Posted by Brad @ 1:08 pm on May 21st 2009

Music Video of the Week: Louis Prima and Keely Smith

When you think of big band, you might think of Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and other practitioners of “serious” jazz and swing. In fact, most of those acts have since been co-opted by jazz snobs, and rightly so, but I feel like, in the music snob culture, that leads to a number of just as good or even better acts getting slighted because they didn’t “feel” as serious.

But to me, big band was always, in its essence, high-end nightclub acts. Part variety show, part club DJ, part revue, and part theater. It was intended as a night’s entertainment, not like going to the opera, but like going to a party that was there every night, and indeed the best of them essentially were exactly that; you could practically build the brick and mortars around them to make the club, and people would show up not just once, but over and over again. Nothing against the big band leaders who were composers and true students of music and who pushed the boundaries, but there’s something, to me, to be said for the acts that were totally unpretentious and just there almost like fellow party-goers and, at most, MCs. Acts you could imagine just as easily doing their thing at the piano in a really hoppin’ party as you could with 20-piece bands behind them. The best practitioners, then, were acts with enormous charisma that didn’t take themselves too seriously and just had an infectiously good time doing their thing, night in and night out.

So my favorites were always more of the Cab Calloway school (some, like Louis Armstrong, managed to straddle both worlds), and if I had to pick an all-time favorite big band act, I’d have to go with Louis Prima and Keely Smith.

Louis Prima and Keely Smith – Hey Boy! Hey Girl!

Louis Prima is of course well-known, for things like Just a Gigolo, Jump Jive An’ Wail, Oh Marie, and Sing, Sing, Sing (though the Benny Goodman version is probably more recognized, Prima wrote it), or hell even The Jungle Book. But (outside of Italian neighborhoods) he’s never been given his due, I don’t think, usually cast as somewhere between Mel Torme and Charles Trenet, which is perfectly fair, but I can’t help but think it’s meant pejoratively. Prima never seemed to take himself very seriously, which contributes to music historians not taking him seriously, and by most any definition of the word he was a sell-out, which is another snob strike against him (spending the last 15 years of your career in Vegas can be done without hurting your rep, but not easily). But he was a consummate entertainer, he put himself at the center of a boggling variety of musical styles and genres, but with such a unique and personalized manner that his performances could never pass for anything but a Louis Prima performance. Everything went through the Louis Prima translator before public consumption. Here’s a great early video of him doing, of all things, a Scottish ballad, Louis Prima style. Bonus: white people dancing

Louis Prima – Loch Lomond

Prima is gold all through his career, but for me even he managed to transcend greatness and hit the divine when he added to his act his fourth wife, Keely Smith.

Keely Smith – Birth of the Blues

Keely debuted with Prima in 1949, and they were married a few years later. Her professional career really began with Prima, and to me, she’s one of the best vocalists from that era, up there with Ella Fitzgerald. She reminds me of Sam Cooke in the way her vocals usually seem utterly effortless and natural, and she could manage to be both a bubbly vixen and a hard-nosed straightman almost at the same time, which worked fabulously in conjunction with Prima’s antics.

The two had one big bonafide hit that remains an American standard even today. That Old Black Magic. But for the most part they were a performance act.

Louis Prima and Keely Smith – That Old Black Magic (live excerpt with commentary)

The two were a Vegas standard through the 1950s, and what comes through first and foremost in their performances was how much fun they had doing their thing.

Louis Prima & Keely Smith – I’m in the Mood for Love

To me, they’re two of the 20th century’s most instantly recognizable voices, and two of its best utility entertainers. Sadly, by the end of the 50s their marriage had fallen apart. Prima stayed in Vegas with a new wife, Smith went on to pursue a recording career of her own which was moderately successful, though she never got the recognition her contemporaries did. Prima, of course, died in 1978. Smith, however, is still alive, and after retiring for awhile to raise her children, she’s returned in the last ten years making some new records and appearances (including a performance of That Old Black Magic at the 2008 Grammy’s with Kid Rock, the video for which I have to find!).

But to me, the pinnacle of both of their careers was with each other, during their Vegas act, Smith playing the smooth jazz vocalist, Prima the madman aping along behind her. I think most of all I appreciate their sense of fun at being able to get in front of audiences, do their music, and clown around while in love. It’s got such a purity and joy to it that’s hard to find in more “serious” music.

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