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Cabaret | Weekend Chat

Keely Smith Swinging Back Into Vogue

Though she never left, the singer of 'Jump, Jive, an' Wail' got a career boost from a Gap ad.


During their Eisenhower-era heyday, Louis Prima and Keely Smith wowed Las Vegas audiences with their after-hours shows in the Casbar Lounge at the Sahara Hotel. For five years, theirs was the hottest lounge act in town. With her trademark bob, deadpan demeanor and seductive voice, Smith was an ultra-cool counterpoint to the hot-cooking singer-trumpeter Prima and their hard-swinging six-man backup band, the Witnesses.

Prima died in 1978, 17 years after he and Smith divorced. Except for a seven-year period when she stopped going on the road to raise their two daughters in the mid-'60s and early '70s, Smith has worked steadily as a solo artist in nightclubs and in showrooms in Las Vegas, Tahoe and Reno.

But the recent swing revival, including a popular 1998 commercial that used the Prima-Smith classic "Jump, Jive, an' Wail" to sell Gap khakis, has pumped renewed vigor into Smith's career, which began in 1948 when bandleader Prima hired the bashful teenager from Norfolk, Va., as his vocalist.

After performing for a packed house of mostly young swing enthusiasts at the House of Blues in Los Angeles two years ago, Smith recorded her current album, "Swing, Swing, Swing," for Concord Jazz, with whom she signed a five-CD deal.

Since June, she's been promoting the album on the road, forgoing her usual nightclub and casino showroom venues for state fairs and performing arts centers. Smith, who lives in Palm Springs, will be at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa Friday and Saturday.


Question: Are you surprised by the renewed interest in your career?

Answer: I don't know if surprised is the right word, but I don't know a better one. I'm thrilled that the resurgence is of my career by myself because for many years everything I did was with Louis, and now all of a sudden I'm being recognized on my own and that really is the ultimate for me.

Q: "Swing, Swing, Swing" is your first new album since "I'm in Love Again" for Fantasy Records in 1985. Why did you choose to do a swing album?

Keying Into

Swing Revival

A: Actually, we did a tribute to Frank Sinatra first. I recorded it while Frank was still alive. I'm happy to say Frank heard it and was thrilled with it. Unfortunately, by the time we got it mastered, Frank passed away, and as you know, a lot of people came out of the woodwork with tributes to Frank, so I held mine back.

Then all of a sudden the swing revival--the dancers, the kids--started happening and my husband, who's my producer, Bobby Milano, decided I should do a swing album. So we put the Sinatra album on hold and did "Swing, Swing, Swing."

Q: "Keely Sings Sinatra" (Concord Jazz) will be released in March. It will include songs such as "I've Got a Crush on You," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Angel Eyes" and "My Way." What prompted your tribute to Sinatra?

A: I've always been very close to Frank and I stayed in touch with him all through the years. My youngest daughter was named after him; her middle name is Francis. We just decided it would be nice. When we did it, it wasn't really a tribute because he wasn't gone at that point; it was just me singing Frank's songs.

As a matter of fact, I just got off the phone with Nancy [Sinatra] Jr. I'm close with Nancy and Frank Jr.--Frank Jr. wrote the liner notes for the CD--and I have their blessings.

Q: Is "Keely Sings Sinatra" more representative of your vocal style than "Swing, Swing, Swing"?

A: I'm known for being a ballad singer and the Sinatra one is definitely more Keely. But I love doing the swing show. As a matter of fact, all the places I'm working up to March will be the swing show.

Q: Do you sing any ballads in your show?

A: I do three: "It's Magic," "I Wish You Love" and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good." We're using film clips [of her performing with different celebrities] and the film clips really set up some of the show really nice. But it's the tempo I like. Once the music starts, it just goes to the end. Even though I insert those three ballads, you don't hardly know they're there because the tempo just moves, and it's a fun show.

My son-in-law, Dennis Michaels, is my conductor. He also did all but two of the arrangements in the swing album, and he did at least eight in the Sinatra one. My daughters, Toni and Luanne, were backup singers on my swing album, and Toni will be one of my backup singers in Costa Mesa.

Q: Have you changed your performing style over the years?

A: I don't think I'm any different in that I still talk to the people one on one. I don't lie to them about anything. I talk to my audience exactly as I'm talking to you. The audience is free to ask questions. The only thing that's changed with me is I'm very sure of my stage now. It's my stage and nobody is going to take it from me, and it took me a long time to get to that point."

* Keely Smith, Orange County Performing Arts Center, Founders Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday. $54. (714) 556-2787.

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