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|Birth name||Louis Prima|
|Also known as||The King of the Swing|
December 7, 1910|
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
|Died||August 24, 1978
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
|Occupations||Singer, entertainer, trumpeter, bandleader|
|Associated acts||Gia Maione, Keely Smith, Sam Butera|
Louis Prima (December 7, 1910 – August 24, 1978) was an American singer, actor, songwriter, and trumpeter. Prima rode the musical trends of his time, starting with his seven-piece New Orleans style jazz band in the 1920s, then successively leading a swing combo in the 1930s, a big band in the 1940s, a Vegas lounge act in the 1950s, and a pop-rock band in the 1960s. In each of his musical endeavors, he incorporated his exuberant personality into his act.
Early life 
Prima was from a musical family in New Orleans. His father, Anthony Prima, was the son of Leonardo Di Prima (the original family name was Di Prima), a Sicilian immigrant from Salaparuta, while his mother, Angelina Caravella, had immigrated from Ustica as a baby.
Louis Prima was the second child of Angelina Caravella and Anthony Prima. His older brother, Leon, was born in 1907. He had two younger sisters Elizabeth and Marguerite. Marguerite died when she was only three years old. Leon, Louis, and Elizabeth were all baptized at St. Ann's Parish. They lived in a house at 1812 St. Peter Street in New Orleans, which was mainly populated by Italians, Arabs, Jews and African Americans.
Louis's mother, Angelina, was a second-generation Italian American in New Orleans. She cared much about her children's futures and made sure that each of them played an instrument. Louis was assigned the violin and started out playing at St. Ann's Parish. He became interested in jazz when he heard it streaming out of clubs from black musicians, including Louis Armstrong. At the time, segregation between blacks and whites was extremely prevalent. However, Italians and African Americans got along famously. Each shared the same economic, social, and political values. They also embodied similar entertainment rituals. Clubs such as Matranga's, Joe Segrettas, Tonti's Social Club, and Lala's Big 25 were all owned and operated by Italians but allowed Blacks and Italians to play.
According to author Garry Boulard in his book Louis Prima, young Louis Prima paid attention to the music streaming out of clubs and watched his older brother Leon play the cornet. Once Leon caught a break in Texas for a summer, Louis practiced continuously on his worn-down cornet. It was also beneficial that his mother was with Leon, so he could play as he wished. He ambitiously formed a band in 1924 with his childhood friends Irving Fazola (clarinet) and Johnny Viviano (drums). When his mother and Leon returned, they were shocked. His mother was quite upset that he had moved on from the violin, while Leon applauded his performances with his "band" on the street corners.
Louis Prima attended Jesuit High School but transferred to Warren Easton High in the fall of 1926. At Warren Easton, he played with the "Eastonites", the school band. In 1927, he started up a gig with Frank Federico and played in "The Whip", which was a run down French Quarter Club. The two were enthusiastic musicians and played every chance they got. By the spring of 1928, Prima decided he would drop out at Warren Easton and become a professional musician.
The search for success 
After dropping out of high school, Prima desperately wanted to make it big. He had a few unsuccessful gigs, including when he joined the Ellis Stratako Orchestra in 1929. Prima, Federico and saxophonist Dave Winstein drove all the way to Florida for a gig and no one showed up. Luckily they made it to a relative's house, where they were given money for gas and a meal. Prima did not give up. He joined Joseph Cherniavsky's Orchestra in 1929 at Jefferson Parish. He was quite the performer and stood out. This may have been what made Cherniavsky fire him shortly after. Prima was upset, but knew he would be a success. He got a temporary job playing on Steamship Capital that docked on Canal Street.
Although the Steamship Capital did not provide him with a break, he met his first wife Louise Polizzi. They married on June 25, 1929. From 1931 to 1932 Louis occupied his time by performing in the Avalon Club owned by his brother Leon. His first break was when Lou Forbes hired him for daily afternoon and early evening shows at The Saenger. He quickly became the most popular musician in the orchestra next to Forbes himself. With success came a very good check, enough to support his taste in fashion, his wife, and new baby.
The Big Apple 
New York was an attraction for hungry musicians during the Great Depression. It posed numerous risks, but all of the best artists in the nation made it in New York if not anywhere else. Guy Lombardo met Louis Prima while he was performing at club Shim Sham during the Mardi Gras season of 1934. Lombardo was impressed with Prima's stage performance and energy. He immediately offered him to go to New York.
