Louis Prima’s music had a mild renaissance during the height of the jump blues/swing music revival in the late 1990s, even though his name was conspicuously absent each time the retro movement co-opted his shtick. Brian Setzer covered Prima’s beloved “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” in 1998, the same year that a Gap television commercial set Prima’s original to footage of dancing models in khakis. Two years earlier, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a zoot suit-clad manifestation of the public’s burgeoning obsession with vintage fads, contributed a version of “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”, a song Prima made famous in Disney’s Jungle Book movie, to the equally trend-conscious film Swingers. No matter where you turned, it seemed, people were kicking up their heels and flashing jazz hands, all to the tempestuous soundtrack of a bygone era.
The Prima-less restoration of the Prima aesthetic was all post-modern artifice posing as cool, and it managed to do the music a disservice, stripping it of a spokesman and redefining it as little more than a fashionable accoutrement. In fact, Prima is a much more complex (and, therefore, underrated) musical figure, as a new compilation of his booming Capitol years, Jump, Jive an’ Wail: The Essential Louis Prima, makes resoundingly clear. A New Orleans-bred singer and trumpet player who began his career in emulation of Louis Armstrong, Prima grew to embrace anything that felt good to play and even better to listen to: jump blues and swing, sure, but also New Orleans jazz and R&B, pop, and just about any kind of quick-pulsed shuffle music that could withstand his nimble and punishing arrangements. Prima was a performer who pulled out all the stops; he gave you your money’s worth, then rifled through his bag of genre-jumping musical tricks and gave you more. The concept of a performer who doesn’t display a hostile sense of entitlement when confronted with a paying audience is completely foreign today, and yet this is the promise of Prima: you will be entertained, and you will never go hungry.
Prima’s intense dedication to the art of performing proved an ideal match when, in 1954, he was offered a gig at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. It was a step down from the classier joints Prima was used to playing, but he was out of work for the first time in decades and, with alimony due to three ex-wives and a fourth wife, vocalist Keely Smith, with child, he needed the money. What began as a career necessity, however, became a career turning point: Prima’s Sahara shows (which featured Smith, along with New Orleans saxophonist Sam Butera and his band) were a blockbuster from the start, running five shows a night for the next six years, eclipsing top-shelf competition, and single-handedly revolutionizing Vegas entertainment for the indefinite future. James Brown may have been the hardest-working man in show business, but that’s only because Louis Prima was too busy to prove otherwise.
The notoriety of the Vegas stand landed Prima a new recording contract at Capitol Records, where he would cut some of the best sides of his career; it’s from this period, the mid-to-late-‘50s, that Jump, Jive an’ Wail culls most of its material. The recordings were designed to replicate the feverish thrill of Prima’s live show, and sometimes, as on the smokin’ medley of waitress lust and New Orleans gusto, “Angelina/Zooma Zooma”, were actual live recordings made with Capitol’s remote equipment. Prima’s band often sounds like it’s hightailing it after a smash-and-grab job; the players scramble and scuffle and zip along with an audacity that would be reckless if they weren’t in such steely control of things. They attack the standards of the day with genial ferocity: songs like “I’ve Got the World on a String”, “St. Louis Blues”, and Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” are ravenously rendered, the well-known melodies and lyrics given scat-like interpretive twists and Prima’s horn exploding under the bottled pressure. And when the band has worked up a sweat massive enough to scare even the hardest-toiling man, they engage in rabid call and response with Prima’s excitable demands on tracks like “Oh Marie” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”. This stuff is so nutty it’ll crack your head open.
One of the conditions of Prima’s Capitol contract guaranteed that Smith be signed up as a solo artist as well. While at Capitol during the late ‘50s, she recorded a few well-received albums (1957’s I Wish You Love boasted arrangements by none other than Nelson Riddle), the highlights of which are assembled for The Essential Capitol Collection. Smith’s solo material was more temperate and straightforward than her work with Prima; she favored popular standards (ballads, in particular) and frequently bears stylistic resemblance to Ella Fitzgerald. She never sounds as transcendent as a contemporary like Fitzgerald, but Smith is a respectable talent on her own, turning in pleasant renditions of “All the Things You Are”, “S’posin’”, “Someone to Watch Over Me”, and a pair of duets with Frank Sinatra, “How Are Ya’ Fixed for Love?” and “Nothing in Common”.
Still, her best work was always made with Prima. When paired together, they were undeniable, Smith playing it straight in contrast to Prima’s clown. They coalesce in giddy union on the vibrant let’s-get-married anthem “Hey Boy! Hey Girl!”, and their version of “That Old Black Magic” was as beguiling as its subject matter. It’s “The Lip”, however, that stands out as their greatest collaboration. The song exudes on-stage rapport and under-the-thumb intimacy, with Smith talking up and interrogating Prima’s trumpet player in a way that really allows their comedic chemistry to flow. “No one plays high notes like the Lip”, Smith sings, as Prima blows a succession of upward-bound blasts, both proving her statement true and falling prey to its overblown mythology. And what, Smith implores, is “the secret of the Lip”? “Well”, Prima replies, “you take a bucket full of steam and a dozen roos’ eggs / Mix ‘em up gently with a bushel full of goldfish legs / And ya hang ‘em on a sky hook in the midnight sun / Mmm and then you fry ‘em until they done”. Once you’ve heard the music, you’ll agree that no other description will suffice.
Jump, Jive an' Wail: The Essential Louis Prima
The Essential Capitol Collection