Keely Smith - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


           With her trademark jet black page boy hair cut, dark Cherokee eyes and petite, sinuous frame, Keely Smith was one of the great alluring sirens of the 1950’s pop-jazz scene. A Las Vegas legend in her own time, thanks to a wildly successful partnership with her husband, the innovative bandleader Louis Prima, Smith was such a formidable song stylist that she was able to not only hold her own alongside Prima’s high-voltage presentation but she was also able to ascend to an impressive recording and performing career as a soloist in the 1960s. Yet she remains ineradicably linked to Prima. The New Orleans trumpet genius (best known for his wild coupling of “Just a Gigolo”/ “I Ain’t Got Nobody”) was widely acknowledged as the best thing, bar Sinatra, that ever happened to Las Vegas. With Smith as his frosty, deadpan foil, and the wailing tenor sax of Sam Butera, the act jam-packed casino lounges so tightly and generated such awestruck word of mouth that it quickly graduated to headlining showrooms and international fame. As a vocalist, Smith’s passion and interpretive skill were so masterly that as a balladeer, Smith had only one real competitor, Ella Fitzgerald (not coincidentally, also Smith‘s own favorite singer). But in Vegas, she was the One; almost immediately after she and Prima split, Frank Sinatra proposed to her.


            Born Jacqueline Keely in Norfolk Virginia to an Irish mother and a Cherokee Indian father, Smith had been singing since earliest childhood: “My mother said that when I was about 6,  I stood up in bed in the middle of the night singing “I saw you last night and got that old feeling . . .” Smith recalled. Her parents divorced when she was 9 (she took her name from step-father Jesse Smith) and by age 11 was regularly featured on the local kiddie talent radio show Joe Brown’s Radio Gang, which broadcast twice weekly and went out to entertain service men at various military bases every weekend. During the Second World War, she often sang with a Navy band that featured alumni from the Glen Miller and both Dorsey brothers organizations. While still in high school, she began singing with a local combo so by the time she and Prima met, she had several solid years of bandstand experience to her credit.


            In August 1948, Prima noticed her frolicking on Virginia Beach. He was looking for a girl singer and, Smith said, “I turned out to be it.” Interestingly, a club owner had only booked Prima as a result of her direct lobbying. “It really was a Cinderella story,” Smith said. “I was just out of high school, and we did an awful lot of one-nighters. I didn’t mind it all. I was very happy doing what I was doing, and when we fell in love, it was just wonderful.” Prima, of course, was nearly old enough to be her father, but the irrepressible jazz cat--a weird blend of Satchmo-hep and wine-and-salami gorged old world goombah that only New Orleans could produce--had bales of charm and an ardent  yen for the young songbird. They wed, and, enough with the one-nighters already, Prima got together with some of The Guys (they called ‘em entertainment directors in Sin City) and landed an indefinite Vegas lounge gig in 1952. He immediately brought in Crescent City tenor sax prodigy Sam Butera (who been blowing sweet, crazy jams at jazz joints since he was a teenager), and thus was born what soon came to be acclaimed as “the Wildest Show on Earth.”


            On stage, Prima cut up like mad, soloed like Gabriel and served as ringmaster for a crazed, almost chaotic performance. They spiced up familiar standards with a veneer of risque corn, blew low-down R&B, hot jazz and the Neapolitan novelties Prima excelled at. Beside the hyper-kinetic bandleader, Smith stood motionless, face frozen in a solemn Sphinx-like expression, but gave out an intoxicating sound: cool, almost as detached as her stage persona, with an emphasis on melodic, hornlike phrasing that was lent extra depth by her pronounced Virginia accent, which allowed her to shape a lyric into extravagant new contours. Word of mouth on their incandescent act spread as carried by jungle drums, quickly reaching all the way to Hollywood and Vine.  Recording for Capitol, they released some superb albums, including The Wildest (1956 Capitol), Call of the Wildest (1957 Capitol) and the rollicking live set Wildest Show in Tahoe (1957 Capitol) which captured Prima, Smith and Butera in all their offbeat magnificence.


            Smith become a sensation and a phenomenal talent in her own right. The couple indeed had, as they sang five times a night, “the world on a string,” but over the next several years, Prima swapped his Prince Charming costume for a darker-hued wardrobe; like Al Jolson, who tormented and humiliated wife Ruby Keeler when her star threatened to eclipse his, Prima embarked on a campaign to destroy Smith’s confidence. Accusations of infidelity, aspersions on her ability, the whole raw gamut of ugly head games aimed at breaking her down. The act continued to thrive and had graduated from the Sahara lounge to the main showroom at the Desert Inn but by the time Smith recorded her first solo album, the gorgeous, Nelson Riddle arranged  I Wish You Love (1958 Capitol), she was in an almost zombie-like state, and found it necessary to fortify herself before going on stage with "a drink of scotch and nerve medicine."


            Nonetheless, her debut as a 'single,' at the Riviera's main showroom was a smash, and Smith's self-confidence steadily increased. Divorced from Prima by 1961, she continued recording, switched to Dot Records and then went over to Sinatra's newly founded Reprise label. She married--briefly--Reprise producer Jimmy Bowen, but the mid-60's British Invasion represented a reversal of fortune for a jazz-pop stylist like Smith (Bowen even went so far as to oversee Keely Smith Sings Lennon-McCartney [1966 Reprise]).  By the early Seventies, Smith was, by choice, essentially semi-retired; she re-emerged in 1993 at the Desert Inn's Starlight Lounge, working with Sam Butera and sounding as clear-toned and dynamic as ever. Smith pretty much picked up where she left off, received uniformly glowing reviews and continued to acknowledge, quite graciously, how important Louis Prima had been in her professional life.




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