Keely Smith, Still Singing Pretty for the People, Prima Style
Originally published Discoveries magazine, December, 2005
Vegas, 1958. A place and time of slot machines, fancy hotels, high class restaurants, dancing girls, wild entertainment, and music that swung. The slot machines are still doing fine in the twenty first century, so are the hotels and the stage shows, but they’re different. Real different. The original Sands Hotel, the Sahara, the Desert Inn, all gone, and the shows are dominated by magic and gymnastic circuses. The music is still a big deal, with major acts that have set up shop there, like Barry Manilow and Elton John. But their work is in Vegas, not of Vegas.
Louis Prima and Keely Smith were of Vegas. Theirs was the hottest show in town, and it wasn’t even in the big rooms where Frank and Sammy and Dean performed. Prima, Smith, and Sam Butera and the Witnesses played the lounges for free, the small rooms with a big band you could reach out and touch–if it would only stand still long enough.
Safely into her seventies now, Keely Smith is doing what she can to keep the Las Vegas of the 1950s alive. She still has something to sing and swing, which she delivers with the same voice that first brought her fame and fortune half a century ago.
On her new live CD, the title alone says it all: Vegas ‘58-Today. “I never realized how much energy Louis had to have to do that,” she says on the album, after singing a medley of Prima songs, recorded live in New York City at Feinstein’s. “Louis was amazing. I truly believe that he was the best performer that ever walked on a stage.”
In a telephone interview, she further illustrates the point about her former husband and singing partner. “He did everything with his voice, his hands, his trumpet. His personality came through with his showmanship, and the shuffle rhythm, that was the secret of everything. He could stand on stage and change keys with his fingers and go from one song to another and nobody knew where he was going. He was just a master on stage.”
Smith’s own personality came through in her elegant voice, along with her low-key on-stage disposition, the polar opposite of the unrestrained Prima. It was that combination of personal differences that created a stellar, musical partnership. And nobody had a better time in Vegas than the king and queen of Vegas entertainment. But their story had actually begun far away from the Las Vegas strip.
By the fifties, Louis Prima was already a seasoned pro. He had fronted a Dixieland jazz band in the thirties and a big band in the forties, in his native New Orleans and on New York’s swinging 52nd Street. He’d enjoyed radio hits like “Robin Hood” and he’d written what would become one of the most important compositions of American jazz, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which Benny Goodman had recorded into music history.
It was the stage where Prima was best known and where he was most at home. To music lovers in the vibrant clubs of Manhattan, he was simply the best, the buzz-worthy live act whose race was as uncertain as his musical category. That worked out just fine for Louis Prima. He loved white and black audiences, they loved him, and he cared not one bit about whether they called him swing or jazz. It was music, it was fun, and he was there to sing, swing, jump, jive, and wail.
Prima liked to try new sounds periodically, and by the late forties, he was looking for a permanent girl singer to add to the lineup (having worked with several over the preceding years). Little did he know at the time that a teenaged fan (then named Dorothy Keely) at a 1947 New Jersey gig would soon fill the position. “We had seen Louis Prima in Atlantic City on the Steel Pier,” Smith says. “When we went back home, we had a place in Virginia Beach called the Surf Club that brought in big bands each summer, it was an outdoor dance floor. We told [the manager] that if he would bring in Louis Prima the following year, we would guarantee that the club would be packed. He’d never heard of Louis. Anyway, he listened to my brother and I and brought Louis in the following year. When he came in, he had a singer with him named Tangerine who was extremely nervous and he announced he was looking for a singer. My brother told Louis’ wife that I sang. Louis called me up to sing and I told him no. I got very nervous. He talked me into it, I sang two songs, and he hired me on the spot.”
From such spontaneous beginnings, a partnership was forged, launching the girl singer’s career and taking the middle-aged swing star to the next level. The chemistry between the vivacious, uncontrollable Prima and the staid, immobile Smith was magical. A beautiful woman with a beautiful voice was exactly what Prima had needed, bringing a musical and comedic balance to the act. And having a woman for a straight man was a whole new thing.
Together, they made music with personality and vitality, and their biggest hit as a duo, a rousing rendition of “That Old Black Magic,” captured it all. The jumping and thumping track rocked and rolled while scat-singing Louis traded lines with the more restrained but strong Keely. Their new twist breathed celebratory life into the romantic standard, with the swinging support of sax man sidekick Sam Butera and the Witnesses, and it would win them a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group in 1958, the first year that the awards were presented. Elvis Presley wasn’t the only recording artist injecting rocking rhythm into an older tune (as he had on “Blue Moon of Kentucky”).
