Thursday, July 18, 2013

Louis Prima - Show Time! [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would celebrate the lessening of this stricture with a re-posting of this piece on one of the grand musicians from Jazz's early era who went on to fame and fortune as a leading entertainer in the lounges of the Las Vegas casinos.

“In 1954, after a few years of scuffling, he and his new vocalist Keely Smith (by this time his wife) joined together with saxophonist Sam Butera to form an act that set Las Vegas on fire. Prima did for Vegas what he had done almost 20 years earlier for 52nd Street [at the Famous Door] — opened the door to a whole new era of entertainment. Every hotel in Vegas began to book big name acts for their casino lounges in the wake of Prima and Smith's success.”
- Lloyd Rausch

“Though Louis Prima recorded widely and well throughout the '30s, achieving great popularity and visibility, his name is often conspicuous by its absence from standard jazz histories. Dealing with him seriously means confronting one aspect of New Orleans jazz which chroniclers, almost as a point of honor, seem to find distasteful.

That, of course, is the matter of showmanship. The flamboyance of Prima's latter career, in which his identity as a trumpeter became almost totally subor­dinate to his role as a high-energy showman, seems to offend those who would represent jazz as an art music of solemnity and unstinting high purpose. The Las Vegas image, the raucous sound of Sam Butera and the Witnesses, the risque badinage with singer Keely Smith—such make it all too easy to mistake this showbiz aspect of Prima for the creative substance, ignoring his past achievements and core musicianship.

Far from being exclusive to such as Prima, the idea of hot music as an arm of highly commercialized show business runs throughout the early years. It's present in the singing, dancing, and impromptu comedy skits of the dance bands, including those that prided themselves on their dedication to jazz. Its absence is a root cause of the failure of the great Jean Goldkette orchestra, an ensemble which either stubbornly resisted advice to "put on a show" or acquiesced in a manner landing somewhere between perfunctory and downright hostile.

For New Orleans musicians, especially, showmanship was—and remains—a fact of life. Was it not Louis Armstrong, above all, who understood the relation­ship between music and entertainment, and never wavered in his application of it, even in the face of critical hostility? "You'll always get critics of showman­ship," he told British critic Max Jones. ‘Critics in England say I was a clown, but a clown—that's hard. If you can make people chuckle a little; it's happiness to me to see people happy, and most of the people who criticize don't know one note from another.’

Prima, in common with his two hometown friends Wingy Manone and Sharkey Bonano, accepted—as had Nick LaRocca before them—that they were, above all, entertainers; they might now and then get together for their own enjoyment, and even (as in the case of the 1928 Monk Hazel titles) make music to suit themselves. But where the public was concerned, the paying customers always came first. By his own lights, and by the laws of the box office, Prima was doing what he properly should be doing, and with resounding success. It is only re­grettable that the nature of his fame in later years has drawn attention away from his skills as one of the most accomplished, often thrilling, of New Orleans trumpet men.”

- Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords:White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 [p. 80, emphasis mine]
A-zoom, a-zoom, a-zoom, a-zooma or some such onomatopoeia.

Shuffle beats; rim shots; plenty of triplets and cymbal crashes.

Boogie woogie piano rumblings; bar-walking tenor saxophone licks; trumpet, trombone and sax unison, “shout choruses” to close out the tunes.

False song endings; surprise endings; stop-and-start endings.

Hand-clapping, finger-poppin’ and foot-stompin;” sometimes even sing-a-longs if the melody was a familiar one [most were].

Laughter, smiles-all around and much joy and happiness in listening to the music all served up in an atmosphere of watered-down cocktails, stale smoke with not a clock in sight - anywhere.

A good time was had by all despite the fact that the “3 Shows Nightly” generally took place at 11:00 PM, 2:00 AM and 4:00 AM, respectively.

Pack away the cymbals, put a cover over the drums and join the other members of the band for a breakfast of steak and eggs before going “home” to sleep all day, which was just as well given the torrid, daytime heat of the desert sun.

