable. I just tried to do the right thing, you know? He knew what he was doing and so I just followed him. His timing was sensational.” The combo’s string of hits over the next few years included “Just a Gigalo,” “Buona Sera,” and “That Old Black Magic,” for which he and Smith won one of the first Grammy Awards in 1958.
Despite hit albums like The Wildest and The Wildest Show At Tahoe, not to mention a starring appearance at Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential Inauguration, it wasn’t meant to last. With the new decade, changes were afoot. Prima left Capitol Records to gain more control over his work and his marriage to Smith unwound around the same time.
“When they divorced, they ruined the hottest attraction the world,” said Butera of the split. “I hated to see it happen. He cried, man. He really did.”
Prima kept on swinging. In 1962 he started a musical partnership as well as a marriage with Gia Maione, now Prima, with whom he forged a new dynamic. She brought both a faster pace of songs and her own Italian heritage to bear both with and against Prima’s forceful personality. With the onset of the British invasion, Louis continued to focus on his core audience while still finding new ways to reach audiences like the 1961 film Twist All Night.
“Everything was changing. Music was changing and Las Vegas was changing. Of course, Louis always changed with the times and tried to move with it, not only with his music but also in the areas in which he would appear. I think that’s what kept him on top for so many years,” Prima said. Upon her arrival, Louis built a new persona for her just as he did for Smith and each of his bandmates.
“He knew the character he wanted in a person, no matter who it was or what instrument they played,” said Prima. They could be the most skilled musicians in the world but they also had to be able to perform and do the simplest things to really get the audience moving and to intrigue them.” Although some critics have been known to dismiss Prima’s music as a novelty act, it’s impossible to criticize Prima’s eminent showmanship.
“The guy had this remarkable longevity in the business lasting right up until the mid-70’s,” Gelato said. “As a musician, if you analyze his phrasing in both the trumpet and the singing, it’s amazing. His natural musicality is incredible. That’s what a lot of people miss about Louis. They see the fun and the gravely voice but the actual musicianship behind the guy is phenomenal.” Gia Prima thinks the joy her husband’s music brings has perhaps overshadowed his historical legacy.
“He is just so underrated and misunderstood,” Prima said. “I think it’s mainly because when people see humor, they think it takes nothing to make people laugh or smile and feel good. They think a serious musician would never clown around like Louis did but even with the humor, every word he spoke took great thought.”
Prima’s records, whether silly or sublime, continue to bring joy into the hearts of millions. The scope of readily available recordings ranges widely but some of the best performances include breakneck versions of “Angelina/ Zooma Zooma,” “Che La Luna,” and “Buena Sera,” where hot jazz is filtered through Prima’s Italian-American experience as well as his absurd sense of humor. In the sixties, there’s “I Want You To Be My Baby,” a choice staple of both live performances and television shows on which Gia Maione matched Prima’s vocal chops blow for blow. In the seventies, Prima flips from Disney classics to Motown soul with equal ease.
“Louis Prima wasn’t merely a satirist but a genuine Satyr, a Dionysis figure who combined music and comedy to revel in the glories of love-making and Italian food, and not necessarily in that order,” said noted contemporary jazz writer Will Friedwald, author of Stardust Melodies. “In all of showbiz, there’s no one funnier or more entertaining than Louis Prima, on that you can rely.” Gia misses his whimsical antics as well.
“In fact, I think the thing that I miss the most in my life is his sense of humor,” Prima said. “We were constantly back and forth with each other, making each other laugh. He never really came out and said anything. It was always a double entrendre or he just hinted at things. It was a tease and it was so cute.”
“It’s just madcap,” Gelato said Prima’s penchant for self-amusement that is apparent on songs like “Please No Squeeza Da Banana,” and “Dinga Won’t Ding.” “Generally, the guy was just a nut in the best sense of the word. There’s some really surreal humor going on there.”
“Being on stage was always fun,” Butera agreed. “I used to laugh my ass off. There was so much about Louis that I enjoyed.”
“Disney really created the character of King Louie based on him, his faces, and his movements. It was really a product that came directly from Louis Prima,” Cannatella said. Sam Butera remembers the informality of the recording sessions, which can be seen in behind-the-scenes footage on the Disney DVD.
“Walt Disney loved Louis Prima,” Butera remembers. “The way we were dressed meant nothing. They said go ahead and do things the way you ordinarily do them on stage so that’s what we did. They taped them and then went to get the artist. That just the way it was done.”
By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Prima had narrowed his focus to long engagements in Vegas, New York and at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter of his home town of New Orleans. The latter Prima label releases such as The Wildest ’75 and The Prima Generation ‘72 reveal an artist still experimenting with new sounds yet you can still hear Prima sticking to his roots on his first all-Italian album, 1973’s Angelina. One of the most soulful performance remains “Leaving You,” on The Wildest ’75, a sad, slow ballad written by Disney’s Floyd Huddleston that became Prima’s last recorded performance.
Despite his death from a benign brain tumor in 1978, Louis Prima’s influence has never stopped holding sway over other artists. Beyond familiar readings of “Just a Gigalo,” by David Lee Roth or Brian Setzer’s rockabilly cover of “Jump, Jive and Wail,” the music of Louis Prima has deeply insinuated itself into the American landscape. He is a wonderful example of the melting pot that is America through the contrast of his deep roots in the country’s music and his own Italian-American heritage, which he never abandoned right up until the end.
“When you go and see entertainers today, it often sounds like Louis or it’s very similar to what he did. You find out usually that he’s one of the heroes that they look back on. That’s always very interesting to us,” said Claire Vincent, who has been married to drummer Jimmy Vincent for 42 years. Prima’s music has continued to shape generations far beyond his own, despite his own predilection for living in the moment. The Prima sound infuses movies from Casino to Big Night and continues to impress and inspire performers like Gelato, Setzer, and the Royal Crown Revue.
“You couldn’t help but be influenced by Louis,” Prima said. “I saw it every night because at performances other performers would come in to see our show. In November of 1962, Elvis and the Colonel were sitting ringside at the Sahara Hotel. Louis introduced them and Elvis stood up to wave to the audience. He turned around, pointed at Louis and said to them, ‘That’s where I got my wiggle!’”
“It’s hard to cover Prima properly,” Gelato piped in. “You have to have guys in the band that can really play. It’s easy to cover his songs badly but to do it well, you have to have a lot of experience. I think people love the fun in Prima’s music. The happiness in this music will last hundreds of years because it’s not manufactured. It’s positive music and it’s well-played and well-sung.”
“He was just the best. He was the consummate musician, entertainer and performer. The minute Louis starts playing, if you’re not tapping your foot and feeling a lot better, there’s something wrong with you,” Gia Prima agreed. The final word belongs to Sam Butera, who played with Louis Prima nearly his whole life.
“There was only one, man,” Butera said. “That’s what you tell ‘em. There was only one Louis Prima.”