Funny novelty songs like “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” and “Banana Split for My Baby” became their trademark, but the collective talent shining through on each of the records was serious business. Keely’s stylish contribution to the mix ran the vocal gamut from torch to jazz. Take for instance her stylish take on “Autumn Leaves.” Her voice was as elegant and haunting on the recording as anything by Julie London or Billie Holiday, but when The Witnesses’ frenetic beat kicked in halfway through at twice the tempo, she scatted and swung, Prima style. A medley of “Embraceable You / I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” showcased Smith at her sultry best, with Prima tossing in his raspy comic commentary between vocal lines (”I got it good and it ain’t bad!”).
The much older Prima was happily married when Smith joined his show, but after the birth of his first child, the marriage fell apart. Soon thereafter, a romantic relationship developed between the two, which only made sense when considering their musical compatibility on stage and in the studio.
The records of Prima, Smith, and company didn’t sound like anything else coming out at the time, but this music was interactive, and it needed an audience to laugh and dance and sing along.
SWINGING THE SAHARA
After some record sales and television successes, the New York based team had exhausted viable night club demand and it was time to start anew, and the driven crazy cat Louis Prima hadn’t yet used up his nine lives.
Keely remembers well how they came to head west. “I was pregnant, we had a group, and we were broke. We needed a job. Louis called Bill Miller, [who] had a huge night club called Bill Miller’s Riviera in New Jersey. He played all the top stars. He became the entertainment director of the Sahara [in Las Vegas], and Louis called him. He said, ‘We’re broke, my wife is pregnant, we need a job.’ Bill said, ‘I can give you two weeks in the lounge.’ Louis said, ‘I’ll take it.’ Bill said, ‘Louis I just said two weeks in the lounge. You’re used to headlining these rooms.’ Louis said, ‘No, man, we need this job. We’ll take the lounge.’ We jumped in cars, all of our guys, and drove across the country and there we opened.”
The Vegas lounge was just that: a room smaller than the big one, a place where wives passed the time while their husbands gambled, before and after the big room shows. Singers and comedians entertained in the lounges with no cover charge, so audience members wandered in and out freely. Often times they were great entertainers (Don Rickles, Peter Nero, even Ella Fitzgerald all spent time in the lounges), but nobody was paying much attention.
Louis Prima was accustomed to putting on a real show, and he saw no reason to change that for a lounge setting. He was going to turn it into a real showroom. “It was the first time that the lounge was considered as anything other than a place to go kill time,” says Smith. “When we went there, we actually put on shows. No one had done that before. It got to the point where they had to hire a maitre d’, they had to enclose it with curtains, and you just couldn’t get in the place.”
Louis Prima, Keely Smith, Sam Butera, and the Witnesses filled the stage and filled the rooms for years to come, in what became the best job of Prima’s long career. The brilliant yet unlikely concept had been born out of necessity, and, even then, opening night nearly didn’t happen because of an encounter with a musical peer the night before. “Louis and I went in the lounge and Cab Calloway was working there and at the end of one of his shows,” Keely recalls. “Calloway came over to say hello and Louis invited him to sit down and have a drink. He told Louis, ‘I can’t do that.’ Louis said, ‘Why not, you gotta go on again?’ And he said, ‘No, we’re not allowed to sit in the lounge.’ Louis said, ‘What do you mean we’re not allowed to sit?’ He said, ‘We’re colored.’ Louis was furious.” So furious, in fact, that he tried to reach Miller to cancel the first show because of the racist policy. Miller was out of town and unreachable, so opening night went on as planned.
Prima had dealt with this before back east, as he had been the first white musician to integrate the stages of the famed 52nd Street in New York, the home of swing and jazz in the thirties and forties.
With popularity came the power to change things, and Prima and Smith did just that in Las Vegas, even at a time when its other biggest performer, Sammy Davis, Jr., was forbidden to stay at the Sands Hotel where he worked, simply because of his color. “We were the first ones to get the hotels to allow blacks in there and the first one was Pearl Bailey,” Smith says. “We got permission for Pearl to come in and see the show. We were friends with Louie Belson, Pearl was married to Louie at the time. They wanted to come see the show and we had to get permission for her to walk in that lounge. Then, when we graduated to the big room at the Desert Inn, we’re rehearsing one day and one of the bosses comes in the room and listens to some of the rehearsal. Next thing I know, the entertainment director comes in and [tells] Louis, ‘You gotta get those black people off stage.’ We had a singing group of eight singers called the Evelyn Freeman Singers out of Hollywood who were absolutely wonderful and they were part of the show. Louis says, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said the bosses don’t want any blacks on stage. Louis says, ‘If they go, we go.’ We opened up. We had our singers.”
