Thursday, November 20, 2008

Louis Prima

Louis Armstrong's influence on jazz and popular music was immense. Not only did he change the style of jazz solo and band playing, but countless instrumentalists fell under his spell.

One of his most successful admirers as trumpeter-vocalist and entertainer was fellow New Orleansian, Louis Prima. Like "Pops" Louis started as a pure New Orleans jazz man with small groups, joined the Big Band craze of the 30s and 40s and finally fronted a successful small group combining jazz and entertainment. This post is a fond overview of his remarkable career.

Louis was born in New
Orleans on December 7, 1910. Like Armstrong, his early years were spent absorbing the many and varied sounds of jazz in New Orleans. King Oliver, Bunk Johnson and Armstrong were early mentors. Louis started on violin but soon started experimenting with older brother Leon's trumpet. (Leon was a fine trumpeter in his own right, worked in some of Louis' big bands, but mostly stayed in New Orleans.) It didn't take Louis long to figure out the rudiments
of trumpet and apply himself to the jazz styles of New Orleans. By 1922 he was fronting a "kid" jazz band that included future clarinet star Irving Fazola. By the late 20s he was working with local dance bands such as Ellis Strakakos and playing in French quarter clubs. He also did some work on the steamship Capitol as Louis Armstrong had a decade earlier.

In 1931 Louis was hired by Lou Forbes, director of the Saenger Theatre pit band. This job would give him great experience as a musician and entertainer, as he took part in skits and acts on the theater's bill.

Louis did some work away from New Orleans around 1932-3 and had a short stint with Red Nichols. In September of 1933 he was in Chicago and wound up making his first records with pianist Dave Rose ( the Holiday for Strings composer). Besides a full band session, Louis also played with the "Hotcha Trio" (Rose and violinist Norman Gast) playing Chinatown and Dinah. Louis was already showing the huge influence of Armstrong in his fine trumpet work and gravelly good-humored vocals sprinkled with scat. These sides came out on the Bluebird label.
By 1934 Louis was back in New Orleans playing at Club ShimSham where he was heard by bandleader Guy Lombardo. Guy was taken with Louis' playing and arranged for him to come to New York. Initially things were slow for Louis, but Lombardo and agent Irving Mills secured him a record contract with Brunswick records. This gave Louis some security until the right venue opened. Louis' record series was called Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang. Louis also appeared on some transcriptions by Joe Venuti and a big band. Included in the band were Red Norvo, Jerry Colonna, Larry Binyon and Frank Victor. Louis again shows his debt to Pops on Rockin' Chair, Monday Date and Confessin'. The New Orleans Gang sides feature great jazz, Louis' trumpet and vocals and some fine New Orleans musicians.

In March of 1935 that right venue opened up for Louis. It was the Famous Door on 52nd St., better known as Swing Street. Louis' unique brand of swing with a New Orleans accent coupled with his clowning and entertaining made him the hit of Swing Street.

The New Orleans Gang recordings continued into the late 30s and feature some great small group jazz. Most of the 34-5 sides featured fellow New Orleansians George Brunis(trombone) and Eddie Miller and Sidney Arodin (clarinet). Highlights included Jamaica Shout (a rare instrumental), Let's have a Jubilee, Breakin' the Ice, I still Want You (a Prima composition) and Worry Blues featuring a tasty muted Prima solo. George Brunis added a lot with his tailgate trombone and comic contributions. Along with his Armstrong inspired vocals, Louis really shines on trumpet. He had a broad, lusty tone with a good high register---all trademarks of the Armstrong style. He was also pretty fleet at fingering and capable of fast runs.

By May 1935 Louis' front line partner would be the one and only PeeWee Russell on clarinet. PeeWee's raspy, nervous clarinet made a great foil for Louis' trumpet flights and vocal high-jinks. Some of the many fine sides of this period are Sweet Sue, Dinah, Lazy River and The Lady in Red. Louis also made some big band sides in '36 with an augmented Gang including PeeWee. Standout sides include Pennies from Heaven, The Goose Hangs High and the Armstrong favorite, Confessin'. It would become a Prima staple.

In 1936 Louis wrote a cute novelty tune called Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing). Little did he know that, thanks to Benny Goodman's great version, it would become one of the classics of the Swing Era. That same year Louis moved his activities to Hollywood where he opened at a new Famous Door, created especially for him. Louis became the darling of the Hollywood movie community. They flocked the club to hear Louis' brand of jazz and entertainment.

