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 featuredher 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 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; 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

Louis Prima

though he soldiered on with Sam Butera and theWitnesses, 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.”


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