This is a brief description of what it was like to play in one of the Show Bands that were everywhere apparent on the Las Vegas strip before the town gave itself over to the bigness and big business wrought by corporate America and “live” music virtually disappeared as one casualty of profitability.

The Sands, the Flamingo, the Tropicana, the Sahara, the Desert Inn, Harrah’s, The Barbary Coast and a host of other casinos featured show bands in one or more of their lounges as free entertainment for those punters who wanted a break in the action. Some came by with a date or to have one-more-for-the-road.

The entertainment in these lounges was generally free and it was often of the highest quality.

The King of the Show Band leaders was Louis Prima who re-made his career in music at The Casbar Lounge of the Sahara beginning in 1954.  Along with vocalist Keely Smith and tenor saxophonist Sam Butera and The Witnesses, Louis Prima’s act was the act that all of the other acts caught when they performed in Las Vegas.

On any given evening [morning?], one could find Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, and many of the major comedians who played Las Vegas taking in one of Louis, Kelly and Sam’s sets.

For the next ten years or so, Louis’ lounge act was the talk of Las Vegas and was responsible for spawning a generation of show bands that employed a similar style in supper clubs, night clubs and restaurants all over the country.

Twenty-six tracks from the heyday of Louis’ time in the Las Vegas lounges have been issued as a Louis Prima Collectors Series Capitol Records CD [CDP 794072 2] and they are a treat.

Scott Shea’s insert notes offer a nice recap of the details of Louis’ career as well as a broad overview of the music on the CD.

© -Scott Shea/Capitol Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"To think that these notes could possibly cover the musical career (let alone life) of Louis Prima would be to believe the impossible. There could never be enough space, enough pages, to do either of those topics full justice with anything less than a fairly large sized book. When that book gets written it will be a terrific read, for Louis Prima was truly one or a kind: trumpeter. singer, composer, humorist; band leader, husband (several times), father (ditto), sportsman, son of Italy, and entertainer par excel­lence, besides many other things, which separately could never describe him, but togeth­er come close.

His musical career spanned from the 1920s to the 1970s. His time at Capitol Records came at the height of his glory in the mid 1950s to early 1960s, when he, along with singer and then-wife Keely Smith and Sam Butera and the Witnesses, was the hottest lounge entertainer in Las Vegas. That heady plateau came in a later incarnation of Prima's career; the road he traveled to get there was a long one.

Louis Leo Prima was born on December 7, 1910 on St. Peter Street, at the edge of New Orleans' notorious Storyville dis­trict. His parents, Anthony and Angelina, were second-genera­tion Sicilians who encouraged Louis and his older brother Leon to learn music. Louis and Leon started with violin and piano respectively, but soon Leon switched to trumpet, the better to emulate the new sound being formed by the local musicians (among them Joe "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong), later to be known as Dixieland Jazz.

Leon took to the road for touring gigs and left Louis a trumpet: by the time Leon returned Louis had switched instruments and was fronting his own band. He dropped out of high school to become a musician full-time.

An early stint with the house band of a Jefferson Parish gam­bling club ended when the band leader, piqued with Prima's bur­geoning trumpet style, fired him. Louis soon had another job play­ing in the pit band at New Orleans' Saenger Theater. Band leader Lou Forbes recognized Prima's talent and ambition, and drafted arrangements to feature Prima's playing as well as his singing. Always restless, Prima formed his own jazz combo to play New Orleans clubs and speakeasies,

In 1934 (following a stint in Red Nichols' Orchestra), Guy Lombardo caught Louis' performance, and encouraged him to venture to New York City. He auditioned at a 52nd Street club. Leon and Eddie's, which turned him down. Undaunted, he soon found work at another club on 52nd Street with his newly formed group, The New Orleans Gang.