Movie opportunities also opened for Louis.He made a cameo in Bing Crosby's Rhythm on the Range. Louis and the band also made a great short for RKO called Swing It, featuring some terrific interplay between Louis and PeeWee. In 37-8 he also appeared in the films Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, Start Cheering and You Can't Have Everything with Alice Faye.

Louis took a big band out on some tours but still did the bulk of his work with the New Orleans Gang. In 1937 Meyer Weinberg joined the group on clarinet. He was also from New Orleans and had some of PeeWee's style with a prettier tone and more fluidity. He is featured heavily on Louis' cuts from the period. Some of the standouts are Doin' the Serpentine, Love Bug, Good Man is Hard to Find and Tin Roof Blues (instrumental). This addition of the gang also made a terrifi Vitaphone short, Swing Cat's Jamboree. The short featured drummer-vibraphonist Godrey Hirsch, a New Orleans boy who later worked a lot with Pete Fountain. The band also appeared in another Alice Faye musical, Rose of Washington Square.

A September 1939 broadcast from the New York Famous Door shows Louis and the Gang in great form. On an extended version of Should I?, Louis and Meyer engage in some great riffing over a swinging rhythm section. A perfect example of small group swing at it's best.

By 1940, Louis had made the switch to fronting a big band. This was the popular way for a swing star to go and Louis' big bands were always colorful and swinging with plenty of lohorn and vocals up front. The first Prima big band sides were made for Varsity and Okeh. Most of Louis' wartime sides were on the Hit and Majestic labels. It was at this time that Louis began introducing the Italian novelties that would become such an important part of his shows. Tunes such as Oh Marie, Angelina, Please No Squeeza Banana and Chela Luna would all be big hits for Louis. Louis' big bands didn't have any big names but included solid pros such as Charlie Kennedy, Morty Lewis (sax), Allan Logan (piano), brother Leon (trumpet), Frank Frederico (guitar) and Jimmy Vincent (drums). From 1940-6his female singer was a cute girl named Lily Ann Carol. She worked well with Louis(this was the start of his boy-girl duets). Lily also had a big hit during the war years with I'll Walk Alone.

Louis used top arrangers such as Earl Bostic, Edgar Battle and Bob Miketta. With the latter he wrote one of his biggest hits, Robin Hood, another perennial in the Prima book. Besides the studio dates, many broadcasts of the wartime Prima bands exist. The band always swings and Louis' great sense of showmanship and pacing is always evident. A typical program would range from St.Louis Blues and Confessin' (Armstrong) to Angelina and Robin Hood (Louis specialties) and ballads by Lily Ann.

Around this time Louis adopted the slogan "Play it pretty for the People." He often used it to encourage his musicians. Another favorite Prima device, the "Shuffle Rhythm" begins to appear.(Henry Busse and Jan Savitt also had great success with it). The
shuffle eventually would be a part of practically every Prima number.

Louis made some more Band shorts in the mid-40s. One short from around 1945 has him playing Old Black Magic, destined to be one of his biggest hits). Lily does Porgy and Jimmy Vincent does his Krupa-thing on Sing, Sing, Sing.

In August of 1948 Louis and the band were playing at the Surf Club in Virginia Beach, part of Norfolk,Virginia. While there Louis auditioned a local girl for his vacant girl singer spot. The girl not only won the job but would become an integral part of Louis' life and career. Her name was Keely Smith.

Keely was an attractive, tan 17 year old with pageboy bangs and a curvaceous figure. She was of Irish-Cherokee heritage (Louis would often use her "Indian" heritage as comic material). Keely possessed a clear, musical voice that contrasted perfectly with Louis' gravelly, gregarious vocalizing. Soon Louis developed a routine in which Keely would act "deadpan" to Prima's zaniness onstage. This chemistry would be an important part of the phenomenal success soon coming Louis' way. By 1949 Louis had to break up the big band. Many of the great swing bands had done the same. For the next few years he and Keely would work venues with local bands of varying quality. Louis continued to record. He was with RCA Victor from 1947-9 and scored a big hit with Civilization. He was with Mercury in 49-50, Columbia 51-2 and a brief stay at Decca in 54. These sides were mostly singles aimed at the juke box market. Standout Mercury sides are Over the Rainbow, Ja-Da and Buona Sera, another popular Italian side. Paul Revere, a Robin Hood clone, was a big Columbia single and for Decca, Louis and Keely made a pretty duet on Until Sunrise with a fine trumpet solo.

