Keely Smith: Vegas ‘58—Today

[8 August 2005]

By Steve Horowitz

Rock scribe Nick Tosches once called Louis Prima the true founder of rock and roll. Prima’s “Gleeby” music fused jump blues, ethnic pop, R&B, and swing jazz into a hot conglomeration back in the ‘40s and seemed to presage the rock revolution that followed less than a decade later. While it’s true Prima had some successful sizzling singles, it wasn’t until he teemed up with his fourth wife, Keely Smith, that Prima really made it big. During the ‘50s, critics crowned Prima and Smith the King and Queen of Las Vegas. Their musically adventurous and ribald stage act attracted the biggest crowds—and fans like Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack—during Sin City’s first golden age. Prima played the comic Italian lover to Smith’s deadpan young All-American wife. The act worked for two main reasons. Prima truly was a crackerjack musician who took his craft seriously as well as an energetic entertainer. And Smith was a gifted interpreter of modern song with a dry wit and tons of charm.

All good things must end one day. Smith divorced Prima in 1961 for extreme cruelty. His cheatin’ and alleged beatin’ ways had gone too far. After the break-up Prima’s career tanked, while surprisingly Smith’s continued to blossom. (Actually Prima’s stock rose later as the voice of orangutan King Louie, who sang “I Wanna Be Like You” in the 1967 Disney film The Jungle Book.) Neither Prima nor Smith ever achieved the heights individually that they had together. Prima died in 1978 after a lengthy three-year coma. Smith has continued to perform and record to much acclaim, most recently for the prestigious jazz label, Concord Records.

Smith’s latest effort features her performing both her role and Prima’s from a typical 1958 Las Vegas show in front of a live audience at the New York City nightclub, Feinstein’s at the Regency. Conceptually, it’s a good idea. Smith still has the pipes and the personality. Plus no one knows the material better than she does. In terms of execution, the results are mostly good. Smith does an excellent job on her old numbers. She tells amusing stories about Prima and the old days. More than 40 years after the divorce, she can still crack jokes about his lovemaking prowess and his stage presence. However, Smith can’t sing his songs in any special way. Prima’s vocal histrionics defy easy categorization. One minute he’d be spitting out lyrics like bullets from a machine gun, the next he’d be slurring them like a drunk swinging on a lamppost. Smith’s renditions show how difficult mimicking Prima must be. Her usual method on this disc is to slow down and over-enunciate Prima’s vocals for comic effect, as on “Lazy River.” This works somewhat. Prima himself would frequently play up the humorous elements of his material. But after a while one wishes she’d just stick to her own tunes that she croons so well.

Smith reaches diva status on ballads like “More Than You Know”, “What Kind of Fool Am I”, and “Sweet and Lovely”. She slides and glides like an Olympic figure skater through the high and low notes, using precision phrasing and a throaty delivery. She also swings Vegas-style like the old pro she is on numbers like her medley of “When You’re Smiling” and “The Sheik of Araby”. The musicians behind her provide first rate accompaniment. The horn section (Jerry Vivino on tenor saxophone, Jack Bashkow on alto saxophone, Ben Williams on trombone, and John Chudoba and Jim O’Conner on trumpets) continually drives the music hard. For example, they turn Prima’s “Jump, Jive and Wail” into a burping, grunting horn-filled wall of rockabilly brass. Smith seems slightly out of place as she sings/speaks the lyrics over sassy muscular rhythms, but the horns take the listener home at the end of every chorus. Joe Cocuzzo’s carefully cadenced drumming is also worthy of special note. He provides the pulse that allows Smith to stretch and the other instruments to either kick up a storm or flow gently underneath the vocals.

It must have been a gas to watch Smith and company recreate a ‘50s Vegas show in the Big Apple today. The live disc is more than just a good souvenir. The music can stand on its own merits. Like any good live record, it makes you wish you were there.

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