Prima’s first gig in New York was supposed to be at a club called Leon and Eddie’s, located on 33 West 52nd street. Eddie Davis, one of the owners of the club, did not hire Prima because he thought he was a negro. This misconception led to Prima’s unemployment for the next six months.
Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang 
In September 1934, Prima began recording for the Brunswick label. He recorded "That’s Where the South Begins", "Long About Midnight", "Jamaica Shout", and "Star Dust". Prima and his New Orleans Gang was a band that consisted of five musicians. Frank Pinero was the pianist, Jack Ryan played bass, Garrett McAdams played guitar, while Pee Wee Russell played clarinet. The band had their first performance at a club called the “Famous Door” owned and operated by Jack Colt. Prima’s stage presence and combination of scat and swing style allowed jazz to reach a new level. His recordings from 1935 were a combination of Dixieland and swing.
In May 1935, Prima and Russell recorded "The Lady in Red", a national jukebox hit. They also recorded "Chinatown", "Chasing Shadows" and "Gypsy Tea Room". Martha Raye also played a role in Louis’s professional and personal life. She was a comedienne with potential to become a singer. The two featured a show at the club that granted Prima his first national debut on "The Fleischman Hour".
By 1935 Louis decided to take his gig out to Los Angeles. His reasons for leaving may have been due to increasing problems with the Italian mob as well as wanting to expand his fame. The mob posed problems because Louis was forced to pay for protection every week and found himself getting too involved in that way of life. He moved to California to get away from that lifestyle and expand his music. During this time there was a movement for big bands and orchestras. Prima hired Louis Masinter on the string bass, a New Orleans native. He also fired McAdams so that he could have Frank Federico, his childhood friend, play the guitar.
Louis looked for opportunity to open a club almost immediately after arriving in Los Angeles. He opened up “The Famous Door” nightclub at Vine Street and Willoughby. The previous club was the Blue Heaven nightclub owned by Gene Austin. Austin turned over the lease to Louis when he went in to ask him about purchasing the club. This accomplishment had him back on track in no time. Shortly after his club was stable, he had his first movie appearance in Rhythm on the Range in 1936, which featured a performance with Bing Crosby.
With all of his success, his marriage back in New Orleans had already failed. Louise and Louis were divorced in 1936 because Prima was found cheating on Louise back in 1933, in the French Quarter. Merely a few months later, he was involved in a new fling with Alma Ross, an actress.
Louis and Alma were quite serious and after only a few months together he asked her to marry him while he started his tour out in the Midwest. The couple faced problems in Wisconsin and Chicago because they did not meet the marital requirements. Guy Lombardo helped them out by arranging a place in South Bend, Indiana. They wed on July 25, 1936. The couple had a few problems; one of the worst was that Louis denied much about his past. He never confessed to Alma that he had a daughter until she found out from a tax return. Louis also pushed Alma into signing with Paramount in 1937. He continued to travel along the East Coast with his band.
Prima struggled to upgrade to big band style. It was not supported by his mentors in New York or Los Angeles. With the help of Guy Lombardo he traveled to Chicago to promote his new format at the Blackhawk in October 1936. The new format was not successful. The show did not bring out Prima’s performance ability, and the music sounded “overly rehearsed”. He lost money and did not pay some of his musicians.
Reinvented in New York 
In 1937, Prima and his smaller gang (Federico, Masinter, Pinero, and Meyer Weinberg on clarinet) returned to the "Famous Door" in New York to perform. He also appeared at Billy Rose’s Casa Manana club in May 1938. He racked up about a quarter million dollars throughout seven weeks at Casa Manana. He was booked by William Morris Agency in late 1938. This entailed traveling throughout the east coast. Stops were made in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Miami Beach, New Orleans, and St. Louis. These trips were sometimes made in the course of one night of driving. The crew always traveled by car, since it was the cheapest option.
World War II 
When World War II came around, many men were drafted. Prima did not have to attend the war because of a knee injury so he could continue performing. Segregation was still very much in existence during the war, but it was not supported by Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt. According to Boulard, Mrs. Roosevelt heavily encouraged integration and applauded Prima for his efforts. He had grown up in a racially integrated background, and it may have been one of the primary reasons for his success. In 1939 he was under contract to appear in black theatres in New York, Baltimore, Boston and Washington D.C.. It turns out that Mrs. Roosevelt attended his performance in D.C., and formally invited him to the President's birthday celebration. He was in pictures with the president and political powers of the country, which ultimately boosted his publicity.