By late 1954, Louis and Keely were really scuffling. Louis talked to an old friend, Bill Miller He was entertainment director at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Vegas was just starting to be a center for entertainers. Miller gave Louis and Keely a 2-week run at the Casbar Lounge with no promises. The engagement started slowly but soon, to back him and Keely, Louis added an exciting tenor sax man, Sam Butera, along with his band. Louis had heard Sam, a New Orleans boy, at his brother Leon's club in New Orleans. Besides Sam's superb musicianship , he brought along his great arranging skills and a solid group of musicians who would be known as The Witnesses. The format would feature Louis' jazz and Italian specialties, Keely's smoky ballads and swing tunes and many features for Sam and the boys. Featured constantly was the driving shuffle rhythm and great manic, comic showmanship from Louis, Sam and The Witnesses. The new act would garner the tagline "The Wildest" and it sure was. Crowds flocked to the lounge to see their midnight shows including entertainment icons Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Danny Thomas, Cab Calloway, Red Skelton and many more. Louis was back in business.

Ditto with his recordings. Capitol Records signed him and from 1956-60 many best-selling live and studio albums were recorded along with solo LPs for Keely and Sam. Two of the biggest records of this period were That Old Black Magic and I've Got You under My Skin. Louis and Keely's impeccable dueting accompanied by great Butera charts really showed the chemistry, timing and musicianship of the Louis-Keely-Sam triumvate.

Louis and Keely had also found personal chemistry, having married in 1952. She was his 4th wife. They had two daughters, Toni and Louanne. Louis had already had a daughter by wife number 3, Tracelene. The Louis/Keely marriage took place just before the Capital era. That era introduced some of their biggest hits including Autumn Leaves from Call of the Wildest. Other standouts from the Capitol era include the Should I/Can't Believe You're in Love medley and White Cliffs of Dover (with great trumpet work) and Greenback Dollar Bill (one of Sam's best vocals) from the Las Vegas Prima Style. On the initial Capitol album, The Wildest, we find two staples of Louis' show, Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody and Jump, Jive and Wail. Louis was fond of two-tune medleys. On The Wildest Show at Tahoe, Keely shines on I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues and in duet with Louis on I'm in the Mood for Love.

Sam himself was a great showman as well as musician and all of The Witnesses were featured in the shows. Standout players included trombonist Lou Sino (from New Orleans), Bobby Roberts from Chicago-a great jazz guitarist, bassist Rolly Dee, also a fine singer and comic, drummer Jimmy Vincent (from the big band days) and multi-instrumentalist Morgan Thomas. These great players were an important part of the act's success.

Louis, Keely and the band made many TV appearances, a Universal short and in 1959 a Columbia feature, "Hey Boy,Hey Girl." Although a low-budget affair, the film was a great showcase for the act including Louis' Oh Marie, the Saints and Lazy River, Keely's Autumn Leaves and Sam's Fever. The film's title tune made a cute Louis-Keely duet. The movie's threadbare plot involved Keely hiring Louis and the band for a church charity show. Along the way Louis falls for her and her voice and adds her to his show. Very autobiographical.

In 1960 Louis moved over to Dot Records. He got a better financial deal than at Capitol. He did a lot of recording over two years. Numerous live shows, Louis-Keely LPs, Sam and Keely solos and 3 easy-listening trumpet albums. Louis had had a hit with his cover of Wonderland by Night.

By 1961 years of performing and personal strain took their toll on the marriage. Despite their great success as musical partners, Louis and Keely split up. Keely slowly built up her solo career. She had a big hit record with I Wish You Love in 1958. Louis and the band kept the show rolling with Louis promising his fans to come up with a new female vocal star.

In 1961 Louis and the band made a cheapie film for American-International called Twist All Night, capitalizing on that current dance craze. Although a bottom of the barrel production, Louis and the boys are featured almost non-stop. Louis also gets in some nice trumpet spots in the film. To compensate for Keely's absence, voluptous June Wilkinson, a former Playboy playmate, played Louis' girlfriend. In 1962 Louis made a one-shot comeback at Capitol with a great LP, The Wildest Comes Home, featuring himself, Sam and the band in some great, swinging tracks. Louis' old theme Way Down Yonder in New Orleans gets a real Wildest treatment.

