Artist Biography by Steve Huey
A tireless showman and an underrated musical talent, Louis Prima swung his way to icon status thanks to an irresistible, infectious sound whose appeal translated across generations. Nominally a swing artist, Prima’s distinctive sound also encompassed New Orleans-style jazz, boogie-woogie, jump blues, R&B, early rock & roll, and even the occasional Italian tarantella. Regardless of what form his music took, it swung hard and fast, with a rolling, up-tempo shuffle beat that helped some of his earlier material cross over to R&B audiences (his songs were also covered by jump blues artists from time to time). His greatest period of popularity coincided with his marriage to singer Keely Smith, whose coolly sophisticated vocals and detached stage manner made a perfect counterpoint to Prima’s boisterous presence: mugging, clowning, and cavorting around the stage with the boundless enthusiasm of a hyperactive boy. Prima’s band during this time was anchored by tenor saxophonist Sam Butera, whose grounding in jump blues and New Orleans R&B was a perfect match. Perhaps because Prima refused to take his music too seriously, sober-minded jazz critics often dismissed him as a mere entertainer, overlooking his very real talent as a jazzman. He was a capable, gravelly-voiced singer modeled on Louis Armstrong, boasting a surprising range, and was also a fine trumpet player, again in the irrepressible mold of Armstrong; what was more, he wrote Benny Goodman’s perennial swing smash “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Prima’s impact on popular culture was also significant; his pronounced ethnicity made it safe for other Italian-American singers to acknowledge their roots, and he was the first high-profile musical act to take up regular residence in the lounges and casinos of Las Vegas, helping to start the city’s transformation into a broader-based entertainment capital. His musical legacy proved long-lasting, as covers of his classics became modern-day hits for David Lee Roth and Brian Setzer; additionally, the ’90s swing revival, which sought to re-emphasize the danceability and sense of fun that had largely disappeared from jazz, brought Prima’s music back into the limelight (as well as the good graces of critics).
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