Born on December 7, 1911, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Louis Prima eventually moved to New York City, establishing a big band and composing the iconic jazz song "Sing, Sing, Sing." He later wed singer Keely Smith and the two had a highly popular Vegas Act billed as The Wildest, with Prima also having a number of hit recordings. Prima also starred in the animated Disney film The Jungle Book.
Background and Early Career
Louis Prima was born on December 7, 1911, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Though initially taking up the violin, Prima switched to the trumpet and began playing in city venues as a teen. By the mid-1930s, at the behest of bandleader Guy Lombardo, Prima had moved to New York City and formed his own band, the New Orleans Gang. By the end of the decade, Prima had switched to leading a big band known as the Gleeby Rhythm Orchestra with which he recorded.
Prima would come to be known not only for his trumpet playing and strong songwriting but also for his emotive, textured baritone, and as such invited comparison to iconic trumpet player and singer Louis Armstrong. In the mid-1930s Prima also composed one of the most well-known songs in popular jazz history--the pulsating, primal "Sing, Sing, Sing," which would become a major hit for Benny Goodman. Prima appeared in films like You Can't Have Everything (1937) and Rose of Washington Square (1939) as well.
Partner Keely Smith and Becoming 'The Wildest!'
After World War II, Prima scored a number of hits that played up his Italian heritage with a humorous bent, including "Angelina," "Felicia No Capicia" and "Josephina, No Leana on the Bell." In 1947, Prima met Dorothy Keely, a young jazz singer from Virginia. She eventually joined Prima's band and was given the stage name Keely Smith. The two married, with Smith becoming Prima's fourth spouse. The witty husband and wife team were known for their disarming onstage juxtaposition, as Smith exhibited a cool, calm presence in counterpoint to Prima's hustle and bustle antics.
After a period of limited activity, the duo became one of the biggest acts in Las Vegas in the mid-1950s with a tour-de-force, electrifying act known as The Wildest. The rebirth came partially as a result of the influence of Sam Butera, a saxophonist who also hailed from New Orleans. Butera created a sonic palette for Prima's new accompanying band The Witnesses that was a fusion of sounds with an emphasis on a shuffle beat.
Prima made his Capitol Records debut in 1956 with The Wildest!, which contained major hits like "Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody," "The Lip," "Buona Sera" and "Jump Jive an' Wail." ("Gigolo" would be covered by long-haired rocker David Lee Roth in the '80s.) Prima recorded several albums under Capitol, with he and Smith winning a Grammy in 1958, costarring in the film Hey Boy! Hey Girl! the following year and singing for President John F. Kennedy's inauguration. Despite the successes, the two divorced in 1961.
Recording for 'The Jungle Book'
Prima and Butera's act were soon joined by vocalist Gia Maione, who wed Prima in 1963. Prima recorded for his own imprint Prima One Magnagroove before starring in Walt Disney's 1967 animated film The Jungle Book. Providing the voice of the swinging king of the apes, Louie, Prima recorded the classic "I Wan'na Be Like You," with the movements of he and his band serving as inspiration for Disney animators. Prima later recorded songs for the Disney film The Rescuers (1977) that remained unreleased until the 2000s.
Prima continued to play together in Vegas for a time and by the '70s had returned to New Orleans. In 1975, he underwent surgery to have a brain tumor removed and lapsed into a coma, in which he remained until his death in 1978. He was survived by Maione and their children Louis Jr. and Lena, both of whom have pursued musical careers as well.
Maione has worked to maintain the Prima estate and helped to keep his legacy alive in the pop culture canon, including overseeing his music's usage in a number of films that have included Analyze This and Swingers. A 1999 documentary appeared on the musician's life as well--Louis Prima: The Wildest.
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