He scored a huge hit at the open­ing of New York's Famous Door club in 1935. and took his Gang to Hollywood the following year to open the west coast version of the club. While there, he per­formed with Martha Raye and appeared in several shorts and musicals, among them Rhythm On the Range, with Bing Crosby, and Rose of Washington Square, with Tyrone Power and Alice Faye.

During this period Prima had sev­eral hits on the Brunswick label, including "The Lady In Red" and "In a Little Gypsy Tearoom". His biggest success in the thirties came when Benny Goodman recorded his composition "Sing, Sing, Sing", giving Goodman a hit and turning the song (and Goodman version of it) into a classic.

In 1939 Prima followed the trend, broke up his Gang, and formed a big band, which he kept into the late 1940s. By now Prima's repertoire had turned away from jazz, and moved towards pop and dance numbers, with a decidedly Neopolitan tilt: "Angelina (which he wrote for his mother), Felicia No Capicia", and "Bacciagaloop (Makes Love On the Stoop)". Needless to write, Prima had no problem with humor.

Louis kept the band going in World War II, but had some difficulties replacing musicians who enlisted. In this period he scored modest hits with "Robin Hood" "Civilization", and "I'll Walk Alone", and composed the hit "A Sunday Kind of Love" for Jo Stafford and Fran Warren. Major success, however, contin­ued to elude him.

In August, 1948. Prima replaced his singer, Lily Ann Carol, with a 16-year old from NorfolkVir­ginia, (Dorothy) Keely Smith. Her smooth phrasing and clear tones could not have contrasted more with Louis' heavy, bellowing delivery.

They developed a rou­tine in which Louis would attempt to break down Keely's deadpan stage persona with ad libs, jokes and distractions. When they sang together, improb­ably, they blended.

Louis and Keely remained as a performing duo after Prima ended his big band in 1949. In 1952, Keely became Prima's fourth wife. The couple called attention to the large disparity in their ages for comedic effect on stage. They continued to perform on the club circuit until the fall of 1954, when the gigs started to dry up.

In desperation, Prima phoned Bill Miller, an old friend, who was then running the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Prima plead­ed with Miller for a booking, and Miller gave them a two-week engagement in the hotel's lounge, starting on November 24, 1954.

Before heading for Vegas. Louis and Keely had shared the bill at Perez's Oasis Club in MetairieLouisiana with tenor saxophonist Sam Butera and his band, The Night Trainers. Butera, a skilled jazz player and arranger, had been packing in crowds in New Orleans area clubs, and had had some local hit records.

Prima told Butera of his Vegas plans, and promised Sam that if anything happened in Vegas, he would get back in touch. "About three months later I was working at the Monteleone Hotel, and he called me and said. 'You better come out here, ana bring three guys (musicians)'," says Butera. ‘He wanted me to join him on Christmas Day, but I told him I'd join him the day after Christ­mas.’

The group that took the stage with Prima at the Sahara on December 26, 1954 had not even had a chance to be introduced to him. When it came time in the show to introduce the sidemen, Louis asked Sam who they were. Sam hollered, "The Witnesses!" Thus are legends born.

The combination of Louis Prima with Keely Smith, and Sam Butera and the Witnesses, was a smash hit in Las Vegas. They became a fixture in the Sahara's Casbar Lounge, performing five shows a night. They would be soaking in sweat when they final­ly left the stage at dawn.

For its era, the Prima-Smith-Butera show was considered risqué (Time called it "doggedly vulgar"). The banter between Louis and Keely was not without its share of innuendo and off-color references (Sonny and Cher later borrowed much of it to re­establish their career on televi­sion in the 1970s).

Surrounding the jokes and gags, and keeping everything jumping, were Butera and the Witnesses, supplying a wild, relentless, driving beat that punched through the lounge's smoke and chatter and left crowds in awe. There was noth­ing like it, which was why it ' became known as "The Wildest Show in Vegas".

"Everything sounded sponta­neous," says Butera. "but we were well rehearsed, with Louis' laughter and Keely's presence and great singing, the group always looked like we were hav­ing fun, and we were, really."

