Keely Smith

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Keely Smith
Keely Smith, 1960
Keely Smith, 1960
Background information
Birth nameDorothy Jacqueline Keely
Born(1928-03-09)March 9, 1928
Norfolk, Virginia, U.S.
DiedDecember 16, 2017(2017-12-16) (aged 89)
Palm Springs, California, U.S.
GenresJazz, pop
Years active1949–2017
LabelsCapitol, Dot, Reprise
Associated actsLouis Prima

Dorothy Jacqueline Keely (March 9, 1928[1][note 1][2] – December 16, 2017), better known as Keely Smith, was an American jazz and popular music singer, who performed and recorded extensively in the 1950s with then-husband Louis Prima, and throughout the 1960s as a solo artist.[3]

Smith married Prima in 1953. The couple were stars throughout the entertainment business, including stage, television, motion pictures, hit records, and cabaret acts. They won a Grammy in 1959, its inaugural year, for their smash hit, "That Old Black Magic", which remained on the charts for 18 weeks.[4]

Early years[edit]

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Smith claimed Irish and Cherokee ancestry.[5] Jesse Smith, her stepfather, was a carpenter, and her mother took in laundry to earn money to buy gowns for Smith to wear when she performed.[6]


When Smith was 11 years old, she sang regularly as a cast member of The Joe Brown Radio Gang program on a Norfolk station.[6] At age 14, Smith sang with a naval air station band led by Saxie Dowell. At 15, she got her first paying job with the Earl Bennett band. She saw Louis Prima perform in New York City in 1949.[note 2][2] They recorded together in 1949 and married on July 13, 1953.[2][7]

Their songs included Johnny Mercer's and Harold Arlen's "That Old Black Magic", which was a Top 20 hit in the US in 1958. At the 1st Annual Grammy Awards in 1959, Smith and Prima won the first Grammy for Best Performance by a Vocal Group or Chorus for "That Old Black Magic".[8] Her deadpan act was popular with fans. The duo followed up with the minor successes "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen", a cover of the 1937 Andrews Sisters hit.

Smith and Prima's act was a mainstay of the Las Vegas lounge scene for much of the 1950s.[1] Though her actual voice was not used, she was caricatured as "Squealy Smith" in Bob Clampett's 1960 Beany and Cecil episode "So What and the Seven Whatnots", a Snow White spoof in a Vegas setting.[9]

Smith appeared with Prima in the movie Hey Boy! Hey Girl!,[1] singing "Fever", and also appeared in and sang on the soundtrack of the previous year's film Thunder Road. Her song in Thunder Road was "Whippoorwill". She also appeared in the film Senior Prom.[1]

Her first big solo hit was "I Wish You Love" in 1957, and it brought her a Grammy award nomination for Best Vocal Performance, Female.[8] Her debut album by that same title achieved gold status[2] In 1961, Smith divorced Prima. She then signed with Reprise Records, where her musical director was Nelson Riddle.[1] In 1965, she had Top 20 hits in the United Kingdom with an album of Beatles compositions, Keely Smith Sings The John Lennon—Paul McCartney Songbook, and a single, "You're Breaking My Heart", which reached No. 14 in April.[10]

She returned to singing in 1985, recording the album I'm in Love Again with Bud Shank and Bill Perkins.[7] Her albums, Swing, Swing, Swing (2000), Keely Sings Sinatra (2001) for which she received a Grammy nomination, and Keely Swings Basie-Style With Strings (2002) won critical and popular acclaim.[7] In 2008 she performed a duet with Kid Rock during the 50th Grammy Awards on "That Old Black Magic".[4]

Smith earned rave reviews for her performances at Feinstein's nightclub in Manhattan in 2005. Said Variety: "Smith’s bold, dark voice took firm hold on a handful of great standard tunes, and she swung hard", and The New Yorker review called her "both legendary and underrated ... She can still sing the stuffing out of a ballad as well as swing any tune into the stratosphere."

According to a news release from her publicist issued upon her passing, Smith was "very resolute in being in control of the trajectory of her career".

"Nobody will ever interfere with what I do on stage," Smith once told Theatermania. "Someone might have an opinion of something but, if I disagree with it, I’ll go with my own thinking. I’m just a plain person. I sing like I talk — and, when I’m on stage, I talk just like I’m talking to you."

