Louis Prima was born in New Orleans in 1910. Raised in a modest Italian immigrant family amidst the ethnic diversity of Italian, French, Spanish and Black residents and heavily influenced by jazz, Prima was destined to be a musician. His father was tolerant and reserved while his mother was a talented singer who performed regularly. She insisted that all of her children make music and become successfully integrated into American culture. Louis officially became a professional musician when he joined the musician’s union in 1928. After playing swing style music around New Orleans for five or so years and despite his mother’s trepidations, he traveled to New York in September 1934 to seek a career in music.
Prima launched his career when he and his combo were hired in March 1935 to perform at The Famous Door in New York where his energetic musical style captivated the city. The Door helped launch a number of musicians and singers: The Ink Spots, Benny Berigan, Red Norvo, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, and Bobby Hackett. Since the big band era of 30s and 40s had overwhelmed the New Orleans approach of small combos doing collective improvisation, Prima created a big band of his own known as the Gleeby Rhythm Orchestra. Eventually numbering 18 musicians, Prima took his band on the road. Prima and Guy Lombardo were among the main musical groups that headlined the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Prima and his group were popular among blacks, having performed at a number of venues in Baltimore, Washington D.C., Chicago, Detroit, and New York. They were one of only three white groups to perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem during World War II.
Dorothy Jacqueline Keely was born on March 9, 1928 in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father, Howard Keely was half-Cherokee. She was proud of her partial Native-American heritage and claimed it as part of her identity even in her professional life. Her parents divorced when she was nine and Dot took the last name of her stepfather, Jesse Smith. Even in childhood, she enjoyed singing and performing at social gatherings, bond drives, school, and church. Although naturally shy, Dot was hired by Earl Bennett, a local bandleader while she was still attending school. She was paid five dollars for each performance. Since she was still underage, her mother accompanied her to all the nightclubs where the band played.
The Smith family vacationed in New York during the summer of 1947 where Dot first attended a concert featuring Louis Primo and his orchestra. She was “mesmerized” and “dumbfounded” by Prima’s antics and musical sound describing it as “one of the best bands to dance to.” One year later when Dot was twenty, Louis Prima and his band were booked into the Surf Club in Virginia Beach in August 1948, largely due to Dot’s persistently advocating for Prima’s appearance. During his first show on a Friday, Prima announced he was looking for a new singer. His primary singer had left for a solo career. After hearing her sing, Prima immediately hired her for work that night. “I left with him the following Thursday,” admitted Keely. On the way out of town, Prima advised her to change her name. Combining her two actual last names, Dot became Keely Smith. Until she turned twenty-one in March 1949, either her mother or a brother would alternate as chaperones.
Sam was born on August 17, 1927 in New Orleans. He became infatuated with the saxophone at the age of seven. With his father’s encouragement, he continued his musical education and by his mid-teens, he was playing music at stripper clubs. Butera was a natural musical talent who became very proficient on the tenor saxophone. At age eighteen, he won a contest at Carnegie Hall in New York and was featured in Look Magazine as one of the top young jazz players in the United States.
Upon graduation from high school, Sam was hired to play in a band headed by Ray McKinley. Later he played for a time with Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra. Butera then formed his own band and began an engagement at the 500 Club in New Orleans owned by Prima’s brother Leon, also an accomplished musician. It was through Leon that Sam met Louis just before Louis and Keely were departing for Las Vegas. Louis told Sam that he may need him later on out West.
These two very different people began their eventual highly successful collaboration with a couple of disappointing years performing wherever they could find bookings in the Midwest or the East. Louis was nearing 50 and his career was in decline but Keely remained supportive and they grew emotionally close. After the divorce from his second wife, Louis and Keely were married on July 13, 1953. Louis’ career seemed like it was waning while Keely’s voice was drawing interest among the public.
In November 1954, an opportunity presented itself in Las Vegas in the form of a two week gig but they only had six days to get there. Upon arrival they discovered that The Casbar of the Sahara Hotel was small and served as a way station for patrons to smoke and drink between bouts of gambling. They also found out the hotel usually hired musicians whose careers were descending to pacify the temporary occupants. After the initial two weeks, their time was extended through Christmas because they were so positively received by patrons. Despite their success, Louis and Keely were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their musicians.
Butera got the call from Prima just before Christmas 1954 to form a band and come to Las Vegas and accompany he and Keely at the Casbar in their new act. Butera had to scramble to find quality musicians on such quick notice but eventually found out he had picked some jewels. Butera named his band “The Witnesses.”
When Sam Butera and The Witnesses joined the Primas, the act caught on fire. In Keely’s words,
“We opened in Las Vegas on November 24, 1954. We went there with a two week contract and we stayed six years.”
Butera and The Witnesses creatively blended with the musicianship and antics of Prima setting the active background for the enthralling voice of the usually dead-pan Keely and her often off-color banter with Louis, All of this kept audiences actively engaged in their performances.
Butera developed “a blend of rock ‘n’ roll rhythm, along with a blend of rhythm and blues which (created) a kind of shuffle beat.” He began writing arrangements for the Witnesses “in a shuffle beat that pushed the 4/4 rhythm onto the snare drum making the song feel twice as fast as it really was. What emerged was a distinctive Witnesses sound which other bands attempted to imitate without success.” Clavin, p. 83
Sadly, Louis and Keely divorced in 1961. Keely went on to a solo singing career with orchestral backing. Louis’s career declined due to various problems. After the group disbanded, Sam continued to lead The Witnesses for nearly fourteen more successful years.
That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas
Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2010
Louis Prima & Keely Smith with Sam Butera &Witnesses
|1. Hey Boy! Hey, Girl!||2:41|
|2. Banana Split for My Baby||2:31|
|3. Embraceable You / I Got It Bad & that ain’t Good||2:57|
|4. That Old Black Magic||2:56|
|5. I’ve Got You under My Skin||2:37|
|6. Night & Day||2:30|
|7. All I Do is Dream of You||2:02|
|8. Make Love to Me||2:52|
|9. Tea for Two||2:02|
|10. I’m Confessin’ (that I Love You)||2:44|
|11. Why Do I Love You?||2:08|
|12. You’re My Everything||2:29|
|13. Cheek to Cheek||2:56|
|14. Together *||2:19|
|15. Paradise *||2:01|
|16. They Can’t Take that Away from Me *||2:15|
|17. I Can’t Give You Anything but Love *||1:56|
|18. When My Baby Smiles at Me *||2:13|
|19. Let’s Get Away from It All *||2:14|
Recordings of Louis Prima & Keely Smith with Sam Butera & The Witnesses:
Louis & Keely
Jasmine Records JACD 326
Jasmine Records JACD 325
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