Louis Prima was an Italian-American composer, singer, trumpet player and bandleader from New Orleans.
Louis Prima was an Italian-American composer, singer, trumpet player, and bandleader from New Orleans. Throughout the course of his fifty-year career, Prima played styles that included traditional New Orleans jazz, big-band swing, and in the 1960s, pop and rock. He composed the swing standards “Sing Sing Sing” and “Jump Jive And Wail.” In the fifties, he and his wife, Keely Smith, led a popular Las Vegas lounge act, a showcase for comic banter, zany antics, and his best-known, often humorous, swing and jump-blues songs. Prima is as famous for his trumpet style and the signature shuffle beat he called “Gleeby Rhythm” as he is for his outsized, comedic stage personality and distinctive, raspy singing voice.
Louis Prima was born to Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans on December 7, 1910, and grew up on St. Peter Street, in the Tremé neighborhood. He attended both Jesuit and Warren Easton high schools. Prima first listened to New Orleans jazz in the many integrated Italian and African-American nightclubs that stood in the section of Tremé and the French Quarter called Little Palermo, and became a devoted fan of Louis Armstrong. At fourteen, he formed his first group, Louis Prima’s Kid Band, which included a twelve-year-old Irving Fazola on clarinet. Prima left high school before graduating, joined the Musician’s Union, and began playing in the Saenger Theater pit band and in a small jazz combo at nightclubs owned by his older brother, Leon.
Recording and performing
In 1934, Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and was impressed by Prima’s set at his brother Leon’s Club Shim Sham on Bourbon Street. Lombardo invited Prima to come to New York City, which Prima did later that year, landing a job as house bandleader at the newly opened Famous Door on West 52d Street. His frenetic sets turned the new spot into a landmark.
With a growing reputation based on his success at the Famous Door and his Brunswick recordings with the New Orleans Gang, Prima moved to Los Angeles in 1935. He opened his own nightclub, which he named the Famous Door, although it had no business relationship with the New York venue. There, he expanded his band into a swing orchestra, in keeping with the big band trend of the times, and performed, recorded, and toured with the larger act into the 1940s. He also began appearing in musical films. During World War II, when anti-Italian sentiment was high in the United States, Prima took some critical fire for pushing his ethnic identity to comic lengths onstage, but he refused to tone it down.
At the end of the 1940s, with the big band era ebbing, Prima took a gig playing in the Sahara Hotel lounge in Las Vegas. He hired New Orleans saxophonist Sam Butera to form and lead his band. At the time, Las Vegas lounges were not considered prestigious. However, Butera’s exuberant band and Prima and Keely Smith’s comic chemistry onstage made the act a major success. They performed multiple sets each night in the Sahara showroom throughout the 1950s. In 1959, Prima and Smith won the Grammy Award for Best Performance By A Vocal Group for “That Old Black Magic.”
In 1961, Prima and Smith divorced, and two years later, he married the singer who had replaced Smith, Gia Maione, his fifth and final wife. Maione and Prima played in Las Vegas and around the country until 1975. After an operation for a benign brain tumor that year, Prima lapsed into a coma and did not regain consciousness. He died on August 24, 1978.
In 1967, Prima supplied the voice for the character King Louie, the orangutan in the Walt Disney film The Jungle Book. The song he sang, “I Wanna Be Like You,” became a hit and has been covered multiple times by artists such as Smashmouth, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Jonas Brothers. In 1985, rock singer David Lee Roth recorded a popular cover of the Louis Prima songs “Just A Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” sung as a medley. In 2010, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, Prima was the subject of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s annual collectible poster, with a portrait of Prima painted by singer Tony Bennett. Louis Prima is buried in Metairie Cemetery in a crypt inscribed with lyrics from “Just A Gigolo.”