Louis Prima – the king of swing

Friday, 17 May 2024

Las Vegas has many great stories about the people who forever changed the history of this city, but the story we’re about to share with you has gone beyond the borders of Nevada and become a worldwide story, adding another brick to the reputation of this desert metropolis as the global centre of entertainment.

Louis Prima

Born on December 7, 1910 in the heart of Louisiana in New Orleans, Louis Leo Prima came into the world with a gift for delighting people with his music. The son of two Sicilians who emigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Louis was surrounded by music from birth. His mother was in love with music and wanted each of her children to play an instrument, so Louis began taking violin lessons.

Like any eager and curious child, Louis watched his brother Leon play the trumpet, so one summer he decided to learn to play the instrument himself. He hasn’t left it since.

Early career

After graduating from high school in 1929 he joined Joseph Cherniavsky’s orchestra, then played briefly on the steamer “Capital” which docked on Canal Street. Although this job wasn’t a great career boon, it was there that he met his first wife, Louise Polizzi.

His first national success was in 1935 with The Lady in Red. In 1936 he recorded “Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing,” which became a smash hit. During World War II Prima continued to sing wherever he was called upon, even singing at one of the parties given in honor of President Roosevelt’s birthday.

By the end of the war he was already on his third wife. He had expensive taste in clothes and food and loved to bet on horses and even owned some of his own. But success on a grand scale continued to elude Prima.

Louis & Keely

Divorced from his third wife, Tracelene, in June 1953 and a month later married Keely. She was open to criticism, and he wanted to make her a star. Meeting his fourth wife was both a personal and professional revelation for him. Keely Smith was 20 when she met Prima in August 1948. Their reunion was a lucky one, as Prima was looking for a new vocalist to replace Lily Ann Carol. Keely came to the audition wearing a bathing suit and wasn’t allowed into the club until she had changed into a proper outfit. Luckily, someone managed to borrow her some acceptable clothes and she auditioned. She got the part and was soon traveling with Prima’s band.

In 1951 he signs with Columbia Records and over the course of his sixteen-month contract releases chart-topping hits such as “Chop Suey, Chow Mein”, “Ooh-Dahdily-Dah” and “Chili Sauce”. In order to maintain his expensive tastes and manage his increasing expenses he quits his big band and starts playing smaller clubs.

Arriving in Vegas

In the early 1950s in Las Vegas, Bill Miller, known by the nickname “Mr. Entertainment,” was looking to attract new stars for his new business venture – the Sahara Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

Miller had been a vaudeville dancer, producer and talent agent who had successfully entered the nightclub business and even had real success with the Embassy Club in Manhattan. In 1945, he bought the Riviera, a successful club that had closed at the beginning of World War II and brought in top stars like Tony Martin and Frank Sinatra and brought the Riviera back to public attention making it one of the best clubs in the country.

When the Riviera was demolished in 1953 to make way for the Palisades Interstate Freeway, Miller took the money and bought a ten percent stake in the new Sahara Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and became the new entertainment director of the establishment. Miller proposes to Prima that she play in The Lounge.

Casbar – The Lounge

Every casino had a lounge, a smoky bar outside the casino, where gamblers left their wives or girlfriends to wait over cocktails until they lost their money at the tables. At the same time, this was the place where winners would barge in to buy a round for the friends they’d come with and perhaps seek the company of some beautiful woman. Live music was played in the saloon, mostly discreetly – a piano or trio would play a tune on mute so as not to interfere with conversations or drink orders – and often the music was drowned out by the din of drunken revellers in the room, the roar of laughter, or the clatter of the casino’s single-armed slot machines.

Miller calls Louis and here’s the band getting together for a two-week job in Vegas.

When Louis Prima starts his show in Casbar, he was aware that he had little time to impress his audience and with it his casino bosses. Prima had a small-combo swing show that relied on his trumpet playing, double-meaning Italian jokes and Keely’s vocal transformations.

When Bill Miller returned from Mexico, he immediately saw that the tables were less crowded and the lounge was attracting a crowd after midnight. And it wasn’t just tourists, but employees from other casinos. After all, Miller’s idea was starting to pay off. The lounge drew people into the casino after hours and, in addition, attracted customers from other hotels. Miller extended Prima’s two weeks of operation until the holidays. He placed ads in local newspapers. It was no mistake, Louis and Keely had suddenly become Vegas’ top entertainment attraction, and the Casbar Lounge was where it all happened. Word spread fast.

Sam Butera gets on board

It’s like their show was missing something, something bigger, a band. Louis calls his friend Sam Butera (an exceptional saxophonist) and invites him to Vegas to join their show.

With Sam Butera on board, rounding out the band with a drummer and pianist the band becomes known as “Louis Prima featuring Keely Smith with Sam Butera and the Witnesses” becoming the biggest attraction in Las Vegas. Eventually, this upbeat gumbo combining styles such as jazz, jump blues, pop, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll became a national sensation. For six and a half years they were the most-watched show in Vegas and drew a huge crowd to town.

Prima’s Legacy

Now, almost 70 years later, hits like “Bona Sera, Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”, “Che La Luna”, “When you are smiling”, “Zooma, Zooma”, “Jump, Jive and Wail”, “That Old Black Magic”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” sound as fresh as ever being covered by a host of artists around the world, mixed and remastered by singers of all genres because Louis Prima’s music has remained relevant and all generations hum and sing it with the same joy that our great-grandparents and grandparents sang or perhaps danced to it decades ago.

Sources:  wikipedia, legsville.com, classiclasvegas.com

Author: Editor

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