By the mid-1940s, Prima was experiencing great success. People were purchasing tickets early in the morning for shows later on that evening. Despite the anti-Italian feeling during the war Prima continued to record Italian songs, the most famous "Angelina", named after his mother. Others included “Please No Squeeza Da Banana," "Bacci Galupe (Made Love on the Stoop," and "Felicia No Capricia."
He performed the Italian songs at the Strand Theatre in New York. He brought in an incredible $440,000 in six weeks. In Detroit he could bring in about $38,000 for an afternoon performance. With all of this success, he decided to go back to Chicago to prove himself. He sold out the “Panther Room” and reinvented himself in the windy city.
Prima had some big hits in the summer of 1945 including, "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time" and "Bell-Bottom Trousers". As his career was growing even more, his marriage with Alma had ultimately failed. They got a divorce when she discovered he had been cheating on her with Jean Harlow, another actress. Alma was supposed to receive $15,000 a year or 7.5% of his earnings. Prima ignored the payments until they piled up to about $60,000, which forced him to write a settlement check of $45,000 plus $250 per week.
He quickly met a new wife, Tracelene Barrett, who was a secretary of Prima’s. She was a sweet and simple girl and he intended to keep her that way when they got married. She would manage his spending at the race track. He even bought a horse and named it Tracelene II.
With the end of the war, the music industry changed. Most couples were getting married and moving out of the city. Most of the big bands were diminishing, but Louis was able to resist for a few months. In 1947 he played more jazzy versions of music. Under the new contract with RCA Victor, he recorded "Civilization," "You Can’t Tell the Depth of the Well," "Say it with a Slap," “Valencia," and "My Flame Went Out Last Night." A few months later in November he recorded "Thousand Islands," "Mean To Me," and "Tutti Frutti Pizzicato." In 1948 Louis and Tracelene had a baby girl. He continued to work in the northeast, but cut back his orchestra.
Louis Prima’s personality varied at times. To the record companies and big corporations, he showed little sympathy and was defiant in settling for an adequate salary. He wanted as much as he could get out of these corporations. For instance, Warner Brothers offered him $60,000 to be in a movie on Helen Morgan’s life. He rejected the offer, and when Warner Brothers increased to 75,000, it still was not enough. He wanted $100,000 and control of his role, which was rejected by Warner Brothers. He had further disputes with Strand Theatre in New York and Majestic Records. He also did not allow a former songwriter to advertise herself as “formerly featured with Louis Prima’s orchestra”.
To his family, friends, and fans Prima was a much different person. He was very patient with fans and always autographed or took pictures with them. He also became a fatherly figure for Barbara Belle, a songwriter and secretary for Louis. On stage, he was a natural performer. He sold himself to the audience by creating shows that were funny, happy, and extremely entertaining.
Fine taste 
He shopped at all of the best clothing stores and wore top brand suits. Along with clothing, he spent much of his extra money on horses. He enjoyed gambling because it relaxed him. He had invested six figures in the horses and all seven of them were housed in Aqueduct, New York. Riding was one of the things that relaxed him the most outside of his busy performing life. He knew each of his horses well and read about training. Another hobby was boating. He purchased a boat for his third wife Tracelene Barrett for their honeymoon in the Hudson River.
Keely Smith 
Keely Smith was seventeen years old when Louis Prima laid eyes on her. Her hometown was Norfolk, Virginia. She had a unique voice that separated her from the usual sounds of nightclub singers. In August 1948, she made a point to stop by the Surf Club in Virginia Beach to visit one of her favorite artists, Louis Prima. To her surprise, he was looking for a new female vocalist to replace Lily Ann Carol. Keely had a bathing suit on and was not allowed into the club until she had proper attire on. Luckily, someone was able to lend her some acceptable clothing and she auditioned. She ended up landing the part and traveling with the band.
Louis signed with Columbia records in the fall of 1951 to keep up with the rapid changes in the marketing industry. Throughout the sixteen-month contract his top hits consisted of "Chop Suey, Chow Mein," "Ooh-Dahdily-Dah," and "Chili Sauce". To manage his expenses, he had to drop his big band and play in low-grade clubs to support his horses. On top of it all, he divorced his third wife Tracelene on June 18, 1953. Less than a month later he married Keely, who was half his age. She was open to criticism and he wanted to make her a star. He had to find the style that fit her correctly, especially since rock and roll was emerging. Prima was not against rock’n’roll like some other artists, such as Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason. He accepted that the kids had "an instinct for the kind of music that’s fun to listen to and dance to."
