Saturday, February 6, 2021

Remembering Louie Prima [1910-1978] and Wingy Manone [1900-1982]

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“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. ...

Between September 27, 1934, and July 17, 1937, Louis Prima recorded some fifty-four titles, mostly backed by small jam groups. What strikes the listener now is the overall excellence of the bands (Pee Wee is the clarinetist on some, with Arodin, Weinberg, and Eddie Miller on others), the ease with which Prima handles a wide variety of material—and the incendiary brilliance of his trumpet work. Again and again, he fires off compelling, technically assured solos, fluent throughout the entire range of the horn.

The records (and those of Manone) tend to follow a pattern: more or less straightforward melody chorus, Prima vocal in what one musician called "that hoarse, horny voice of his," solos by a sideman or two, then the leader's trumpet back for the big finale. Within that, there are consistent peaks, including tough and exhilarating Russell solos on "Chasing Shadows," "The Lady in Red," and "Cross Patch."

Prima, for all his gaudy ways, stands up well. There's no denying the pervasive Armstrong flavor, but what's refreshing here is how freely he's able to work within that vocabulary. There are moments, particularly when he descends into his low register, when his figure shapes and sense of drama recall those of Bunny Berigan.

Manone, too, often surprises. His work on dozens of 1930s titles—while displaying nothing comparable to Prima's technical command—is crisp and assured. On "Swing, Brother, Swing" (1935) he easily paces hard-driving solos by Miller (on tenor) and clarinetist Matty Matlock. He opens "Jazz Me Blues," from a September 12, 1934, date with Arodin and Brunies, with a quite Armstrong-like cadenza.

Both men made the jump to radio and movies, and their subsequent careers have been well documented. Their travels, taking them far afield in both a geographical and musical sense, continue the Auswanderung of the earliest jazz days, the arrival-and-departure cycle woven into the fabric of New Orleans life.”

- Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords: Whiye Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945. [1999]

© -  Mosaic Records and Lloyd Rauch, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.

“Scuffling,” in the sense of getting by on a low income or struggling financially is not a term used very much these days in Jazz circles, although given the deleterious effects of the current pandemic on musicians’ incomes, it could very well be.

But it certainly was applicable to these lives of many of those attempting to make their way in Jazz during the formative years of the music’s existence in the 1920s and 1930s.

Some struggled for a while before becoming successful while others struggled for a good long while before some measure of economic success came their way. 

Trumpeter Louie Prima falls into the former category while his fellow trumpeter Wingy Manone is relegated to the latter.

Reviewing the trials and tribulations they encountered, sometimes one gets the sense that their passionate love of the music was the only thing that kept them alive during their early years of trying to make it in the music.

Lloyd Rauch is a jazz historian, disc jockey and collector of vintage jazz material. He has written numerous liner notes and articles on jazz and was a personal assistant to Benny Goodman in 1986. He put together a succinct overview of Louie’s and Wingy’s careers for the Mosaic set  MD6-217 THE COMPLETE BRUNSWICK AND VOCALION RECORDINGS OF LOUIS PRIMA AND WINGY MANONE (1924-1937). 

Reading them will definitely give you a realistic understanding of the scuffling that Prima and Manone went through to carve out their careers in Jazz.

LOUIS PRIMA - 1910-1978

New Orleans natives Louis Prima and Wingy Manone both lived the American dream and they used jazz as their vehicle; an opportunity afforded few over the past hundred years. And if one wanted inspiration, growing up in New Orleans was the place to be, especially in the first twenty years of the last century, the period when ragtime turned into jazz.

Louis opened the Famous Door on March 1, 1935. The new club was operated by Jack Colt, who raised money from prominent New York musicians so they could have a place to go after work, enjoy some good spirits and a little jazz. Though Manone was older by six years, their mutual fame and fortune blossomed during the early months of 1935 on the same New York City street - 52nd Street.

Louis Leo Prima was twenty-four years old in 1935 and had performed largely in New Orleans.  He was born on December 7, 1910 and started his early training on violin at age seven, providing him with a solid musical foundation.  His mother Angelina encouraged all her children to play an instrument, resulting in the formation of a little family band.  Angelina was a bit of a flamboyant blues shouter herself, performing in church shows and at family gatherings.  Little Louis hated the violin and longed to blow a trumpet or cornet (the smaller, sweeter version of the trumpet) which Leon, his older brother by three years, was then playing.  

