The man in the poster is looking happier than anyone has a right to be. His open-mouth grin speaks of a delight in entertaining audiences that doesn’t end with this life. And the trumpet in his hand reminds everyone that this man could wail with the best of them. It’s a poster for the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the image is signed A Benedetto — better known as Tony Bennett. 2010 is the centennial of the man in the poster, New Orleans’ own Louis Prima, and his son, Louis Jr., is bringing his dad’s music to the Record Collector in Bordentown on Monday, October 25.
“This has been a fantastic year,” says Louis Jr. on the phone from his home base, Las Vegas, “having the Jazz Fest dedicated to my father, with the Tony Bennett poster — the love and respect that city has for him. On December 4, they are going to put a statue of him on Bourbon Street. They appreciate that throughout his career, he never forgot his roots in New Orleans.
“And, after too many overlooked years, he’s gotten a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We have gotten a lot accomplished, but my goal in performing his music is to make sure people remember exactly what he did contribute for 50-plus years, and to keep his legacy alive.”
Louis Prima was known as “The King of the Swingers” and also “The Wildest,” and those who caught his Las Vegas act in the 1950s swear that there was nothing like it. Loud, raucous, and completely devoted to making sure that he and his audience had a good time, Prima mixed swing music, pop hits, r&b, and Italian-American novelty songs, all sung in a hoarse, sandpaper voice and punctuated by his Dixieland-styled trumpet playing.
Even before his Vegas years, Prima had a multi-faceted career. Of Sicilian heritage, he was born in New Orleans in 1910. The parallels to another New Orleans Louis, named Armstrong, are many. Both grew up near the fabled Storyville section of the city and had the same kind of musical influences, particularly the Dixieland sound, and both sang in an infectious, guttural fashion.
‘A lot of fake bios will call Louis Prima a student or protege of Louis Armstrong,” says Louis Jr, “But the truth is that they grew up together and were pretty good friends. When you were in the community of New Orleans when they were growing up, the musical influences were all the same — that street sound, the music for the sake of forgetting your worries, and the style of being happy through your music. So neither copied the other; they happened to grow up in the exact same area at nearly the exact same time.”
Prima played trumpet with his older brother Leon’s band, then moved to New York in 1934, where he formed his own Dixieland band, the New Orleans Gang. In 1936 his composition, “Sing, Sing, Sing”, featuring drummer Gene Krupa, was a big hit for the Benny Goodman Orchestra. In 1944 Prima broke through with his new band, the Glee by Rhythm Orchestra, with the novelty hit “Angelina.” His female vocalist then was Lily Ann Carol; in 1948 Prima met, hired, and subsequently married a new singer, Keely Smith. They toured as a duo until 1954, when Prima booked a gig in the lounge of the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Prima recruited sax player Sam Butera, who would arrange many of the group’s songs, to put together a band for him. On the first night, Prima turned to Sam and demanded, “What’s the name of this band?” Without a pause, Butera fired back, “The Witnesses!”
Word of mouth soon spread that this was the hottest place in town. “The Wildest Show in Vegas” was the nickname. Doing five shows a night, Prima sang, clowned, and dueted with Smith. Her sedate, deadpan demeanor, orchestrated by Prima to contrast with his ebullient style, struck a chord with audiences, and a decade later, Sonny & Cher would adopt a similar motif.
Prima played trumpet and led the band in call-and-response numbers that culminated with Prima leading the band in a wild snake dance around the room.
In 1956 Capitol Records released “The Wildest,” an attempt to capture on record what Vegas audiences were raving about. The album contained what would become Prima’s best known song, “Jump, Jive, an’ Wail,” a number which convinced many listeners that the singer was African-American. Throughout the 1950s Prima, Smith, and the band would have a number of hits: “Just A Gigolo,” “Oh, Marie,” and “Buona Sera,” among others. His distinctive, jive style recordings of songs that had previously been associated with crooners like Bing Crosby, including “Pennies from Heaven” and “I’ve Got the World on a String,” were also popular. In 1959 Prima and Smith won a Grammy for Best Performance by a Vocal Group for “That Old Black Magic.”
Listening to Prima records gives a least a taste of what he was about. A great example is his revved-up medley of two torch songs, “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” Prima starts with the matter-of-fact statement, “I’m just a gigolo/ everywhere I go/people know the part I’m playing,” while Smith and the band mock him gently in the background, “Gigolo! Gigolo!” By the end of the number, backed by some great Smith vocals, he is mock-pleading, “I ain’t so bad,” and, amid some serious scatting, admitting he “ain’t got nobody, nobody, nobody,” although he doesn’t sound all that unhappy about it — that’s not the Prima style. It’s wonderful on record; it must have been amazing in person.