A new act 
In 1954 Prima was offered to stay at the The Sahara in Las Vegas to open his new act with Keely Smith. At the time, Vegas was booming with business and there were endless opportunities for money to be made. The dynamic duo would perform their typical act in the hotel’s Casbar Lounge. This won them over at the lounge, but Prima wanted to impress more. He called up New Orleans legendary saxophonist, Sam Butera. With Butera came his background musicians, "The Witnesses." They were talented musicians whom Prima tweaked to his liking. The act was a hit, and ultimately led Prima to sign with Capitol records in 1955.
He released his first album with Capitol records, “The Wildest!,” in September 1956. Some of the popular songs include his medley of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” In 1957 they released “The Call of the Wildest.” Keely worked with other artists to release the album "I Wish You Love," and received a Grammy in 1958. Keely also received a Playboy Jazz Award in 1959. She got a number one female vocalist reward in 58/59 from Billboard and Variety. The duo also redid "Old Black Magic" which was a top 40 hit for two months. It earned the duo a grammy. The couple also had two daughters together.
Prima decided to relocate his acts to the Desert Inn because he would take in $3 million for producing 12 weeks worth of acts a year for five years. The couple also had quick appearances on TV shows.
In 1959 Prima signed with Dot Records and they produced 8 albums. The top albums were “Wonderland By Night” and “On Stage” in 1961. The couple was constantly performing and it definitely affected their marriage. To attempt relaxation, the couple set out on a trip on the Atlantic coast but ended up grounded in the Inland Waterway until rescued by the Coast Guard.
In January 1961 Prima was invited by Frank Sinatra to perform in the Inaugural Gala for President John F. Kennedy They played “Old Black Magic”, one of his favorite songs. Shortly after the performance, Keely and Louis were heading closer and closer to divorce. The constant performances and Prima’s sometimes flirtatious attitude was all too much for Smith. She wanted a divorce, and after finishing up their contract at the Desert Inn, she filed for divorce at the Eighth Judicial Circuit Court of Nevada in Las Vegas.
After Keely was out of his life and his performances, Prima tried to prove that he did not need her. In the New York Post there was a suggestion that Keely should rejoin for an act in New York’s Basin Street East nightclub. Prima said, "I have no desire whatsoever to have any dealings with Keely Smith under any conditions. ... There is nothing in the world or no one that could ever make me accept this woman in our act."
Later years 
Prima had a variety of family loss to deal with at the end of his career. His father died in 1961, the same year as the divorce with Keely. His mother died in the winter of 1965, for which he partly blamed Keely.
In 1962 he tried to form his own recording company called “Prima One Records.” He tried to fill Keely's spot with Gia Maione, a waitress who was 21 years old. He did his best to make her famous by producing her first album “This Is … Gia.” It was funded entirely by him, and it was not very successful at all. This was daunting to Prima because he was always trying to advance himself and his performers. With Gia, Prima had a daughter and his only son Louis Prima Jr. He was also in the middle of making appearances in Las Vegas and promoting the film “Twist All Night.” By this point, the band was putting out a markedly different and more contemporary sound, with electric organs and synthesizers, even dabbling in progressive rock.
In 1967 Prima's distinctive voice and jazzy delivery landed him a role in Walt Disney's animated feature The Jungle Book, as the raucous orangutan King Louie. He performed the hit song "I Wanna Be Like You" on the soundtrack, leading to the recording of two albums with Phil Harris: The Jungle Book and More Jungle Book, and also covering MC duties and singing the theme song Winnie the Pooh, for the 1967 album entitled, Happy Birthday Winnie the Pooh, all of these on Disneyland Records. He can also be heard on the soundtrack of another cartoon feature, The Man Called Flintstone.
He suffered a mild heart attack in 1973. In 1975, following headaches and episodes of memory loss, Louis Prima sought medical attention, and found out he had a brain stem tumor. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and went into a coma following surgery to remove the tumor. He never recovered, and died three years later, having been moved back to New Orleans. He was buried in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans; his gray marble crypt is topped by a figure of Gabriel, the trumpeter-angel, sculpted in 1997 by Russian-born sculptor Alexei Kazantsev. The inscription on the crypt's door quotes the lyrics from one of his hits: "When the end comes, I know, they'll all say 'just a gigolo' as life goes on without me. Lovingly, your little family..."
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In 2010, honoring his lifelong commitment to the music of the city of his birth, and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of that event, Prima was honored by being the annual poster subject of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, in a painting created by artist and singer Tony Bennett, under his birth name Anthony Benedetto.
