Louis Prima

Photo of Louis Prima
  • Born

    December 7, 1910
    New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Died

    August 24, 1978 (age 67)
    New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Featured Vocalists

    Cathy Allen
    Lily Ann Carol

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.

Band Years

In late 1939, Prima broke up the New Orleans Gang and formed his own big band. Known as the Gleeby Rhythm Orchestra, Prima’s new outfit attracted little attention in its early years. Prima himself sang, with Lily Ann Carol providing female vocals. Jack Powers, a Boston discovery of Prima’s, also sang, joining in July 1940 and remaining until fall 1941 when he fell victim to the draft.

The band left the East Coast in summer 1941 and traveled for a full year before returning to New York, where their reappearance made a minor splash. It wasn’t until 1944, however, that the orchestra finally broke through 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.”

1946 saw many changes to Prima’s vocal section. After being released from the service, Powers returned to the band in February, while Carol left to go solo mid-year. Sandy Bishop replaced Carol, singing in July, with Judy Lynn having taken Bishop’s spot in August. The vocal group the Tune Timers recorded with the band in August and September.[1] Prima also collaborated in the studio with country act Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage in June.

Powers stayed with Prima through at least March 1947. He was gone by December however. Lynn remained through at least November 1946. By March 1947, Cathy Allen had replaced her. In April 1948, Allen announced her departure due to pregnancy, and Prima began looking for a new female vocalist. In August, he hired 16-year-old Dorothy Keely, also called Dot Keely, who had been singing with local bands in Virginia Beach. 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 1952, Prima broke up the band and formed a successful nightclub act with Smith. In 1953, they married.

Later Career

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 combo 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.


  1. The Tune Timers were also billed as the “Toon Timers” on some recordings. ↩︎


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Prima Primed For Big Band.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1939: 2.
  3. “Henry Adler Joins Lou Prima Band.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1940: 7.
  4. “Prima on Wax as He Stages Real Comeback.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1941: 23.
  5. “Leon Prima Junks Band; Joins Louis.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1941: 16.
  6. “Personnels: Louis Prima.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1941: 17.
  7. “On the Stand: Louis Prima.” Billboard 27 Mar. 1942: 22.
  8. “Ravings at Reveille.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1942: 24.
  9. “Jack Powers Rejoins Prima At 400 Club.” Down Beat 11 Mar. 1946: 3.
  10. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 13 Apr. 1946: 46.
  11. “In Short.” Billboard 22 Jun. 1946: 43.
  12. “Vaudeville Reviews: Million Dollar, Los Angeles.” Billboard 23 Jul. 1946: 44.
  13. “Vaudeville Reviews: RKO Albee, Cincinnati.” Billboard 9 Nov. 1946: 43.
  14. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 15 Mar. 1947: 38.
  15. “Vaudeville Reviews: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 20 Dec. 1947: 39.
  16. “Music As Written.” Billboard 26 Apr. 1947: 23.
  17. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 7 Apr. 1948: 5.
  18. “Music As Written: New York.” Billboard 21 Aug. 1948: 21.
  19. “Vaudeville Reviews: RKO Albee, Cincinnati.” Billboard 16 Apr. 1949: 55.
  20. “Prima Works Without Band.” Down Beat 27 Aug. 1952: 3.
  21. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 17 Nov. 1954: 20.