On a different memorable night, Prima had to ensure that another show biz friend was able to come and see the show. “Nat Cole was gonna come,” says Smith. “The Desert Inn had someone call the Sands Hotel and tell Nat’s people, ‘If Mr. Cole doesn’t want to be embarrassed, don’t let him come to this hotel.’ Louis found out about it and went crazy. Needless to say, Nat Cole came to that show.”
Such righteous indignation and principled stances reveal a little of Louis Prima, the man–but only a little. As outgoing as he was professionally, he was something of a loner in his personal life. And Louis and Keely were opposites off stage as well, but in a very different way. “He was basically quiet. He was nothing at home like he was on stage. He didn’t jump around, he wasn’t crazy. He just lived a normal life. He loved golf. He played golf every day and that was it. He didn’t have any friends. His friend was me in those days.”
That worked out pretty good, since his friend was both his wife and professional partner, and the only other person with the unusual schedule of a night club performer. They performed five forty-five minute shows a night, starting at midnight, working until six in the morning. And somehow, it worked, even with two little girls. “We were home by six thirty, we were in bed by a quarter to seven. We’d sleep until noon, get up, Louis would go play golf. I’d spend all day with the children, we’d have dinner with the kids, put them to bed. After they went to bed we’d catch a couple hours sleep before we had to go to work again at midnight. It worked out great, really. There was no problem.”
There was no problem on stage, either. Doing five shows a night will make a group tight, especially when the two up front are married to each other. But that doesn’t mean that their show was predictable. Even Keely never knew what her husband would do next during the show. “The only thing that we knew when we walked out on stage was that the opening song would be ‘When You’re Smiling’ and the closing song would be ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ We never knew what was gonna be in between. Louis called out the songs as we went along.”
Along the way, there would be high profile television appearances on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town and other variety shows, and even movies, like 1959’s Hey Boy! Hey Girl!, a fun excuse to commit to film some of the pair’s performances with Butera and the Witnesses. (Keely had turned in a more serious acting performance one year earlier in Thunder Road, costarring with Robert Mitchum). Louis and Keely even performed for the inaugural festivities of John F. Kennedy (who had seen a Vegas performance a few years earlier, thanks to mutual friend, Frank Sinatra).
Through it all, Smith was the perfect deadpan foil for her much wilder husband, and the formula that they created would inspire another musical husband and wife team a few decades later. When Sonny and Cher got their own television show in the seventies, their comical banter had been directly lifted from the Vegas version of Louis and Keely. And once again, the formula worked like a charm. Cher Bono even looked a little like Smith, with her beautiful black hair, Mona Lisa smile, and Native American complexion. Smith can vouch for the fact that the Bonos’ shtick came right out of that Vegas lounge. “My best friend today is named Jonah Carlo. He drove me to the hospital for the birth of both my babies. He [later] became the manager for Sonny and Cher, and he told them after Louis and Keely broke up, ‘Why don’t you do Louis and Keely?’ And they did!”
THE BEAT GOES ON
Like the Bonos a decade later, the Smith/Prima marriage would not survive the showbiz life. Smith attributes the end of the relationship to personal changes on Louis’ part-gambling, smoking, drinking, and fooling around, all new behaviors for him in the early sixties. Before that, he had been an ideal husband in his wife’s eyes. Louis Prima’s hit making heyday came to an end, but he would remain one of the best lounge showmen in Vegas for the rest of his life. He hired another young woman to replace Smith, Gia Maione, whose vocal style had more in common with Broadway than it did with Smith’s smooth, smoky delivery. And again, Prima would marry his lead singer and have another family.
Keely Smith continued to sing and perform. She had been releasing solo albums before the breakup anyway, and there was no reason to stop. All along, her Louis-less recordings allowed her to focus on more serious songs, with a few interesting diversions. When the Beatles were first taking over American music from across the pond, Smith released her own tribute album, Keely Smith Sings the John Lennon Paul McCartney Songbook, on which she threw some swing into “And I Love Her” (which had also been revised for a woman’s point of view: “And I Love Him”). It was a top ten album in London, and she was told that “Paul loved it.”
When The Twist was all the rage, it only made sense for the king and queen of swing to weigh in on the subject. Prima and Smith, completely independent of one another, released albums on Dot Records including songs only on the subject of, well, twisting (Prima even starred in a movie called The Continental Twist in 1962). Keely’s Twist with Keely Smith album had been the suggestion of producer Jimmy Bowen, who had also produced Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Bowen would also become Smith’s second husband. After the end of their marriage, he would move to Nashville and produce everyone from Garth Brooks to Reba McEntire. “My girls still call him daddy,” she says of Bowen. “He was a wonderful stepfather to my girls.”