On July 25, 2010 Louis Prima received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame's 50th anniversary on the year of his 100th birthday. His son, Louis Prima Jr, performed a concert in honor of his father, which included all of Louis Prima's hits.
On November 1, 2010 Chicago Review Press released That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas by Tom Clavin. The book focuses on many aspects of Prima's life, particularly his act and relationship with Keely Smith.
The Prima-Butera arrangements and recordings continued to be copied by younger musicians, including David Lee Roth, who covered his medley of "Just a Gigolo"/"I Ain't Got Nobody" in the 1980s, and Brian Setzer, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and other nouveau swing bands of the 1990s, covering such Prima standards as "Jump, Jive and Wail". The pop band Smash Mouth mentioned his name in the song "Heave-Ho" (from their album Fush Yu Mang), and covered "I Wanna Be Like You" for the soundtrack album of The Jungle Book. "I Wanna Be Like You" was also covered by Los Lobos, Phish and by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy for the soundtrack of the 1996 movie Swingers. The surviving original members of Bill Haley & His Comets have recorded and performed several of Prima's songs since the mid-1990s, most notably "Buona Sera", which they dedicate to Prima's memory.
Louis Prima wrote the swing classic "Sing Sing Sing" which was covered by Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman. In 1940, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra recorded "Be Happy", a song Louis Prima co-wrote. "A Sunday Kind of Love" was another Louis Prima composition that became a standard of the swing and big band era. "Jump Jive an' Wail" was a Louis Prima composition that became another standard, a song which was revived by Brian Setzer.
Prima's original recordings have also featured in many films, including Mad Dog and Glory, Big Night, Anger Management, Mickey Blue Eyes, The Sopranos, Casino, Swingers, Kicking and Screaming, Elf, Swing Kids, Analyze This and Igor, as well as the game Mafia II. Prima's character also plays an important role in the film Big Night; he is the famous celebrity who never appears.
Sam Butera and the Wildest toured with their Prima tribute, between 2000 and 2004, before Butera retired. He died from complications due to pneumonia, on June 3, 2009.
Also in 2008, Louis Prima was posthumously inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
With Sam Butera and The Witnesses:
- The Wildest! (1956)
- The Call of the Wildest (1957)
- The Wildest Show at Tahoe (1957)
- Las Vegas Prima Style (1958)
- Strictly Prima (1958)
- Hey Boy! Hey Girl! (1959)
- Louis and Keely! (1959) - First album to be released by Dot Records.
- His Greatest Hits (1960) - First album to feature multi-instrumentalist Morgan Thomas.
- Together (1960)
- Pretty Music Prima Style, Volume 1 (1960)
- On Stage (1960)
- Wonderland by Night (1960)
- Blue Moon (1961)
- Return of the Wildest (1961) - The last record to feature Keely Smith.
- Doin' the Twist (1961)
- The Wildest Comes Home (1962) - Marks Prima's return to Capitol Records.
- Lake Tahoe Prima Style (1962) - The first Capitol LP to feature Gia Maione.
- Prima Show in the Casbar (1963) - The first LP released by Prima One Records.
- Plays Pretty for the People (1964) - Released by Jazz Band, live radio broadcasts from New Year's Eve 1963 and sometime during 1964.
- King of Clubs (1964)
- Let's Fly with Mary Poppins (1965)
- Golden Hits of Louis Prima (1966) - Last recording to feature trombonist Lou Scioneaux.
- On Broadway (1967) - United Artists release, solo release by Prima without Gia Maione and the Witnesses.
- The Jungle Book (1967) - Prima and the Witnesses are featured in a duet with singer Phil Harris on "I Wanna Be Like You".
- More Jungle Book (1969) - Prima and the Witnesses are featured on one track, "Strange Behavior".
- The New Sounds of the Louis Prima Band (1969) - First album to introduce Richie Varola on electric organ, marking the first time the band produced a markedly different, modernized sound.
- Blast Off! (1970)
- The Prima Generation '72 (1972)
- Just a Gigolo (1973)
- Angelina (1973)
- Let's "Hear" it For Robin Hood (1974)- Disneyland Records release, Prima tells the story of Robin Hood through spoken word and song.
- The Wildest '75 (1975) - Prima's last album before slipping into a coma, featuring the single "I'm Leaving You'.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Louis Prima|
- Official Louis Prima website
- Louis Prima at the Internet Movie Database
- Louis Prima Discography
- An Introduction to Louis Prima at This is Vintage Now