Louis Prima

Photo of Louis Prima
  • Born

    December 7, 1910
    New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Died

    August 24, 1978 (age 67)
    New Orleans, Louisiana

Best re­mem­bered for his risque Las Vegas act of the 1950s, Louis Prima was the ul­ti­mate show­man. Loud, bois­ter­ous, and com­pletely out front, his mix of rhythm and blues, big band mu­sic, Italian nov­elty tunes, and Dixieland made him one of the hottest per­form­ers of his era.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Prima stud­ied vi­o­lin as a child. He took up the trum­pet at age four­teen af­ter his brother, who was also a mu­si­cian, went on tour and left be­hind an old in­stru­ment. Prima taught him­self how to play and in the late 1920s be­gan to per­form pro­fes­sion­ally, in­flu­enced by Louis Armstrong and the rich jazz her­itage of his home­town.

In 1934, Prima moved to New York at the sug­ges­tion of band­leader Guy Lombardo. At first he strug­gled to find work but soon or­ga­nized his own band, the New Orleans Gang, for an en­gage­ment at the Famous Door. The group quickly proved pop­u­lar, record­ing for a va­ri­ety of la­bels over the next sev­eral years. Despite this suc­cess, though, Prima re­mained rel­a­tively un­known to the gen­eral pub­lic, ex­cept as com­poser of the song Sing, Sing, Sing,” which proved a big hit for Benny Goodman in the late 1930s.

In 1939, Prima broke up the New Orleans Gang and formed his own big band. Known as the Gleeby Rhythm Orchestra, Prima’s new out­fit fi­nally broke through in 1944 with Angelina,” the first of sev­eral Italian nov­elty hits. Other pop­u­lar songs writ­ten or per­formed by Prima dur­ing the late 1940s in­clude Bell Bottom Trousers,” Robin Hood,” and the bal­lad A Sunday Kind of Love.” Prima han­dled male vo­cals in the band. Jack Powers also sang dur­ing the mid-1940s. Female vo­cal­ists in­cluded Lily Ann Carol and Cathy Allen.

In 1949, Prima hired 16-year-old Dorothy Keely. The loud and bois­ter­ous Prima found a per­fect foil in the shy young singer, whom he re­named Keely Smith. The two pro­duced a strong stage chem­istry to­gether, play­ing off their op­po­site per­son­al­i­ties, and quickly be­came the fo­cus of each per­for­mance. In 1950, Prima broke up the band and formed a suc­cess­ful night­club act with Smith. In 1953, they mar­ried.

By late 1954, Prima and Smith’s act had run its course, and Prima be­gan to look to­wards Las Vegas. He re­cruited pop­u­lar New Orleans tenor sax­o­phon­ist Sam Butera to put to­gether a new band for a book­ing at the Sahara Hotel. Billed as the Wildest Show in Vegas,” the new act was an im­me­di­ate hit, and Prima was sud­denly in de­mand, ap­pear­ing fre­quently on tele­vi­sion and in film. He soon signed with Capitol Records, pro­duc­ing sev­eral al­bums over the next few years and chart­ing sev­eral hits, in­clud­ing Just a Gigolo” and Oh, Marie!” In 1958, he and Smith won a Grammy for their ren­di­tion of That Old Black Magic.”

In 1961, Prima switched la­bels from Capitol to Decca and took his show to the Desert Inn. His pop­u­lar­ity was at its peak, and both moves re­sulted in lu­cra­tive con­tracts. At the same time, how­ever, prob­lems in his mar­riage with Smith fi­nally came to a head. She di­vorced him and left the act, caus­ing him to lose out on both deals. Prima signed singer Gia Maione and con­tin­ued per­form­ing. His pop­u­lar­ity suf­fered, though, with­out Smith. He recorded one last al­bum for Capitol in 1962.

In 1967, Disney signed Prima to voice the char­ac­ter of King Louis in the Jungle Book, briefly bol­ster­ing his flag­ging ca­reer. By the early 1970s though, Prima was no longer able to draw the same type of crowds that he had pre­vi­ously drawn, and he and Butera moved back to New Orleans, where they fre­quently played the French Quarter. In 1975, Prima un­der­went surgery to re­move a brain tu­mor. During the op­er­a­tion he fell into a coma and never re­gained con­scious­ness. Louis Prima passed away in 1978.

Music

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  • Oh Marie
    Louis Prima (Lily Ann Carol), Hit (1944)
  • Bell Bottom Trousers
    Louis Prima (Lily Ann Carol, Louis Prima), Majestic (1945)
  • I Was Here When You Left Me
    Louis Prima (Lily Ann Carol), Majestic (1945)
  • Mahzel (Means Good Luck)
    Louis Prima (Louis Prima, Cathy Allen), Majestic (1947)
  • Chi-Baba Chi-Baba
    Louis Prima (Louis Prima, Cathy Allen), Majestic (1947)
  • Cecila
    Louis Prima (Louis Prima, Cathy Allen), Majestic (1947)
  • There's That Lonely Feeling Again
    Louis Prima (Cathy Allen), Majestic (1947)
  • Forsaking All Others
    Louis Prima (Cathy Allen, Louis Prima), RCA Victor (1947)
  • I'm Living a Lie
    Louis Prima (Cathy Allen), RCA Victor (1947)
  • Bubble-loo Bubble-loo
    Louis Prima (Cathy Allen), RCA Victor (1947)
  • If I Only Had a Match
    Louis Prima (Cathy Allen, Louis Prima), RCA Victor (1948)
  • Love That Boy!
    Louis Prima (Cathy Allen), RCA Victor (1948)
  • Sweet Nothings
    Louis Prima (Cathy Allen), RCA Victor (1948)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.

Radio

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  • One Night Stand: Louis Prima
    December 23, 1944 (AFRS) 29:26
  • One Night Stand: Louis Prima
    January 6, 1945 (AFRS) 29:26