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BACKTRACKING

Prima and Smith's chemistry and showmanship on exhibit

July 24, 2007|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

Louis Prima's accomplishments were so varied that you can't do justice to his creative range by naming just one of his roles -- bandleader, songwriter, singer, comedian, musician, talent scout, showman.

His list of achievements extends from writing one of the anthems of the swing era, "Sing, Sing, Sing," to serving as the memorable voice of King Louie, the orangutan, in Disney's animated film "The Jungle Book."

A New Orleans native who got his start playing trumpet in jazz-styled bands, Prima was a colorful character who quickly realized that rather than pure artistry, his goal was entertaining audiences. He turned that ambition into an art form in the 1950s in Las Vegas, where he put on wild, fun-packed shows whose good-natured camaraderie was a model for the Rat Pack concept of Frank Sinatra and his pals.

Though Prima was at his best on stage with singer Keely Smith and a combo fronted by saxophonist Sam Butera, he also made exceptionally entertaining recordings, many of which are contained in Capitol's new "Jump, Jive an' Wail: The Essential Louis Prima." Also worth attention: a new retrospective CD devoted to Smith, a warm, graceful singer.

Louis Prima

"Jump, Jive an' Wail: The Essential Louis Prima"

Capitol

The back story: Prima had hit records in the 1930s and played some of the nation's most important clubs and theaters with his band in the 1940s, but he still found himself struggling to get gigs in the early '50s when the pop music landscape shifted away from the big bands.

Finally, he reluctantly accepted old friend Bill Miller's offer to play the Sahara Hotel lounge in Las Vegas. At the time, pint-sized Vegas lounges were pretty much the bottom rung of show business, but Prima and his lively group were a sensation from the start, drawing overflow crowds nightly with an energetic approach so varied that audiences never knew quite what to expect next.

"From midnight until 6 in the morning, you could not get into that club," Miller said in 1999. "That really was one of the biggest things that happened in Vegas. All the lounge acts started with Louis Prima."

The music: If you didn't know it was Prima singing, there are several points on the CD where you'd swear you were listening to Dean Martin. The latter's biggest vocal influence was most certainly crooner Bing Crosby, but Prima's carefree style is also reflected in Martin's relaxed, almost self-mocking delivery. When Martin started his TV variety show in the 1960s, Prima was one of the guests on the first show.

And you clearly hear Prima the entertainer at work in every track on the new retrospective, be it the 1958 teaming with Smith on "That Old Black Magic" or his "Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody" medley, which David Lee Roth reprised in 1985.

But there was also solid musicianship behind every number. There's such an infectious groove on "Angelina/Zooma Zooma" that you hardly notice when Prima's vocal shifts from English to Italian to near-gibberish. The music itself is what carries you along. Similarly, "Jump, Jive an' Wail," which he wrote, captures the raucous spirit of the early rock hit "Shake, Rattle & Roll." A full-fledged blast.

Keely Smith

"Keely Smith: The Essential Capitol Collection"

Capitol

The back story: Prima was so impressed by the teenage Smith's vocal purity and grace when he first saw her in 1948 that he signed her on the spot (and eventually married her). With Prima, Smith stood on stage in a deadpan fashion that made her an ideal foil. Audiences loved watching Prima going through all sorts of antics in trying, but usually failing, to get her to break into a smile. What also made Smith valuable in the Prima show was the soulful quality in her voice, and that allure transferred nicely to record, as the new collection demonstrates.

The music: Though she shows on duets with Prima that she can have fun, Smith, working with such master arrangers as Nelson Riddle and Billy May, was all business on the standards "Fools Rush In," "It's Been a Long, Long Time" and "Someone to Watch Over Me." She even teamed with Frank Sinatra on two tracks. A bonus track is the previously unreleased "When Day Is Done," which was recorded live at the Sahara. Quite nice.

Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights reissues and other historical pop music items.

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