The illustrious history of the king of the hepcats (and the queen of deadpan)
Louis Prima and his wife Keely Smith were a staple of ’50s and ’60s variety TV, and two of its biggest stars. Prima was famous for his riotous stage presence, what Smith called “that charisma . . . that little boy thing” that had him mugging for the camera, mock-dueling with his band members, and generally bouncing off the walls. Smith was an ideal foil to this hyper-hepcat, a chanteuse whose smoldering stare and look of mock-contempt threw Prima’s antics into joyous high relief.
Prima’s story, and peripherally Smith’s, is told in Don McGlynn’s upbeat documentary, Louis Prima: The Wildest!, now available in a nice DVD transfer from Image Entertainment. McGlynn is a familiar figure on the jazz doc scene, with previous forays into more controversial figures like Charles Mingus and Art Pepper (and more recently Harold Arlen). Prima’s life, engaging in itself, doesn’t reach the heights (or depths) of Mingus or Pepper, perhaps because it didn’t follow the cliché trajectory of the intransigent jazz musician done in by drugs, sex, artistic angst, or commercial failure. The film glosses over such stuff in Prima’s life, with his possible alcoholism and definite womanizing mentioned but subordinated to a celebration of his music and his musical persona, seen and heard in a generous sampling of soundies, TV and nightclub clips, and interviews.
Not that Prima’s life was dull. He was the child of a tight-knit immigrant family who came from Italy through Argentina, finally ending up in New Orleans. The film uses interviews with Prima relatives and associates, along with historical footage, to capture what life was like in the Big Easy’s Italian-American community. Prima’s style was formed in such intriguing events as a kind of progressive socializing his family engaged in, having a drink in one house, then moving to another, and so on. Prima was fearlessly inquisitive; as a kid, he constantly popped his head into black churches to soak in the dramatic performances inside – a kind of informal information gathering that would pay off when Prima played with great success at the Apollo Theater and other black venues. A foundational element of black music, call and response, is arguably the basis for Prima’s whole shtick – he calls, and the audience can’t help but respond.
This unapologetic ethnic element runs through Prima’s career and life; the film notes he was one of the few obviously ethnic entertainers who never turned his back on his roots once mainstream success hit. He always revived – to his audiences’s delight – Italian novelty numbers, and much of his performing persona could be traced to the wildly energetic Italian kid who never grew up.
Still, there were other sides to Prima. The film documents his pioneering work as a Vegas performer, adding music to Vegas’s identity as a gambling town. Legendary sax player and Prima collaborator Sam Butera recalls that when they played Vegas, Prima kept things fresh and spontaneous by refusing to give the band a playlist. “He called out the songs and we played,” he recalls. Butera is one of many interviewees whose emotional and artistic connection with Prima is remembered with awe.
Prima was also a serious musician, an expert trumpeter and author of numerous tunes including the jazz standard “Sing Sing Sing!” His style is an unusual combination of playful and intense. One of the things that makes his music timeless and alive is that he could never resist toying with his own artistry, mocking it, even as a younger player. This is shown to fabulous effect in a “duel” with Pee Wee Russell in which the two have a musical “conversation,” blowing notes back and forth that sound amusingly like speech.
Prima’s association with Keely Smith, who looks amazingly good for her age in the interviews here, benefited both despite his eventual desertion of her for a younger woman. Smith emerged from paralyzing shyness to become a household name, and Prima found the ideal partner both professionally and personally. Those who’ve dismissed Smith based on her recorded music only have half the story; the other half can be seen in clips of her performing. Their interplay has the resonance of a kind of comic psychodrama. In a song like “Old Black Magic,” Prima prances around in front of her seemingly desperate for her approval. Smith sneers silently, then Prima skulks away briefly to regroup. Finally, unable to contain himself, he bursts out with an inspiredly frenzied bit of song and dance. In this typical scenario, Prima’s boyish charms and sheer energy eventually win her over, as they do us, and she adds her coolly beautiful voice to the number.
If you’re still not convinced, check out the substantial extras on this disc: additional interviews; full-length performances of “Basin Street Blues,” “Oh, Babe!” and “Waitin’ on the Robert E. Lee”; and audio-only bonus songs: “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Robin Hood,” and “Please No Squeeza Da Banana.”