Smith and Prima divorced in the early ’60s, and he married his next vocalist, a golden-voiced singer named Gia Maione. They had two children, Louis Jr. and Lena. Louis Jr., born in 1965, played drums and piano and then picked up the trumpet — all before he was 12 years old. His first gigs were in rock music, however.
“It wasn’t any rejection (of his father’s music),” he says. “I played jazz all through high school. I always tell people that if I was not Prima Jr, I would still be a fan of his music because it is that enjoyable. But back when I decided to do this as a career, I wanted to do what is popular. I’m a rock and roll fan, so I tried that first. The natural progression was to do my father’s music.”
Even before Louis Prima’s death in 1978, there had been a decided drop-off in his music’s popularity. As rock completely took over the charts, people seemed to have forgotten about the King of Swingers. “I wouldn’t say he was neglected exactly,” says Louis Jr. “The problem was that in the jazz community, there is not the same respect for a performer as there is for someone who sits onstage in a dark nightclub staring at the ground while he’s playing. I think Louis Armstrong probably got a little bit of that as well.”
A case can be made that because Prima played in so many styles, he was almost impossible to type as a musician, and that may have also caused his drop from the music world’s consciousness. “If he had stuck to one boat, it probably would have been a little bit easier,” admits his son. “He did change what he did so many times so that he could remain current. And he was successful in every genre he changed to.”
But even when the public had forgotten his music, it was still cropping up now and then to remind them. In 1967 Prima provided the voice for the orangutan King Louie, swinging through the vines in Disney’s cartoon “The Jungle Book,” and a generation of kids heard him kick out on “I Wanna Be Like You.”
Louis Prima recordings have been used in films and TV for decades, from “Raging Bull” in the ‘80s to “Mystic Pizza” and “Casino” in the ‘90s, to “Elf,” “The Sopranos,” and “The Simpsons” in this century, and, most recently “Glee” and “Dancing with the Stars.”
In 1985 rocker David Lee Roth had a hit with a note-for-note, word-for-word replica of “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”. And then there was the famous Gap Swing commercial in 1998, bright-eyed khaki-wearing kids performing acrobatics dance movements to Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive, an’ Wail.”
In 1999 came a film documentary, “The Wildest”, with clips that reminded audiences how exciting Prima was. And, Louis Jr. points out, “They played ‘Buona Sera’ at the closing of the Torino Olympics in 2006. And they woke the astronauts on the Space Shuttle with one of his novelty numbers, ‘Beep Beep (My Baby’s Gone to the Moon).’”
Louis Jr. and the Witnesses play one-nighters all over the country. In this last year, he has been joined by a Monmouth County native, vocalist/actress Sarah Spiegel, who grew up on Louis Prima music. “She has a gorgeous voice and a great personality onstage,” says Louis Jr. “It was kind of instant chemistry when we got together.”
The group, which has about 40 Prima songs in its repertoire, is in the process of working on their first CD for later this year. It will go a long way towards letting people see that Louis Jr. is not just fronting a tribute band, but has a love for the music and puts his own signature on his dad’s tunes.
“I want to make sure that it is top quality and properly done,” he says. “Our show is geared towards his live shows and the energy that he put forth. Louis recorded with just three mikes, and played live with none. The show becomes different because we have the benefit of technology, and I want to make sure that when we record it is a representation of that. I don’t want to do note for note what he did. I want to bring it into today, so more people will listen to it and recognize the brilliance of the music.”
Louis Jr. is delighted that the audiences for this music tend to be diverse. “All ages,” he says with satisfaction. “It varies from city to city. In Atlantic City, the average age gets a little older. When we play festivals, one of my biggest thrills is the young kids who show up and want an autograph, who know the music and have a favorite Louis Prima song. You know, there’s a very large Swing Kids community out there. That’s where I found my horn section — they are all in their 20s, and they grew up on this music and love it. We get all ages and all ethnicities.”
Speaking of horns, Louis Jr. plays one of his dad’s own trumpets, and a mouth-piece that was custom-made for Senior. “It’s my own personal connection,” he says. “By no means do I consider myself a trumpet player, but I try to play his solos as close as I can. One of the things he got no credit for was being a fantastic horn player.
“I think I’ve having more fun than I’ve ever had onstage. And I think that speaks most heavily of my father’s music and his show and what he tried to give the people, and what I try to do. You know, we all have worries in this world, but for one hour, let me just forget everything else that’s going on and let me be happy.”
Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses, The Record Collector Store, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Monday, October 25, 7 p.m. Featuring Sarah Spiegel. $35. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.