Louis Prima - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


             Trumpeter-bandleader, Louis Prima, could only have come out of New Orleans, that crucial jazz breeding ground which enabled him to embark on a fascinating career. He suffered through the post-war dance band slump, only to re-invent himself as master showman in the lounges of Las Vegas casinos. There, Prima rose to such a level of success that he managed to defy the mid-fifties rock &roll blitzkrieg with a high octane mixture of hot jazz, funky R&B, risqué sight gags, and ethnic humor, all deftly choregraphed. Prima did it all, with a high, idiosyncratic style that he called "gleeby rhythm," a propulsive, singular sound that audiences found irresistible.


            Born Louis Leo Prima on December 7, 1911 in New Orleans, Prima grew up in the family home on St. Peter Street, an address contiguous to the infamous Storyville district, where women of loose virtue plied their trade to a constant soundtrack of live ragtime and the blues-informed jazz. The streets teamed with buck dancers and African American brass bands, all of whom blew up a storm of the new Devil's music, a swiftly evolving style championed by the trumpeter Buddy Bolden, best known for his influential composition "Funky Butt."  It was an explosive artistic atmosphere that was increasingly heightened by jazz bosses like King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong. Prima and his brother Leon quickly dumped their childhood instruments  (piano and violin, respectively) for the trumpet. Leon went on the road with a jazz band and Louis quit high school so he could lead his own unit.


            Prima performed wherever could--in theatrical pit orchestras, gambling clubs and speakeasies. He developed a distinctive, driving sound and by 1933 he landed a job with renowned vibraphonist Red Nichols' band. Prima, with encouragement from big name band leader Guy Lombardo, headed north to New York in 1934 and, based at the home of Lombardo's parents, formed a new outfit, the New Orleans Gang. Prima did not initially mesh with New York audiences, but an engagement the following year at the Famous Door established him as a force to be reckoned with, and Prima took the next logical step--he went to Hollywood.


            Working at a newly opened Western edition of the Famous Door, Prima teamed with singer Martha Raye and made appearances in two movies, Rhythm on the Range, starring Bing Crosby and Raye, and the Tyrone Power-Alice Faye vehicle, Rose of Washington Square. Prima signed a contract with the Brunswick label, and his recordings of  "The Lady in Red," and "In a Little Gypsy Tearoom" enjoyed respectable sales. But it was Prima's composition of "Sing Sing Sing" that really put him on the map. Benny Goodman cut it, had a huge hit and the song became one of the most-familiar classics of the Swing era (it's thunderous groove knocked out Gene Krupa, who laid into it so hard one famed night at Carnegie Hall in 1938, that, as the drummer later explained, "I couldn't stop playing it." Goodman's band jammed on the song for chorus after chorus, then drifted away to leave just Goodman and his clarinet and Krupa's tom-toms in almost tribal frenzy that reportedly lasted at least a half an hour). 


            After that, Prima made the commercially shrewd switch from jazz to straight swing and pop dance, and sold more than a few copies of whimsical Neapolitan-style 78's like "Baciagaloop (Makes Love on the Stoop)" "Angelina," and "Felicia No Capicia." He also penned another much-recorded, instant classic, "A Sunday Kind of Love," and comfortably floated through the war years. "All Louis does is go out front and have himself a helluva good time," Metronome magazine described him in mid-1945, "acting like a natural showman, kidding around, poking fun at folks out front, at guys in his band, and, most of all, himself." But over the next ten years, the situation steadily tightened, and by the early 1950's, the rise of television and drive-in movies began to dent the economic base that allowed a big band to successfully work the road. Along the way though, Prima was booked into a spot at the resort town of Virginia Beach in August 1948, where, strolling the shore, he spotted a slim, dark sixteen-year-old siren named, Keely Smith. Prima's own girl singer, Lily Ann Carol had recently departed the Prima band and the trumpeter was seeking a replacement. In Smith, he found not only a talent that proved to be a vital part of his greatest glory, but also his future wife. Smith fast-talked her mother in letting her join Prima, and they headed off together within weeks. But the business was more and more of a grind, verging on a hand-to-mouth existence, because, as Smith said in 1994, "Louis had horses, and they were not winners, so we used to do a lot of one nighters just to feed the horses." He broke up his big band in 1949, and when Smith turned twenty, the pair wed in 1952 (becoming Prima's fourth wife). But on the nightclub circuit, good jobs were tougher to come by and, with the Italiano pop market cornered by Dean Martin, the increasingly frustrated Prima knew he had to cook up something that would really make noise.


            By late 1954, Prima targeted the burgeoning adult playground of Las Vegas, and convinced a somewhat reluctant Bill Miller (entertainment director at the Sahara), to give him two weeks in the casino's lounge. One problem--Prima didn't have a band. In an inspired move, Prima telephoned Sam Butera, a brilliant, raunchy-toned tenor sax prodigy who had been getting a lot of attention blowing crazy jams around his hometown of New Orleans. Butera rounded up a couple of other musicians and the newly formed, still nameless, unit hit the stage on December 26. Using a spontaneous mixture of Prima's patented happy, horny goombah shtick, Smith's immobile, deadpan frosty-cool stance and Butera's volcanic, R&B informed honk, the act was an instant sensation and they kept the lounge filled and the cocktails flowing nightly 'til 4 a.m. Miller had a hit on his hands. The two week stand became an indefinite engagement.


            The combination was unbeatable: intimate, informal, fast-moving, boozy, an almost chaotic barrage of hot licks and mad japes that became the most popular draw in town--the Wildest Show In Vegas. When they began recording for Capitol in 1956, everything was "wild," like their first release The Wildest (1956 Capitol) Call of the Wildest  (1957 Capitol) and the knock-out live album Wildest Show at Tahoe (1958 Capitol). Prima's ace in the hole was the manner in which he allowed his audiences--the middle-aged, middle-class grown-ups bewildered by Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent--to feel as if their once-dwindling personal hip quotient had suddenly shot off the register and gone into orbit. At a time when most from the Big Band era operated as creaky artifacts, Prima was arguably the single most successful survivor from the Prohibition-era jazz scene, thriving in the mainstream even as he maintained a ribald, colorful place within the taboo-flouting margin. It was genius.


            They swung through the rest of the decade, but when Capitol offered Smith her own contract as a solo act, and her Nelson Riddle-arranged I Wish You Love album (1958 Capitol) established her as one of the day's premier jazz-pop balladeers, Prima's fragile ego and evident resentment began to turn ugly. Tension between the couple drastically escalated and in 1961, Smith filed for divorce. Prima promptly replaced her with youthful canary, Gia Maione (soon to be, the fifth Mrs. Prima). When Prima switched to Dot Records in the early 60's, he demanded, and received, a wildly lucrative deal. Prima pumped out album after album of cracked, high-voltage music and had a respectable little hit of his own with the 1962 instrumental, “Wonderland at Night.” In 1967, Walt Disney, of all people, used Prima to voice Louis, the Orangutan King in the animated classic The Jungle Book, for the memorable “I Wanna Be Like You” duet with old cohort Phil Harris. Prima and Butera kept wailing in Vegas, but by the early Seventies, the homesick twosome returned the act to New Orleans with a residency at the French Quarter’s Royal Sonestra Hotel, where they continued to pack in tourists with their freewheeling, mongrel jazz-R&B-swing assaults. In November 1975, Prima’s doctors discovered a brain tumor and scheduled surgery, from which he never regained consciousness. The comatose Prima lingered in a New Orleans infirmary until his death on August 24, 1978.


            It was one hell of an ignominious end to a uniquely unparalleled career.

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