It was at this point that Prima signed with Capitol in 1956. Pro­ducer Voyle Gilmore's intent from the start was to capture as much as possible the live feel of Prima's group. The liner notes for Prima's first Capitol album, The Wildest, claim that Prima remarked, "That's us, man! That's us!" upon hearing the tapes (Capitol recorded Prima live on many subsequent occasions, as is evidenced by some of the selec­tions on this disc). Much of the material had been performed by Louis and Keely for years previ­ous, but Butera re-arranged all the selections to make them swing, and they do.

The selections on this disc abound with Prima trademarks: sudden tempo shifts into and out of Prima's patented "shuffle beat"; tarantellas interwoven with Dixieland jazz; medleys of re-worked standards; altered lyrics befitting Prima's dialect, and numerous passages of Louis own inimitable scat talk.

Keely shows she can hold her own with Louis in the jive talk department on "The Lip,” and displays her skills as a fine ballad singer (or tries to) on "Embraceable You"/"I Got It Bad".

Sam takes the lead vocal on one of the group's classic numbers. "There'll Be No Next Time": "I heard it on a 45, and brought it to Louis... he listened to it and said we had to change some lyrics and make it longer so we could do it on stage. Louis wrote about 80 percent of the lyrics we used on that."

Louis also re-wrote other lyrics when certain numbers were recorded because he thought the live versions were too suggestive. For example, the recorded ver­sion of "The Sheik of Araby" sub­stitutes the words "turban" and "jumpin’" for "pants" and "naked" in the live version. A switch of two words gives the song an entirely different meaning!

This disc also features re-record­ings of earlier Prima hits ("Oh Marie", "Buona Sera", "Angelina"/"Zooma Zooma"), songs from movie appearances ("Hey Boy, Hey Girl* "Banana Split For My Baby", "Twist All Night"), and Louis and Keely's two most mem­orable hits, “That Old Black Magic", and "I've Got You Under My Skin".

Probably the oddest selection on this disc is "Beep! Beep!", from a 1957 single which Louis recorded in recognition of the Sputnik launch earlier in the year. It is the only selection on this disc to contain an overdub, made neces­sary for the sound effect.

By 1961 Louis and Keely had moved from the Sahara's lounge to the main showroom at the Desert Inn. Prima also moved from Capitol to Dot Records, for an extremely lucrative recording deal. Later that year problems in the marriage caused Keely to file for divorce, thus also ending her professional affiliation with Prima. Louis later replaced her with his fifth wife and singing partner, Gia Maione.

Prima enjoyed his last hit at Dot with a version of "Wonderland By Night", then moved back to Capi­tol in 1962 for one further album, The Wildest Comes Home. Louis and Sam's no-holds-barred ver­sion of "St. Louis Blues", taken from that album, rounds out this collection.

After his final departure from Capitol Prima continued per­forming in Vegas and elsewhere (but always on the mainland; a strong fear of flying precluded overseas performances), and recording. In 1967 he made an acclaimed cameo in Walt Dis­ney's animated film, The Jungle Book, providing the voice of King Louie the Orangutan, and a duet with Phil Harris on "I Wanna Walk Like You".

In the early 1970s Prima, along with Butera, moved the band to residency at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans' French Quarter. In November 1975, Prima underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. He never regained consciousness after the operation, and remained in a coma until his death on August 24. 1978 at New Orleans' Touro Infirmary.

Keely Smith also returned to Capitol to record several albums (perhaps Capitol will release a Keely Smith Collector's Edition CD: she certainly deserves it), and continues performing to date.

Sam Butera regularly performs worldwide and records with his band, The Wildest ‘’’’ Though he has drifted more to jazz in recent years, he still performs some Prima favorites in his sets.

Says Sam of Prima: "He was one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived - he was an entertain­er's entertainer." Anyone who lis­tens to this CD will have to agree.

Liner notes by Scott Shea”

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