La Musica de Louis Prima

My Rouses Everyday, March | April 2018

Of all the New Orleans musicians who followed Louis Armstrong’s path to the bright lights of northern cities, none matched Louis Prima for sheer showmanship.

A hot Dixieland trumpeter and flamboyant bandleader, Prima was a robust singer who plunged into scat singing, composed primarily of words with no discernable meaning, as if they’d been plucked from a foreign dictionary; he was also a ribald comic, charming club crowds with a high-octane style.

Born in 1910 in an Italian enclave in the back of the French Quarter, Prima was the second of five children in a second-generation Sicilian family; the family soon moved to the Tremé neighborhood, across Rampart Street, to a house on St. Peter Street amid Arabs, Jews, African Americans and Italians — a classic layer of the melting pot. One sister became a nun. His over-doting mother insisted the kids take music lessons. His older brother, Leon, became a trumpeter and bandleader who gave his brother a spotlight in 1928 when Louis dropped out of Warren Easton High School.

Prima became the most celebrated Italian-American musician from New Orleans, though by the time he hit New York in the mid-1930s, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) had paved a trail. The ODJB, led by New Orleans cornet player Nick LaRocca, made the first jazz recording in New York in 1917, and the group became an overnight sensation, planting the word “jazz” in the American lexicon. The fortunes of LaRocca’s band lasted only a few years; they were surpassed by Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of the late 1920s. By the 1930s, with Armstrong’s rise as a soloist and distinctive singer, LaRocca suffered a nervous breakdown and went back home to New Orleans, abandoning his music career and becoming a homebuilder. Jazz critics considered the ODJB recordings an anomaly, the white band that “got there first,” recording the first songs called jazz. Coming a little later, black jazzmen poured a stream of blues and church songs into the sound that gave jazz is fundamental essence.

Prima caught a break in 1934 when visiting bandleader Guy Lombardo saw him with his brother Leon’s band in New Orleans at Club Flim Flam, and Lombardo offered to help Louis find work in New York. The hardest part was not leaving his wife, but persuading Angelina, his mom, to let him go. Matrimony and Prima were not the smoothest fit: He pursued women relentlessly, married five times, and had six children.

Lombardo steered him to the studio for the Brunswick label. Prima’s pulsing trumpet led his band, the New Orleans Gang, featuring George Brunis, a veteran of the ODJB, on trombone, and Sidney Arodin, another Crescent City transplant, on clarinet. In Prima’s version of the fabled Storyville song, “Basin Street Blues,” he supplants the lines alluding to bordellos, “where all the light and dark folks meet,” with a more innocuous, “where all the boys stand in line,” as if for ice cream. In those early cuts, his husky tenor swings easily into a warble of sweet scat phrasings.

The writer Garry Boulard, author of Louis Prima (University of Illinois Press), captures an essence of his crowd appeal in a fascinating comparison: “Like a Southern evangelist who knew when to drop to his knees and rock the house with cries of salvation, Prima knew, by instinct, night after night, what songs could be used to build the audience into a state of exalted frenzy. His goal was mesmerizing entertainment.”

As Prima sailed through the Big Band era, his band pulled into Virginia Beach in 1948, and it was there he discovered Keely Smith, a dark-haired beauty, all of 20 years old. Part Cherokee and part Irish, she joined the band as a singer as they traveled in a caravan of cars to gigs across the land. On stage, to Prima’s jumping ebullience, Keely played it deadpan straight, her melodious contralto a reliable foil to Louie’s torrent of scat lines. In 1953, Keely Smith became the fourth Mrs. Prima.

Prima featured her ingenue image as an alter ego to his gregariousness in an act that made Smith a star. In 1954 they became a draw in Las Vegas, bought a house and started having kids. At Prima’s behest, a young tenor sax player, Sam Butera, left Leon Prima’s band at the 500 Club in New Orleans and flew to Las Vegas to assume creative control of the band. Besides sharpening the spotlight on Keely, Butera developed sizzling call-and-response passages with Louis, singing back instrumentally to his pumping vocals.

But as Butera recalled in a radio interview many years later, after Prima was gone, though the two of them regularly played golf at a course in Vegas, a sense of closeness eluded the saxophonist. Butera got choked up, almost sobbing, in the American Routes interview with Nick Spitzer, one of those rare broadcast moments that yield insight into the mysteries of human chemistry. Butera was clearly sentimental in recalling the high times long gone, but he was missing something else — a friendship that had never quite jelled as he had wished.

Prima was a natural showman and something of a ham; as a musician and singer he had a superb sense of timing. You hear it best on a song like “That Old Black Magic” — available on Louis Prima: Collectors Series, on Capitol — with a racing tingle of the drums as Louis and Keely launch into alternating lines of an up-tempo lovers’ exchange.

He: That old black magic has me in its spell
She: That old black magic that you weave so well
He: Icy fingers up and down my spine
She: The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine

He: The same old tingle that I feel inside
She: When that elevator starts its ride
He: Down and down I go,

She: Round and round I go
He: Like a leaf that’s
Both: Caught in the tide

Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” is a gem of musicianship. The song opens with a conga beat and Butera’s chiseled sax bursts, circling a snake-like melody over the throbbing percussions, a long tension-building intro for the entrance of Prima’s voice: “Sing, sing, sing, everybody start to sing…” as he takes the tune into regions of scat singing strong enough to rock a roomful of dancers.

Balancing marriage, child-raising and high-octane gigs in Vegas would strain the most placid of souls. Prima’s roving eye didn’t help. In 1961 Keely filed for divorce. Prima eventually found a new young vocalist, Gia Maione, whom he married and performed with, and he had two more children with her.

Prima’s career was struggling in the onslaught of rock music in 1967 when he recorded the voice of the orangutan King Louie in Disney’s cartoon feature, The Jungle Book, singing “I Wanna Be Like You.” The film was so popular that Disney hired him for two recordings of songs spun from the storylines of the movie.

But the old magic of his recording fire in the peak years had dimmed; though he soldiered on with Sam Butera and the Witnesses, playing major venues and appearing in a telethon with Frank Sinatra, his career had gone into a holding pattern.

He bought a country house in Covington and began spending stretches in New Orleans, renewing old friendships. But worsening headaches revealed a tumor, and in 1975 he underwent brain surgery in Los Angeles. To the shock of everyone close to him, Prima never regained consciousness; Gia oversaw his transfer to a New Orleans hospital, where he spent his final years in a coma. He died in 1978.

Years after his death, another of Prima’s signature songs, “Jump, Jive and Wail” got new life in a Gap television ad. It is tempting to think that if Prima, who died at 68, had enjoyed good health another decade, the gifted entertainer might have found a way to keep moving with the times; his Jungle Book popularity suggests that the potential was there.

At his grave in Metairie Cemetery, Gia had lines from another of his famous songs carved into marble as a tribute:

“When the end comes
I know,
They’ll say,
‘Just A Gigolo’
As life goes on
Without me.”