Unfortunately, the girls’ biological father remained absent from their lives for a number of years, until their mother took control of the situation. “I took my daughters to see him. I was headlining in a hotel and he was in the lounge at another hotel. He didn’t talk to me for ten years; he didn’t talk to my youngest daughter for over ten years. But I finally decided, ‘This is crazy.’ I went to see him and forced my kid to go backstage and say hello to him. Then he came over and from then on we started talking. And it turned out to be okay.”
Beyond consideration for their daughters, Smith and Prima occasionally crossed performance paths, and on one occasion in Reno, Nevada, the pair reunited on stage. “I had gone to see Eddy Arnold, who was appearing in the big room; Louis was working in the lounge. We went in to see him after Eddy’s show, and I got up and sang with him.” They revived their old black magic together just long enough to sing their signature song.
But there was another lounge encounter that she remembers more clearly. “We had gone to see him in Vegas and afterwards he came over [to my table]. He introduced me but I didn’t get up and sing with him. I was sitting down the whole time on a stool during the show. And afterwards he came over and he started crying and he said, ‘Babe, my head is just killing me.’ I guess that was either the beginning of the tumor or he already had it to the point where it was hurting him. And that was very sad.”
The tumor in his head turned out to be benign, but the surgery to remove it and kill the pain put Louis Prima into a coma in 1975. He never came out of it, and he passed away in 1978.
A good portion of the Vegas Sound and Vegas Swing died with Prima, as pop radio was taken over by rock and roll, and even Ed Sullivan-styled television gave way to other styles of entertainment. Keely Smith continued to work and occasionally record, but she was far out of the limelight. But when the lounge craze of the nineties kicked in (which included a Gap Jeans TV commercial featuring Louis Prima’s “Jump,Jive, and Wail”), Smith began a relationship with Concord Records, a jazz label with a sense of history and an awareness of some startling good news: At the turn of the century as the age of seventy approached, Keely Smith could still sing. In fact, she sounded almost exactly like she had in the forties and fifties. It’s no surprise to her though. “I am a very positive thinker. I don’t smoke, I’ve never been into drugs. I don’t drink. I’m basically very, very healthy and I enjoy what I do.”
That fact is clearly apparent in all four of her Concord releases thus far. For 2000’s Swing, Swing, Swing, she did just that, with swinging nods to Mr. Prima, including “Robin Hood,” “When You’re Smiling / The Sheik of Araby,” and a vocal version of the title track, her ex-husband’s most important composition (released instrumentally as “Sing, Sing, Sing” for Goodman’s famous version).
In 2001, Keely Sings Sinatra remembered another departed friend, who was very much alive when the album was recorded. Sinatra, with whom Smith once had a post-Louis romance, even got to hear an advance copy. He shared his thoughts with Keely, invoking a term of endearment that he’d always used when addressing his part-Native American friend. “He loved it. He thought I wasn’t gonna hit some of those high notes. He said to me, ‘Injun, when did you start singing like that?’ I said, ‘Frank, I always did, you just never listened!’” Keely delivers “Angel Eyes” with the same sad blues that Frank had, and for “It Was a Very Good Year” she injects Sinatra swing into a Sinatra ballad to great effect.
For 2002’s Keely Swings Basie-style, she remembered another legendary friend, with a smooth “You Go to My Head,” a smoky “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” and a big band “Some of These Days.” With that same voice, an unmistakable Basie beat, and pictures of Smith and Basie sharing a stage in the fifties, it’s hard to believe that these recordings were made since the millennium.
With the newly released Vegas ‘58-Today, she recreates the lounges of fifty years ago with her current live show, turning in more respectable covers of Prima tunes like “Jump, Jive, and Wail” and “Just a Gigolo.” Listening to her show that honors her late husband, one can only hear the joy and admiration that Keely Smith has for what she and Louis Prima created together. The work ultimately eclipses any painful memories that come with divorce. “You go through stages in being disappointed in the man as a man, as a father, as a husband, and a little bitterness in there. Then you grow out of it, and you realize why this man was excellent and an important part of your life.”
Keely Smith still sings with great joy and reverence for the wildest musical performer Vegas ever knew, the larger-than-life character that changed her life forever. “No matter where I work or what I do, people always ask me about Louis. I know that I will never lose the image of Louis Prima. Nor do I want to.”