In the 1950’s Elvis Presley took America by storm — his wild hip gyrations forced uptight television censors to show him only from the waist up. When asked where he learned to dance like that, Presley answered, “From Louis Prima, of course.” Louis Prima (1910-1978) was an amazingly accomplished and versatile performer — trumpeter, vocalist, songwriter, scat singer, dancer, and actor — who rose from obscurity playing small clubs in New Orleans to become a popular headliner in New York during the 1930s and then playing to sold-out shows in Las Vegas from 1950 to the early 1970s. Before there was pop music — there was swing with its rich, rhythmic, brassy sound and fast tempo that made listeners get up and dance. Prima’s star rose during the exciting era of swing, where legendary bandleaders like Benny Goodman (known as the “King of Swing”), Cab Calloway, Guy Lombardo, and Duke Ellington reigned. Prima, nicknamed the “Italian Satchmo,” and his 22 piece orchestra had early hits with “Sing, Sing, Sing;” “Angelina;” “Chinatown;” and “Josephina.” Prima’s success opened the door to other Italian vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Tony Bennett.
Prima played to packed theaters in New York City and throughout the East Coast, but his greatest success came as the long-running headlining act for The Sahara (and later Desert Inn) in Las Vegas — and in the process not only put Las Vegas on the map but defined and set the bar for the lounge act. By then, Prima had downsized his band, adding talented saxophonist Sam Butera and a young vocalist, Keely Smith who was Prima’s fourth wife. (Yes, Prima’s personal life was just as entertaining as his musical career; however, that is a story for another time.) The band, called “The Witnesses,” performed a number of songs for their show (“The Wildest”) where Prima dazzle audiences with his energetic singing, dancing, trumpet playing, goofing with the band and with Smith who assumed the role of the dead-pan sidekick (a formula that would be imitated by Sonny and Cher, the Smothers Brothers, and Penn and Teller). Prima’s music also transitioned to an edgier New Orleans-style rock sound. Songs that became instant hits for the band include: “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” (that became his signature song) “Oh Marie,” Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” “Buona Sera,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Zooma, Zooma,” and “When You’re Smilin’.” Prima’s electrifying, humorous, and indefatigable performances dazzled audiences, drawing people from all over the country; whenever the infamous Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford) were in town, they would head straight for Prima’s show. Prima had many notable performances outside of Las Vegas — he played at John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Gala, appeared in films (“Twist All Night” and he played King Louie in Disney’s “The Jungle Book”), and had many television appearances (like the Ed Sullivan Show, the Dean Martin Show, the Merv Griffin Show, and dozens of others). Prima also became a record producer, founding his own recording company, Prima Magnagrove Records, that recorded his music as well as signing on new signers.
Prima continued performing steadily at various hotels in Las Vegas and New York up until the early 1970s. In 1973, Prima suffered a heart attack, and then a few years later a cerebral hemorrhage (due to a brain stem tumor). He slipped into a coma and 1978 he quietly passed away. Throughout the passing years, music historians have reexamined his body of work and have acknowledged the indelible mark that Prima made on jazz, swing, and pop music. Indeed, Louis Prima rightfully deserves to be called the “King of Swing” alongside Benny Goodman. And thanks to contemporary musicians like David Lee Roth (who recorded “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Nobody” note for note in 1985) and Reba McEntyre (who recorded “Sunday Kind of Love” in 1988) and the Gap ad from the 1990s (that used “Jump, Jive, an Wail” in the soundtrack), as well as the culinary classic film “Big Night” (that featured Prima’s music), Prima’s music has been introduced to new generations. Because most of his music exists today on CDs and digital formats, Prima’s music lives on. And when you listen to his music and close your eyes, there he is back on stage performing with Keely and Sam — singing, playing, scatting, and joking around. It is truly remarkable that more than half a century later, Prima’s music is still bewitching; like some old black magic it will have you in a spell — smiling, snapping your fingers, tapping your feet, and rising from your chair to jump, jive, and wail. “Take it away, Sammy boy…”
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For further reading: Louis Prima (Music in American Life) by Garry Boulard, University of Illinois Press (2002)
That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas by Tom Clavin, Chicago Review Press (2010)