Born 7 December 1911, New Orleans, Louisiana
Vocalist / trumpeter / composer / bandleader / humorist.
Louis Prima had a long career in music, in which he rode the musical trends of the time. He started out playing New Orleans jazz in the 1920s, led a swing combo in the 1930s, a big band in the 1940s, a Vegas lounge act (which included some rock and roll) in the 1950s and a pop-rock band in the 1960s.
Prima was born in New Orleans in 1911, of Italian descent. Both New Orleans and his Italian roots would play an important role in his musical education. His first instrument was the violin, but in his teens he switched to trumpet. He dropped out of high school at sixteen to become a full-time musician, playing in various jazz bands around New Orleans. By 1934, he had his own swing band (Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang), moved to NewYork City and started recording for the Brunswick label. "The Lady in Red" was a jukebox hit in 1935. The next year he recorded his own composition "Sing Sing Sing", which became a smash in a cover version by Benny Goodman. It was Prima’s biggest success of the 1930s. After Brunswick, Louis recorded for Vocalion and Decca. Throughout the 1940s he led a big band, scoring his first chart entries for the Hit label in 1944 ("I’ll Walk Alone", "Angelina", "Oh Marie"). "Bell Bottom Trousers", on the Majestic label, was his biggest hit of the decade (# 6, 1945). Prima’s repertoire had turned away from jazz and swing, and moved toward pop, dance and novelty numbers, with a decidedly Italian slant.
In 1948 Louis replaced his singer, Lily Ann Carol, with a 16-year old from Norfolk, Virginia, Keely Smith. Her smooth phrasing and clear tones could not have contrasted more with Prima’s 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. After Prima ended his big band in 1949, Louis and Keely remained as a performing duo. In 1952, Keely became Prima’s fourth wife. Also in that year, Louis started to record for Columbia and scored a hit with "The Bigger the Figure" (# 27), based on the "Largo al Factotum" aria from Rossini’s opera "Barber of Seville". But there were no further hits until 1958. In November 1954, Louis and Keely started performing at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, with tenor saxophonist Sam Butera and his band, The Witnesses. Soon they became one of the most popular acts in Vegas, commanding nearly $ 10,000 per week for their shows. For its era, the Prima-Smith-Butera show was considered risque.
In March 1956, Prima signed with Capitol and recorded an entire album ("The Wildest") in two days on April 19-20, with Keely, Sam and the Witnesses. The LP contains several Prima classics, but none of them was originally released as a 45. Holland was probably the first country to release "Buona Sera" as a single (coupled with an exciting remake of "Oh Marie", also from "The Wildest") and until today, it holds the record for the disc with the longest run at # 1 on the Dutch charts (18 weeks during the first half of 1958). The same coupling also topped the Belgian charts for five weeks. In the US and UK "Buona Sera" was coupled with "Beep! Beep!" from a session in November 1957. The disc spent one week at # 25 on the UK lists, Prima’s only-ever chart entry there. In the US it did nothing at all, but the Prima-Smith duet "That Old Black Magic" (featured in the film "Senior Prom") went to # 18 in late 1958.
In 1959-61 Prima recorded for Dot and scored his last hit (# 15), this time as a trumpet player. It was a cover of "Wonderland By Night", a # 1 by Bert Kaempfert (a German orchestra leader) in January 1961. The Prima-Smith act broke up in October 1961, when Keely filed for divorce on the grounds of "extreme mental cruelty".
Early in 1962, Prima was back at Capitol and recorded his last great album, "The Wildest Comes Home". Sam Butera and the Witnesses had stuck with him all this time. In 1963 Louis took on a new wife and vocalist, Gia Maione. He continued to record, but Nick Tosches calls his recordings from 1965-75 "dire". Prima’s most memorable performance from this period was supplying the voice of King Louie, the cartoon orangutan in Walt Disney’s 1967 "Jungle Book" movie.
In November 1975, Prima underwent surgery to remove a brain tumour. He never regained consciousness and remained in a coma until his death on August 24, 1978, at New Orleans’ Touro Infirmary.
Official website, with extensive discography and biography : http://www.louisprima.com
Biography : Garry Boulard, Louis Prima. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2002. 182 pages. (Original edition 1989, under the title : Just A Gigolo : The Life And Times Of Louis Prima.)
CD : Louis Prima, in the Capitol Collectors Series (Capitol CDP 7 94072 2). Released in 1991. 26 Capitol tracks from 1956-1959 and 1962. Annotated by Scott Shea. Or : Louis Prima Rocks (Bear Family BCD 17318, 2012). 30 tracks. Liner notes by Billy Vera. (Bear Family has also released an 8-CD box-set, "The Capitol Years", with 198 tracks, in 1994.)
DVD : The Wildest (1999). 90 minute documentary.
Acknowledgements : Scott Shea, Nick Tosches, Wikipedia.
Dik, February 2015
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