Leon played jazz in New Orleans' French Quarter clubs throughout the early Twenties. By 1924 he had made enough to afford a new $75.00 trumpet and accept a gig in Texas. He had left his old beat-up cornet home and the temptation was just too much for young Louis, now only thirteen years old. His mother was with Leon in Texas, so when no one was at home, Louis would pick up that old horn and teach himself to play over the next few months.  Despite his mother's disapproval, he continued with the cornet, trying to emulate the great horn players in New Orleans that fascinated him.  

Leon Prima: "I switched to trumpet and then went on the road, I left an old trumpet (cornet) at home.  I stayed out about a year or so and when I came home, Louie was blowing the trumpet...real good." (1)

Years later, Louis Prima sighted Buddy Petit, Louis Dumaine, Punch Miller and Louis Armstrong as inspirations, though ultimately it was Armstrong who wielded the most influence on Prima.  Prima also would peek into the Black churches to enjoy and absorb the music of his brothers. At that time, Italians and Blacks frequently interacted on the job and socially. Both black and white bands would play at the New Orleans clubs, many owned by Italians, though local law forbade mixed groups from performing on the same stage at the same time. When a mixed session did take place, it was informal and not advertised.

  By 1928, Louis was good enough to join the musicians union. There were lean times and periods of triumph for the next six years. Prima recorded a few numbers with Dave Rose for Bluebird Records in 1933 but they made little noise and he returned to New Orleans. Upon a visit to New Orleans in 1934, Guy Lombardo, who's band almost never played jazz, heard Prima in a nightclub at two o'clock in the morning. He couldn't believe his ears and ran over to the hotel to wake his brothers Carmen, Victor, and Lebert (all members of the Lombardo orchestra) and ask them if they too felt that this was a great talent. They did and Guy suggested Prima move to New York and try his luck in the city that was the capital of radio, recording and nightclub entertainment.

Guy arranged a recording contract for Prima with Brunswick records and attempted to line up a gig at Leon and Eddie's on 52nd Street. The owners thought Louis was black due to his kinky hair and olive complexion and refused to hire him. This policy did not apply to all clubs on 52nd Street as the Onyx, one of the few that offered jazz, featured the Spirits of Rhythm (a black group) for years. Within a year or two both black and white bands were common on "The Street'' as well as  in Greenwich Village downtown and although mixed bands were rare, black bands would alternate with white at the same clubs. These were the days on 52nd Street where one could listen to such stars as Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Bunny Berigan, Stuff Smith, Ed Farley and Mike Riley.

Another great locale was The Famous Door found at 35 West 52nd Street (right next to Leon and Eddie's), the same spot as the original Onyx, which was now at 72 West 52nd. At first, the opening night "crowd" consisted of proprietor Jack Colt, the waiters and the band on stage.  There was no business despite the fact that a fire at the Onyx, only the previous night, forced that club to shut its doors for a number of months. Colt took a walk around the block contemplating the firing of Prima and the closing of his new club. When he returned, he noticed a real crowd waiting to get in the Famous Door. The late night clientele, for which the club was intended, did finally show up to hear Prima and to see the new club.

Newspapermen such as Ed Sullivan, Robert Sylverster, and Walter Winchell wrote glowingly of Prima's stage persona and fine little band.  Eventually the folks from Park Avenue began frequenting the place and other clubs on 52nd Street started booking small jazz or jam bands into their venues. It should be remembered that at the time, personality was as important as music and Prima was the spark that ignited interest in that fabled block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, soon to be known as Swing Street.

Prima became such a success that he left New York before the end of 1935 and opened his own Famous Door club in California. His reputation grew via national radio broadcasts and motion pictures. By 1936 he was experimenting with a big band but the reception did not equal the great response to the small group so he returned to the original format for the next three years.

