Louis Prima, Keely Smith And 'That Old Black Magic' Louis Prima and Keely Smith made the Las Vegas lounge scene the place to be in the 1950s, and their music has enjoyed several revivals over the decades. Tom Clavin, author of That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas, chronicles how they elevated the Vegas lounge act.
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Louis Prima, Keely Smith And 'That Old Black Magic'

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Louis Prima, Keely Smith And 'That Old Black Magic'

Louis Prima, Keely Smith And 'That Old Black Magic'

Louis Prima, Keely Smith And 'That Old Black Magic'

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Louis Prima and Keely Smith made the Las Vegas lounge scene the place to be in the 1950s, and their music has enjoyed several revivals over the decades. Tom Clavin, author of That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas, chronicles how they elevated the Vegas lounge act.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Bandleader Louis Prima would have turned 100 years old this month. He passed away in 1978. Many of you know his voice from the 1967 Disney movie, "The Jungle Book." Prima played the cartoon ape named King Louie.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Jungle Book")

Mr. LOUIS PRIMA (Bandleader): (as King Louie) (Singing) Oh, I wanna be like you. I wanna walk like you, talk like you, too...

HANSEN: "The Jungle Book" was yet another comeback for Louis Prima, who seemed to have nine lives in show business. He was an important figure in the swing era with his own big band. When one of his songs was played in a Gap ad in the 1990s, it launched a retro swing revival.

(Soundbite of song, "Jump Jive An' Wail")

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Mama's in the backyard, learning how to jive and wail. Oh, you gotta jump, jive and then you wail. You gotta jump, jive and then you wail. You gotta jump, jive and then you wail. You gotta jump, jive...

HANSEN: But the height of Louis Prima's career could be pinpointed to 1958, after he married his fourth wife, a young singer from Virginia named Keely Smith. They were packing the lounge at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas.

(Soundbite of song, "That Old Black Magic")

Ms. KEELY SMITH (Singer): (Singing) You're the mate that fate had me created for. And every time your lips meet mine...

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Baby, down and down I go. Round and round I go. In a spin, loving the spin I'm in. Under the old black magic called love.

HANSEN: "That Old Black Magic" is the title of a new book about Louis Prima and Keely Smith by Tom Clavin. And he's in the studio at NPR West. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TOM CLAVIN (Author, "That Old Black Magic"): Thank you for having me. Love to talk about Louis and Keely.

HANSEN: Louie Prima and Keely Smith were pioneers in making the lounge a respected place to play in a Las Vegas hotel. I mean, it seems up until them the lounge was usually reserved for second-rate acts. And Prima and Smith performed at the Casbar Lounge at the Sahara Hotel from midnight until dawn. They brought the house down every night. Their act was called the wildest, I think it was because it was the wildest show in town. Can you describe their act?

Mr. CLAVIN: Well, their act was Louis and Keely and a lot of credit has to go to Sam Butera, the saxophone player, who's also from New Orleans, like Louis Prima was. And Louis was the action figure so to speak. He was the one that was dancing. He sang, which is more like a braying of a mule and playing the trumpet. And Sam and the other members of the band were playing their instruments and dancing.

And in the eye of the hurricane was Keely Smith. She was the one almost like the centerpiece of the act because for part of it she did absolutely nothing -lean up against the piano, stare into space, stare at the audience. And people found themselves drawn to that strange, odd sexual dynamic between the two of them where Louis was trying to do everything he could to get a response out of Keely. And the audience, the suspense kept building. When is she finally going to acknowledge him? When is she finally going to react to what he's doing? The jokes he's making, the dancing he's doing, the expressions on his face.

And when she finally did, it was like this great relief to everybody. OK, now, we put this thing into high gear. And Keely, with this wonderful voice, and Louis with his antics on stage, up to that point, you really couldn't find a husband and wife entertainment team that was anything like that. They really did establish the kind of dynamic between them that later we found in other acts, like Sonny and Cher in particular learned a lot from Louis and Keely.

HANSEN: And their act, because he was so much older than she was, I mean, there was - how much of an age difference was there between the two?

Mr. CLAVIN: Louis was born in 1910 and Keely in 1928. There was an 18-and-a-half-year difference between the two.

HANSEN: How did they meet?

Mr. CLAVIN: They met initially in 1947. Louis was playing at a place called the Steel Pier in Atlantic City with a band he had at the time. And Keely, who was still only a teenager at the time, and her family were visiting from where she grew up in Virginia. And they watched them perform. She was fascinated by him, just thought he was the most amazing performer she had ever seen. So, when they got back home to the Virginia Beach area, she suggested to a guy who owned a club there if you could ever book Louis Prima, please, please, please, the people down here would love him.

And a year later, sure enough, Louis showed up with his band and made an announcement: I'm doing auditions for, I need a new girl singer in my band. And Keely, who had been performing locally and had, by that point, learned all of the Prima arrangements, was persuaded to go up on stage. She sang a couple of songs and he hired on the spot. He said, we're leaving Thursday to go on tour, can you come along? And she did, but her mother had to go along as chaperone.

HANSEN: How did he mold her? I mean, she was a good singer in her own right, but is this a kind of Svengali situation, a Pygmalion situation?

Mr. CLAVIN: It is. Louis was the older veteran, experienced performer. Keely was the inexperienced but talented ingenue with stars in her eyes. And Louis was the one who decided that she could have the pageboy haircut and wear the taffeta dresses. And to use sort of like her natural beauty but not have to be dancing around like him. That would sort of detract from the natural grace and beauty that she had.

