Play Pretty for the People
As an Italian-American I may be partial, but for me Louis Prima holds a special place in jazz history. He may not have been as understatedly elegant as Duke Ellington or as musically innovative as Stan Kenton, but he possessed something they lacked: a manic humor and energy that was inimitably contagious.
Prima could get a place moving, which is no small feat. He had a loose, extremely assured stage presence, with over-expressive, theatrical mugging, yet always with a glint of self-knowing humor, even when wailing a trumpet solo. Sure, no one will confuse his horn playing with Dizzy, Miles or that other Louis, but Prima could blow.
Louis Prima: In Person! His Wildest Performances 1936-1973 is a retrospective companion to the biographical documentary Louis Prima: The Wildest, and these titles, especially the exclamation point, say it all. From early short subjects to appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, this is nearly 40 years of exclamatory madness.
With an ethnic rasp and articulation of someone for whom English is a second language, Prima managed to come off both goofballish and sharp-witted. My father told me stories of Italian racism during Prima’s time and no doubt the bandleader heard his share of “dago” and “wop”. But Prima was shamelessly ethnic. It may even be charged that he played into Italian-American stereotypes—the robust mama’s boy singing about pasta fagioli—but Prima transcends, or closer, rides down all these arguments through the exuberance and power of his talent. As Italian as he was, he was born more an Entertainer.
That was in New Orleans in 1910. Although this release is all about the music, host Louis Prima Jr. introduces each song with a short history, so we get a general background of his father’s career: his early years playing with the New Orleans Gang (which included clarinetist Pee Wee Russell), where his distinctive comic personality was already intact; his 22 piece orchestra and; his most popular outfit with vocalist Keely Smith and saxophonist Sam Butera.
I know him most from his Italian-American novelty songs of the ‘50s, represented here by early television performances of “Come On-a My House” (one of my father’s favorites) and “Oh, Marie”, and it’s fun to see Prima play to the dagos (hey, we’re allowed to go after our own). I watched the DVD with my mother and she could barely contain herself, laughing at every bit of Italian from capicole to scungilli.
Inarguably Prima’s most popular band was with Keely Smith and Sam Butera & the Witnesses. Prima Jr. calls Smith the “bored deadbeat” to Prima’s “animated wild man”, and this comic dichotomy is something to behold. With her razor-helmet haircut, flat face and Buster Keaton eyes, Smith is like an existential sphinx or statue that can suddenly break character to ape Prima’s antics, mock his mugging, or belt a few bars. Add Butera and Prima exchanging nonsensical scat—is there any other kind?—and you have a special brand of lunacy: part jazz band/part comedy troupe, evenly distributed. Rehearsals must’ve been nuts.
I don’t know if these filmed performances were the group’s wildest, but they’re all a blast: Keely killing “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Mine of Mine” (1955); “When the Saints Go Marching In” (1955), with tempo changes from slump to jump, so wacky even the cameraman can’t keep up; “That Old Black Magic” (1959), my mom’s favorite and one of Prima’s biggest hits; and a 1959 performance of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” that proves Prima and Smith a comic duo worthy of the best of them.
Not just Prima and Smith, but Prima and Butera, as well. The two played together for over 20 years, and they have an infectious, in-joke Ratto Pack camaraderie. Their performance of “Coolin’” from the “Twist”-era movie Twist All Night (1961) is fun to watch just to watch the fun they’re having.
After Smith left to pursue a successful solo career, Prima hired singer Gia Maione, ultimately Mrs. Louis Prima. Though lacking Smith’s comic chops (at least in the clips here), Maione is a sweet and playful singer, as shown on the fast-talking “I Want You to Be My Baby” (1964).
Prima had no compulsions about staying current and popular. He worked throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s, famously voicing King Louis in Walt Disney’s Jungle Book (1967). Later television performances provided here are the Prima-penned “Sing, Sing, Sing”, with drummer Jimmy Vincent doing a smoking, and I mean smoking solo that’s also literally tricky, and a 1971 version of “Just A Gigolo”. It’s kind of funny seeing Prima, Butera and Vincent with their new band of long hairs, but as Prima Jr. points out, his father lived to “play pretty for the people”.
Sadly, Prima died in 1978, after a three-year coma following a surgical complication. It’s hard to imagine such a lively man so still for so long.
The extras are as good as anything in the film proper: Swing It!, a kind of Prima promo, is a historically fascinating 1936 short film with Prima and his New Orleans Gang as themselves (and a young Lucille Ball as a coat-check girl); besides some great music and hammy acting, the film contains a hysterical trumpet/clarinet “argument” between Prima and Pee Wee Russell.
Also, a 1943 performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” with Jimmy Vincent doing another outstanding solo; Keely again, on the classic medley “When You’re Smiling/Sheik of Araby” (1959); another song by the comedy team of Louis and Sam, “Story ‘Bout The Dog” (1965); and a nice 2010 performance of his dad’s “Jump, Jive and Wail” by Louis Prima Jr. & The Witnesses.