In 1940, he organized another big band, which lasted until about 1950. This was a fruitful venture, which resulted in dozens of hit recordings. Robin Hood, My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time, and many Italian novelties removed Prima from his jazz roots but made him a rich man. Though he continued to play trumpet until 1975, his peak years were 1934-39.

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 twenty years earlier for 52nd Street; opening 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.

Following their divorce in the early Sixties, Prima continued to perform but never achieved the notoriety that he had with Keely. In addition, he could not produce another hit record. The advent of the Beatles and changing musical tastes added to Prima's decline in popularity. However, his participation in the Walt Disney animated film, The Jungle Book, in which Prima provided the voice for "King Louie", leader of the jungle apes, brought him to a new audience for a brief time in the late Sixties.

Though he was still performing in 1975, he elected to have a benign tumor removed from the stem of his brain due to severe headaches.  The operation left him unable to speak or move for the next three years.   He died on August 24, 1978 in his hometown of New Orleans at age sixty-seven. Surely he was one of the most memorable entertainers of his time and his best jazz work is included here in this set.

WINGY MANONE - 1900-1982

Wingy Manone was one of the real characters of jazz, always full of jive talk and the spirit of life. He was born Joseph Manone on February 13, 1904 just outside of the French Quarter in New Orleans (not far from where Prima was born and raised). At the age of eight or nine he began trumpet lessons and studied seriously for almost a year.  Eventually, he tired of the regimented music he was expected to play, so one day he invited his teacher to come over to the other side of the levee and hear the music of the black bands. After listening for a while, his teacher declared that they were faking and there was no way she could teach him that kind of music, so he quit taking formal lessons.

Not long after, at age ten, his right arm was crushed in a streetcar accident and the doctors were forced to amputate. Not only had he lost his arm, he lost the dominant extremity that he depended upon for fingering the trumpet. For almost a year he shied away from his friends and quietly taught himself to play with his left hand. He refused to perform in public until he was ready and when he finally did, he used a gloved hand attached to a prosthetic arm to hold the trumpet in place while he fingered the valves with his left hand. Eventually, he quit school and organized a band with his young friends, joining in the second line in a New Orleans parade or simply playing on the street corner. He was no longer Joe Manone, but Wingy.

His early influences were King Oliver and Buddy Petit, the same Petit that had inspired Prima. He was well known in New Orleans and briefly toured California with Jelly Roll Morton. Though he never recorded, Petit is fondly remembered by many of the musicians who lived in New Orleans during the early days of jazz. Later on, Louis Armstrong, who Wingy knew as a boy, would be a significant inspiration.

Wingy and his band struggled for a few years and finally landed a job at the Ringside Café, which lasted for six months. Ultimately they quit to take a gig at the Eldorado Club, but the place folded after two weeks. Wingy suggested that the band, at that time playing under the name Steamboat Six, try their luck in Chicago, where so many New Orleans musicians had found work. Without sufficient train fare, the boys would have to travel with the hobos.

Wingy: "We climbed up in a boxcar and the train pulled out - a jazz band heading up north to show how real jam music should be played.  Wow! We kept in the eating department by playing on the streets and passing the hat in all the towns where we had train waits. We had to keep changing trains, riding in lumber cars, gondolas, flat cars and on the rods." 

When the band reached Kankakee, Illinois they got off the train and encountered a gentleman who demanded that they leave his property. Believing that he was the landowner, they pleaded with him for some food, explaining that they were musicians looking for work in Chicago. The man invited them up to the big house on the hill so they may have a bite to eat.

Wingy: "No sooner did we get up to the house then out came some guards and we found out that the place was an insane asylum and the fellow (who they mistook for the landowner) was one of those harmless "bugs" (patients) that they let walk around like a trusty every afternoon. When we found out where we were, we started to run, but the guards grabbed us and took us inside to the head doctors. They listened to our story and ordered food for us. We were so hungry, we ate like pigs and afterward we played for some of the inmates who were about to be released. As we were leaving, the doctors gave us two bucks for cigarettes, then we heard the slow freight. The crew saw us running like hell toward the train but they thought we were breakin' out of the bughouse. I shouted to them that we were the boys that was riding on the train before. I had to open up my trumpet case to convince them. They were relieved and said: 'Okay, bums, find your spots and keep out of sight till we get out of town.'  We never forgot that bughouse though. Those inmates thought that we was nuts, playin' those musical instruments." 