In May 1962 while appearing at the Latin Casino in Camden,N.J., Louis auditioned a local 20 year old singer named Gia Maione. Like with Keely Louis was attracted to her Italian brunette charms and clear professional voice. Gia didn't have the great vocal chops of Keely but worked well with Louis and the band. She had been a fan and knew all of his records. Romance blossomed and Gia and Louis were married in February 1963. They had two children, Lina and Louis Jr., both of whom became performers. Gia eventually switched to part-time singer and full-time mom. The show went on with numerous TV appearances and Las Vegas shows. A 1964 Capitol LP Lake Tahoe Prima Style finds the new combination to be a still entertaining show.

In 1962 Louis also tried his hand at his own record label, Prima1. Over the next dozen years he would put out various LPs of the show band, Gia and Sam. One of the best is King of Clubs, a live show including a great I still Want You from the New Orleans Gang days, Buona Sera and Chela Luna from Louis; a nice Louis and Gia duet on Baby, Won't You Please Come Home and one of Sam's best vocals, French Poodle. Two later Prima albums are standouts. On Just a Gigolo Louis features familiar tunes with girls names. The title track has one of his best trumpet spots. Angelina has all of Louis' great Italian novelties.

In 1967 Louis' career got a big boost when he was tapped to provide the voice of King Louie in Walt Disney's Jungle Book. The Disney animators brought Louis and the band into the studio to perform and matched their actions to those of King Louie and his pals. The song I Wanna be Like You became a hit for Louis and spawned numerous revivals. (Kenny Ball had a big hit in the U.K.)

The late 60s and early 70s saw Louis still starring in Vegas. His shows and LPs saw an attempt to be current with contemporary rock songs added to the program. However these numbers have dated terribly and the pure Prima and Sam numbers always worked the best. This writer recalls a 1972 Merv Griffin show in which Louis did his WILD version of Perry Como's It's Impossible.
This was followed by a hilarious bit of banter between Merv, George Kirby, Tony Martin and Louis. Louis also popped up in a cameo on a David Jannsen show O'Hara U.S. Treasury playing a nightclub musician. In 1974 Louis and the band had a cameo in the film Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. The all-too brief segment saw Louis doing some of his familiar tunes onstage during a Vegas casino scene. It would be his last film appearance. For a short time Louis tried making New Orleans his home base but surprisingly he found his home town not as receptive as Vegas.

Louis started to experience severe headaches during this period. He stopped playing trumpet to alleviate the pressure. Louis was always a healthy and athletic guy. The diagnosis was a brain tumor and Louis opted for surgery. During surgery Louis lapsed into a coma. He stayed in this condition for 3 years. In 1976 he was moved to the Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. Louis finally passed on August 24, 1978. It was a sad ending for such a vibrant man who brought so much joy and good music to the world.

Happily, there has been much renewed interest in Louis' work. Starting with a GAP TV commercial featuring Louis' Jump, Jive and Wail to the Jump/Jive Swing bands of the 90s with many Prima covers. The film Big Night featured many Louis and Keely tunes and in 1999 director Joe Lauro put together an excellent documentary, The Wildest.

Sam and Keely continued to perform into the 21st century. It looks like The Wildest will be playing pretty for the people for many years to come.( We lost Sam in 2009).

CD samplings

The New Orleans Gang sides are available on the Classics label.

Big band sides are available on various independent labels; for example, Hit and Majestic sides. RCA-Buddah has a compilation called Say it with a Slap.

Mercury and Decca sides are on Beepin' and Boppin' on Hippo. The Columbias on a Columbia CD called Breakin' it Up.

The Capitols have been put out in various forms. Bear Family issued the complete Louis-Keely-Sam on Capitol some years ago.

The Dots are available on Jasmine CDs. Gia Prima has issued most of the Prima1 material.

New Sounds of the Louis Prima Show-Prima1(1968).

This album has some great tracks by Louis. A wild In a Little Spanish Town, a great new version of Confessin' with a standout trumpet solo. Louis also solos on Margie, I wanna Be Like You (from The Jungle Book) and does a hilarious comedy number with Sam, the Story 'bout the Dog. Sam does a fine vocal on When a Man Loves a Woman and Louis' new keyboard man, Richie Varola, breaks it up on electric organ with You're just in Love. One of the best examples of the later Prima show band.

Louis Prima on Broadway-United Artists(1967).

This album has Louis playing and singing with a large studio band (No Witnesses). Louis does some fine singing and contributes some nice trumpet work to favorites such as Cabaret, Mame, Hello Dolly and On a Clear Day. (not available on CD).
There are also some great Louis TV clips on Youtube, most of them from Louis Jr.'s collection.


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