Keely Smith: A Swingin' Icon of Early Vegas

It took many sleepless nights to perfect the Las Vegas lounge act. Singer Keely Smith and husband Louis Prima put in many hours on the Strip in the '50s to do just that. Smith recalls her time at the Sahara. A new collection of her work is out on CD.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

When Americans lost their appetite for big band music, Louis Prima and Keely Smith moved to Las Vegas and helped perfect the lounge act.

(Soundbite of song, "(Nothing's Too Good) For My Baby")

Mr. LOUIS PRIMA (Singer): (Singing) Coz, nothing's too good for my baby.

Ms. KEELY SMITH (Singer): (Singing) For my baby.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) For my baby

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) For my baby.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Sugar baby. Sugar baby. Nothing's too good for my baby.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) For my baby. Baby so good and kind to me.

LYDEN: Known for his stagecraft, Prima played the funny man. Keely Smith, his fourth wife, played it straight and cool. It was the early '50s, before the Rat Pack. After Keely Smith and Louis Prima divorced in 1961, Smith sang solo for a while but eventually left the business to raise her children.

Capitol Records recently released a CD that brings together Keely Smith's solo and collaborative performances. And she joins me now from her home in Southern California.

Welcome, Keely Smith.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: There's one song on the album that was previously unreleased - "When The Day is Done." And this was recorded live in 1958 at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Before we listen it, could you please set the scene for me and describe what it was like to sing at the Sahara back in the late '50s.

Ms. SMITH: Well, the Sahara was a lounge - a very small little lounge, maybe 60 people, 70 people. The stage was very small. It was up behind the bar. And we had to walk behind the bar to get up to the stage each night. When we first went to work there, we were completely broke. I was pregnant and we needed a job. And Bill Miller, he was the entertainment buyer at the Sahara. And Louis calls him from New York and told him the truth - that we're broke. We need a job. My wife is pregnant. What can you do? And he said, I can give you two weeks in the lounge. We opened in Las Vegas on November 24, 1954. And we went there with a two-week contract and we stayed, like, almost eight years.

Mr. PRIMA: Keely Smith made an album at the - for Capitol in a studio. It was last year, with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra.

(Soundbite of song, "When The Day is Done")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) When the day is done and the shadows fall, I dream of you.

After we got in there, Louis changed everything. They had the service station for the bar right in front of the little stage. And a girl would walk up and say three beers and two this and two that while I'm in a middle of singing "The Man I Love" or something. And Louis got that moved down to the far end of the bar. And we got a maitre d' that would seat people. It really turned out to be a nice lounge.

(Soundbite of song, "When Day is Done")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I promise (unintelligible) the whole day through. I miss you most of all when day is done.

(Soundbite of applause)

LYDEN: Keely Smith, it's been almost 50 years now since you recorded "When Day is Done." What goes through your mind when you hear it now?

Ms. SMITH: Oh, totally nothing very much, to tell you the truth. You know what? I don't know where you got what you're playing. I don't have that of Louis introducing me, with - in his voice and so forth. Where is that on?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: That's on this "Essential Capitol Collection."

Ms. SMITH: Oh, I don't have - the new one?

LYDEN: Uh-hmm.

Ms. SMITH: I don't have that yet. Anyhow, I just started doing "When Day is Done" in my act again. I didn't do it for years because it was hard to duplicate Nelson's sound. And those arrangements all came out of Nelson Riddle's head. He was brilliant.

LYDEN: What is it about the lounge scene of the 1950s that was so cool that it transcends all of time? And it's in movies too when you think of something like "Ocean's Eleven" and the affinity now for the Rat Pack and that entire era. Why has it persisted?

Ms. SMITH: I think that stems from the act itself on stage. We have a lot of lounge acts that are very cold and very indifferent to the audience. We talked to our audience. The audience was allowed to ask us questions. They were allowed to interact with us on stage. Nobody ever called me Ms. Smith. It was always Keely. Nobody ever called Louis Mr. Prima. And I do that today in my act. I talk to my audience. They're allowed to talk to me. And it's like I'm doing a show in my living room, kind of. And that's what our lounge was. It was one big living room.

LYDEN: Keely Smith, you took a long break. I mean, the press release that comes out with this newly released collection says that after the 1960s, you took the rest of the century off. But as we've been discussion, you're back on the stage, you've been singing lounge acts again. Why did you decide to return?

Ms. SMITH: Well, my - I stopped working to raise my daughters. And all of a sudden, one day, my daughters came to me and said, mom, you should go back to work now. And I did. I finally decided one day, okay, I'll take a stab at it.

Actually, they had a room at the Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles. And Joey Bishop's brother was the maitre d' there. And whenever an act would get sick, his brother would call and say to me, Keely, can you come over and fill in for us because da(ph), da, da, whatever. And I would always go do that. And I thought, well, heck. This is okay. I can still do this. So I finally decided to go back to work.

LYDEN: Keely Smith, her new album is called "Keely Smith: The Essential Capitol Collection."

And thanks very much for being with us, Ms. Smith.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you. I appreciate it.

(Soundbite of song, "Old Black Magic")

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Old black magic has me in its spell.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Old black magic that you weave so well.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Those icy fingers up and down my spine.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) That same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) The same old tingle that I feel inside.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And then that elevator starts its ride.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Down and down I go.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Round and round I go.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Like a leaf caught in the tide.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I should stay away but what can I do? I hear your name and I'm aflame.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Aflame, burning desire.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) That only your kiss.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Put out the fire.

LYDEN: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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Keely Smith: The Essential Capitol Collection
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Keely Smith
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Capitol
Released
2007

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