The next stop was Chicago. By 1921, the sweeter dance bands were becoming more popular and the public's fascination with New Orleans jazz was waning. Manone could barely read music so many jobs were closed to him. In order to eat, he would play Italian and Jewish weddings in Chicago on the weekends and fill in the other days with whatever he could find. The members of his band were on their own. Eventually, he found steady work in St. Louis, where he recorded his first session.

For the next ten years, he traveled from Chicago to New York or wherever there were gigs. He managed to get a few record dates with the likes of Benny Goodman and Red Nichols, but these were rare. In Chicago, he performed regularly with Bud Freeman, Frank Teschemacher and Art Hodes and for a short period of time he even worked with Bix Beiderbecke whose influence can be heard on Wingy's 1927 recordings.

He jobbed in vaudeville with Blossom Seely and Benny Fields (major stars in their day) and even worked for a while in a Native American Indian jazz band led by trombonist Chief Blue Cloud. The Chief and his wife Ida Blue Cloud were the only real Indians in the band so the other members would have to dress in costume. Wingy was required to don full-feathered headgear, wear moccasins and not speak any English. They played in all the big vaudeville houses and Wingy had a great time until his friends in New York found out that he was "passing" as Indian. Big Charlie Green, trombonist with Fletcher Henderson, saw one of the shows and told everyone about Wingy's gig. The boys at Plunkett's bar gave him such a ribbing that he had to quit the Chief and look for something else.

  By May of 1934, Wingy had more than ten years of scuffling behind him and was determined to make it in New York. After about six months he landed a job at the Grill Room of the Knickerbocker Hotel with his own group. The gig was a smashing success with capacity crowds every night, but the club closed after only five days. It seems that the jam sessions lasted until eight the next morning and liquor would continue to be sold, a crime after hours in New York City, so the club was shut down. One of the next stops was the De Luxe Club on 52nd Street, where he helped to establish free wheeling jazz on "The Street". On February 20, 1935 he was booked into The Piccadilly Hotel on West 45th Street just off Broadway, where music started at 9:30 and continued, as Wingy says, "to four in the early brightness". The sign outside the club declared that the music was, "the hottest this side of Harlem". After a few months, Adrian Rollini, master of the bass sax and an early pioneer of the vibes, offered Wingy the opportunity to join his band at the Hotel President where he ran his own club called Adrian's Tap Room. The club was jumping every night with Wingy, Rollini, Carmen Mastren on guitar and Putney Dandridge at the piano. Everyone from Fats Waller to Martha Raye used to sit in with the band and then enjoy a lamb chop or two. The band even cut six sides for Victor records on June 20, 1936.  

By this time Manone was recording and his records were selling briskly. But it wasn't until Wingy's huge hit recording of Isle of Capri that he found more work on 52nd Street at clubs such as the Hickory House and the Famous Door. He continued to play jobs in New York, Florida and the northeast region until the early forties when Bing Crosby invited him out to California for a guest spot on his radio show. Wingy was hired for only two weeks but lasted for five years. Manone would do comedy dialog with Bing and play jazz with a small group from John Scott Trotter's studio orchestra. Bing also included Wingy in his Hollywood picture, Rhythm on the River (1940) which paved the way for many more movie roles as both musician and actor.           

Wingy Manone continued to record for Bluebird, Decca, Capitol and many other labels until the 1970's. He worked in California and later in Las Vegas until shortly before his death on July 9, 1982.    

For his whole life, Wingy Manone played what he called, "the righteous music"; free wheeling dixieland and swing with a solid New Orleans beat. He didn't care whether he performed in a small club with an unknown group of local musicians or on the stage at Carnegie Hall, as long as he could play in the uninhibited manner that defined who he was. 

Wingy ended his 1948 autobiography Trumpet on the Wing with these reflective words: "I ain't never been sorry that I went up over the levee and listened to the only kind of music that's really solid and caught it, and kept on playin' it all my life. I intend to keep on playin' it until they really put wings on that trumpet...." 

- Lloyd Rauch 

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