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Louis Prima started playing professionally in his late teens around his native New Orleans, in the Dixieland style. At 22, Guy Lombardo saw him perform with Red Nichols and encouraged him to come to New York, where he formed his own band, "Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang," and moved from Dixieland to swing. Although a fair trumpet player, Prima's strongest suit was his stage presence. He was a loud, joking emcee and singer, never reluctant to camp it up to suit the crowd. His greatest notoriety prior to the 1940s came when Benny Goodman played a marathon version of Prima's song, "Sing, Sing, Sing" at a landmark concert at Carnegie Hall.
In 1939, Prima broke up his gang and formed a big band, playing a combination of dance tunes and song he wrote that played off his own Italian heritage: "Angelina," "Zooma Zooma Baccala," "Baciagaloop." He also wrote several successful ballads, including "A Sunday Kind of Love," a big hit for Fran Warren with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. He had a few hits during this time, mostly comic numbers like "Robin Hood."
In 1948, he hired a 16 year-old singer named Dorothy Keely Smith, whose clear, mature voice and striking pageboy hairstyle quickly earned a following for the band. Prima and Smith played up the contrast between their ages, sizes, voices, and styles. Although Prima broke up the band in 1949, he stayed with Smith and worked the lounge circuit, marrying her in 1952 (she was his fourth wife). Going nowhere with the lounge act, in late 1954, Prima accepted a booking at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. On their way to Vegas, they appeared outside New Orleans with sax player Sam Butera. Soon after arriving in Vegas, Prima called up Butera and hired him to lead the band backing his act.
The combination of Prima, Smith, Butera, and Vegas created something special, and their late show became one of the hottest attractions in Vegas. Prima and Smith sang and joked up a storm, Butera and his band, the Witnesses, played a smoking blend of jazz, pop, and New Orleans R&B, and the material was considered pretty risque for its time.
In 1956, Capitol decided to record an album with Prima, and decided to capture their act live. The result, "The Wildest," was like nothing caught on disc before--the same kind of energy that fired early rock-n-roll artists like Elvis, but with material suited for an older audience. Capitol released 7 albums by Prima, Smith, and Butera over the next five years. They also appeared in a B-movie, "Hey Boy! Hey Girl," that hung a thin premise around their Vegas act.
Although they clicked onstage, by all accounts, Prima and Smith had a stormy marriage with infidelity on both parts, and they divorced in 1961. Prima moved from Capitol to Dot, married another girl singer, Gia Maione, and continued to work in Vegas. In 1967, he did the voice for King Louie the Orangutan in Disney's "The Jungle Book," singing a memorable number, "I Wanna Be Like You."
Prima's act was becoming passe in Vegas in the early 1970s, so he moved with Butera back to New Orleans, getting steady if not spectacular work for the tourist crowd. In late 1975, he underwent surgery for a brain tumor, went into a coma, and remained hospitalized until his death almost three years later.
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