Before teaming up with Keely Smith, Prima was already a popular trumpet player, singer and consumate SHOWMAN for over a decade who’d already been married three times. He had scored success by writing the swing anthem “Sing, Sing, Sing” a huge hit for for Benny Goodman, and scored with some novelty tunes for himself like “Robin Hood”, “Bell Bottom Trousers” in 1945 and 1948’s “Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)”. Prima had emerged from the New Orleans jazz scene, before starting a big band, and his charm & looks had him selling out major venues nationwide including drawing record crowds to New York’s Paramount Theater. His records often played upon his Sicilian heritage, and novelty tracks included “Please No Squeeza Da Banana,” and “Josephine, Please No Lean On The Bell.”
He was considered a bit philanderous, and dated numerous women even when married. The boisterous & colorful Italian-American performer had already operated a nightclub under the name the “Famous Door” in Los Angeles where he also began dating starlets & using show biz contacts to appear in some films alongside fellow performers like Bing Crosby.
Dorothy Jacqueline Keely aka Keely Smith was discovered by Prima in Norfolk VA on tour in the late 1940’s. She came up to the bandstand and won an impromptu talent contest with her voice. Prima took an instant liking to her dry wit and got the young girl’s mother to sign a permission slip and she hit the road with the band. At the time Prima was signed to Columbia, and they began recording material under the direction of Mitch Miller.
Prima’s career had many ups & downs, and his financial status was always precarious. By the early 1950’s, with his popularity waning he could no longer afford to pay a big band, and he could find no steady work anymore on the east coast. After a desperate plea to an old talent agent friend, he was signed to play five graveyard sets in a small lounge in a new Las Vegas casino called the Sahara in 1954. Legend has it that Prima was so broke when he arrived in the desert outpost that his shoes had holes in them.
Explaining his situation to his brother in New Orleans, it was arranged that a small combo of young musicians led by Sam Butera would be shipped out to Las Vegas pronto to back Louis & Keely.
Barely having met before their opening night, the group instantly became a hit in Las Vegas, and they performed nightly from midnight until 6 am. Prima would blow his horn ala Louis Armstrong, joking, jigging and jostling against Butera on the tiny stage. Keely would ignore the boys hyperactive hub bub, filing her nails, and looking bored & blase’ between her vocal lines. The audiences ate up the mix of comedy & hot swing sounds.
The tiny Casbar lounge began filling up early and joining stray gamblers some nights were other show people and celebrities like Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack entourage. Suddenly, like a phoenix, Prima was back on top and was offered a recording contract from Sinatra’s label Capitol.
They had numeous hits, and the casino show excitement was captured live for the 1956 album the album The Wildest! They later won a Grammy in 1959 for their collaboration on “That Old Black Magic”.
The liner notes described their combination of talents:
“By all odds, the combination of Louis Prima and Keely Smith shouldn’t work. How could Louis, a confirmed inciter to riot, and Keely, normally a model of smoky-voiced sobriety, do anything but clash? But clash they don’t. Explode they do!”
-from The Hits Of Louis And Keely, Capitol Records
Despite having two children, Prima and Smith divorced in the early 1960’s after it became apparent the couple were no longer aligned, most conspicuously the curious culprit Louis “Just A Gigolo” Prima being unable to curb his wandering eye. He eventually remarried for a 5th and final time to Gia Maione and continued the act in a similar vein while Keely Smith went on to a solo career that continues to this day as a popular balladeer.
Edited by dvoodoo on 12 Mar 2010, 20:32
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