Smith's final performance was on Feb. 13, 2011, at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center in Southern California.[4]

Other business[edit]

In 1986, Smith faced legal problems for failing to withhold employee personal income and disability insurance taxes in connection with vending companies she owned in Palm Springs, California.[11][12]

Personal life[edit]

Smith first married Matteo Gambardella Jr., September 6, 1947 in Pasquotank County, North Carolina, before divorcing December 1950.[13] Smith married Louis Leo Prima July 13, 1953.[2] in Virginia Beach[14] They had two children, Toni Elizabeth and Luanne Francis.[2] The couple divorced in 1961. She married Jimmy Bowen in 1965. The couple divorced in 1969.[15] In 1975 Smith married singer Bobby Milano (real name Charles Caci) in Palm Springs. Frank Sinatra gave the bride away.[16]

On December 16, 2017, Smith died of apparent heart failure in Palm Springs, California, at the age of 89.[17] She is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills.[18]


In 1998, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars was dedicated to her.[19] She also has a star at 7080 Hollywood Boulevard in the Recording section of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was dedicated on September 22, 1998.[20]

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Keely Smith (as well as Louis Prima) among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[21]


Solo albums[edit]

With Louis Prima

  • 1958 Breaking It Up! (Columbia)
  • 1958 Louis Prima & Keely Smith on Broadway (Coronet)
  • 1959 Louis and Keely! (Dot)
  • 1960 Together (Dot)
  • 1961 Return of the Wildest! (Dot)

With Louis Prima, Sam Butera & The Witnesses

  • 1957 The Call of the Wildest (Capitol)
  • 1957 The Wildest Show at Tahoe (Capitol)
  • 1958 Las Vegas Prima Style (Capitol)
  • 1959 Hey Boy! Hey Girl! (Capitol)
  • 1960 On Stage (Dot)


  1. ^ The reference work The Encyclopedia of Native Music: More Than a Century of Recordings from Wax Cylinder to the Internet gives Smith's date of birth as March 9, 1932.
  2. ^ The Encyclopedia of Native Music: More Than a Century of Recordings from Wax Cylinder to the Internet says, "In 1948, entertainer Louis Prima appeared in her hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, and hired Smith at an audition."


  1. ^ a b c d e Lentz, Harris M., III (2018). Obituaries in the Performing Arts, 2017. McFarland. ISBN 9781476633183. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Wright-McLeod, Brian (2018). The Encyclopedia of Native Music: More Than a Century of Recordings from Wax Cylinder to the Internet. University of Arizona Press. p. 186. ISBN 9780816538645. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  3. ^ Clavin, Tom (December 17, 2017). That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 9781569768136. Retrieved December 18, 2017 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ a b c "Iconic vocalist Keely Smith dies from apparent heart failure at 89", Mercury News, December 17, 2017
  5. ^ I Wish You Love album liner notes (1958)
  6. ^ a b Boulard, Garry (2002). Louis Prima. University of Illinois Press. pp. 87–88. ISBN 9780252070907. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  7. ^ a b c Unterberger, Richie. "Keely Smith | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved February 8, 2017.
  8. ^ a b "("Keely Smith" search results)". Grammy Awards. Recording Academy. Archived from the original on 26 June 2018. Retrieved 26 June 2018.
  9. ^ Beany and Cecil - So What and the Seven Whatnots on YouTube
  10. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London, UK: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 509. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  11. ^ "Keely Smith faces over 25 tax counts". The Pittsburgh Press. AP. July 12, 1986. p. A2. Retrieved September 30, 2012.
  12. ^ Organized Crime in California 1978. 1979. p. 19.
  13. ^ North Carolina County Registers of Deeds. Microfilm. Record Group 048. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC.
  14. ^ Virginia Department of Health; Richmond, Virginia; Virginia, Marriages, 1936-2014; Roll: 101167092
  15. ^ "Keely Smith Granted Default Divorce". The Palm Beach Post. July 30, 1969.
  16. ^ "Keely Smith". Herald Journal. January 25, 1975.
  17. ^ "Iconic vocalist Keely Smith dies from apparent heart failure at 89". 17 December 2017. Retrieved 17 December 2017.
  18. ^ "Legendary Jazz Singer Keely Smith Dies At 89". 18 December 2017. Retrieved 19 December 2017.
  19. ^ Palm Springs Walk of Stars by date dedicated Archived 2012-10-13 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Keely Smith". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Archived from the original on 27 June 2018. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  21. ^ Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2019.

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