And it was a case where Keely is quoted as saying that I'm happy to learn from Louis Prima, I'm happy to be his wife, I'm happy to be his supporting act in the show, the wildest. And she also at one point says I'm nothing without Louis Prima. Now, in retrospect we realize now that this is somebody who really had to deal with some self-esteem issues, but at the time it worked for the act. Because Louis was the chief and everybody else were the planets that sort of circled his sun.

HANSEN: I think the one that surprised me in reading your book - and I did not know this - that Louis Prima wrote "Sing Sing Sing," for which Benny Goodman is more than famous.

Mr. CLAVIN: Yes. Some people may recall - if they watch the Ken Burns' jazz documentary series on public television - that there's, you know, an excerpt there, a wonderful excerpt from Benny Goodman and his band at Carnegie Hall in January 1938. They did this groundbreaking concert there that really put swing jazz on the map.

(Soundbite of music, "Sing Sing Sing")

Mr. CLAVIN: And the conclusion, the climax of the show, was their 12-and-a-half-minute or so version of "Sing Sing Sing." And it was like a watershed moment. There was Gene Krupa on the drums and Harry James on the trumpet and this tremendous orchestra doing this rousing song that had people standing and cheering in the seats. And for that reason, it has been associated with Benny Goodman, as his song.

And it was - Louis Prima wrote it. Louis Prima was performing it two years before that Carnegie Hall concert.

(Soundbite of song, "Sing Sing Sing")

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Sing, sing, sing, sing, everybody start to sing, la-di-da, ho-ho-ho, now you're singing with a swing. Sing, sing, sing, sing, everybody start to sing, la-di-da, ho-ho-ho, now you're singing with a swing...

Mr. CLAVIN: And I think that's just one example of Louis Prima being overlooked as a very good musician because he did compose a number of songs that he kind of made maybe his own and maybe had some hit with them. But sometimes other people would take his songs and make them their own and have a hit with them. So, Louis Prima definitely has gotten overlooked as a composer of some wonderful jazz and showbiz tunes of the late '30s and '40s, into the '50s.

HANSEN: Well, Louis Prima and Keely Smith divorced and the act broke up, and Keely Smith then seemed to come into her own as a singer. She had been doing some solo things. She received a Grammy nomination for, actually, her debut solo album in 1958, but Louis Prima played a part in that. But in 1999, she received another Grammy nomination for an album called "Keely Sings Sinatra."

Now, first, this was a very personal project for her, right? This was something that she made for Sinatra just before he died.

Mr. CLAVIN: Yes. She'd always considered Frank Sinatra a very good friend and they had a very close relationship. After Louis and Keely broke up, apparently she and Sinatra had - their relationship went to another level and she contends that they might have even gotten married, but she realized that they would not stay together long term and she didn't want to go that direction.

But when Frank was quite ill in 1998 and who knew how much time he had left. He had various ailments, he was already past 82 years old. And she went into the studio and cut this CD called "Keely Smith Sings Sinatra" in which she did her versions of her favorite songs that Frank had performed.

(Soundbite of song, "My Way")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Now the end is near and so I'll face the final curtain...

Mr. CLAVIN: And there was - before he died, she was able to, I guess, at least get him a version of it, you know, before it was released. And he listened to it and called her and thanked her. And they had a conversation and that was the last conversation they had. Not long after that, he passed away. And when that CD was released, she received a Grammy nomination, her first one since 1958.

You know, by this point, she was 71 years old when she received this Grammy nomination and it really was, I mean, I think Keely's story is very much one of survival. You know, she spent a lot of years wandering in the wilderness career-wise and then had this amazing comeback that really began with a lot of steam with "Keely Smith Sings Sinatra." And I can't speak for her, but I think she really felt, you know, if you stick around long enough and, just like Louis did, you get a second chance. You try to make the most it.

(Soundbite of song, "My Way")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I planned each charted course, each careful step, along the byway and more, much more than this, I did it my way...

HANSEN: Louis Prima's music is heard on the soundtrack to the movie "Swingers" and he was the invisible character in the movie "Big Night," which was a movie about an Italian restaurant and the...

Mr. CLAVIN: Stanley Tucci, yeah.

HANSEN: Yeah, Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub. They're expecting Prima and the band for this big dinner. But "Swingers" and "Big Night," it sort of brought Louis Prima's music back into the forefront, to everybody's attention. Why do you think Prima was so ripe for a revival in the '90s?

Mr. CLAVIN: I think his music, and I think especially the music that he and Keely did together, is kind of timeless. It's hard to listen to a Louis Prima song without smiling. You know, I'm thinking also, if people recall that very funny movie with Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro.

HANSEN: "Analyze This"?

Mr. CLAVIN: Yes, "Analyze This." The whole opening sequence is Louis Prima singing - it's on the soundtrack - "When You're Smiling," as the police are trying to round up the mobsters. It's amazing how many soundtracks he's on. I think that there's something that just grabs people right away when they hear his voice and there's such an immediate recognition of the work he did. And I think you add a star if it's got Keely Smith on it, too.

HANSEN: This is the part in the program where you get to play DJ. What music would you like us to end with?

Mr. CLAVIN: How about "Embraceable You." Because that was the first song when she got up on stage with Louis Prima down in Virginia Beach. And he said, do you know one of my songs? She said yes. And that's what they sang.

HANSEN: Tom Clavin is the author of "That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith and the Golden Age of Las Vegas." He joined us from NPR West. Thank you so much.

Mr. CLAVIN: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

(Soundbite of song, "Embraceable You")

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Don't be a naughty baby.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Oh, why don't you come and get your baby too.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Call for an appointment.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) My sweet embraceable you...

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Happy New Year. I'm Liane Hansen.

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