The Man Whom Elvis Learned From: Louis Prima and 'That Old Black Magic'

Like Elvis, Louis Prima was not just a popular, even wildly popular, hip-thrusting entertainer. He was an incendiary figure, shoving conventions out of the way and blowing up rigid identity-making categories.

That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Rise of Las Vegas

Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Price: $24.95
Author: Tom Clavin
Lenght: 224 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-11

As Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” raced up the Billboard charts, a reporter asked him where he learned his distinctive, some thought disturbing, body shakes. “From Louis Prima, of course,” he replied. Prima’s singing partner and wife, Keely Smith, would call her husband, “the original Elvis Presley.”

While no one dubbed him the King, Prima’s work and legacy have not been altogether ignored. Until recently they were stirred up six nights a week, two or three shows a night, in casinos and clubs from Reno to Atlantic City by his sax player and sidekick, Sam Butera. In the last 15 years, Prima has been the subject of two fawning documentaries, a limited run musical, and a well-researched university press biography. Tom Clavin’s crisply written and engaging, though not necessarily revelatory, new book adds to the Prima canon. But like most recent Prima-ologists, Clavin misses the real significance of Prima’s art. Like Elvis, he was not just a popular, even wildly popular, hip-thrusting entertainer. He was an incendiary figure, shoving conventions out of the way and blowing up rigid identity-making categories.

Relying heavily on past scholarship and interviews, Clavin recounts Prima’s life in the mode of a traditional biography, mixing with it with the history of Las Vegas. He starts predictably enough at the beginning, in 1910 with Prima’s birth. The future voice from the Jungle Book movie grew up in New Orleans in a solid Italian working-class family. They lived on the edge of the French Quarter, which meant they lived on the edge of African American neighborhoods. Music was everywhere, in the Prima’s household – his mother Angelina was a part-time performer and played Caruso records– and of course, on the streets. Much like the young Elvis, the young Prima, we learn from Clavin, camped outside black churches, Bourbon street bars, and nearby whorehouses. That other New Orleanian Louis Armstrong and his legion of imitators enthralled Prima. He picked up the trumpet and quickly mastered it. By the time he was 17, he had dropped out of school and began to play music professionally. He would never have another job.

Seven years later, Prima blew Guy Lombardo away with his playing and singing. The legendary bandleader brought the 24 year-old to New York City. Within months, Prima’s sizzling small combo, described by one reviewer as a “hot Negro production”, had become the house band at the Front Door. Prima recorded a few sides and won accolades from the press and fellow musicians. Then came the swing era. Big bands were in and Prima put his own ensemble together and toured the country. Even more, Prima put his stamp on the age with the composition of what would become the Benny Goldman classic, “Sing, Sing, Sing”. Marked by furious solos (especially by Gene Krupa) and driving ensemble work, the tune, Clavin writes, marked “a watershed moment in American music", and validated Prima “as a composer in jazz music circles".

By World War II, Prima, Clavin tells us, ranked among the very top tier of Amerian performers. His status earned him an invitation to the White House. When he met President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, he blurted out, in his characteristic irreverent hipster vernacular, “Hello Daddy".

This was the height of Prima’s first career, and the start of his second life. (Contemporaries and scholars alike often talk about Prima as a “cat” with many lives.) Tastes changed, and with the end of the war; big bands were out, singers were in. Prima hang on to that older form for a while, but the crowds dwindled. His third marriage was on the rocks and he needed a new singer. At yet another stop on the road, Prima and his band pulled into Virginia Beach in 1948. The woman who would become Keely Smith, a teenager with some Indian relatives and a pageboy hair cut, was in the crowd. Years before, she had seen Prima and his band play at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. She immediately became a fan, buying Prima’s records and learning the female singer’s parts in his arrangements. Somehow she got an audition and landed a gig. Over the next few years, Prima and Smith fell in love and married. But professionally, they were just scraping by, as Prima struggled to find a sound and a style that fit (or exploded) the postwar moment.

As the big band era died, Las Vegas burst into life in the middle of desert on the country’s Western edge. The lights would lure gamblers, mobsters, con men, and cool cats all seeking a quick strike and personal reinvention. Down on their own luck, Prima and Smith, perhaps inevitably, ended up on city’s newly made strip. They added Sam Butera on the horn and started to play the lounge at the Sahara casino. The gig lasted for years. In between, they became stars (again) showing up in films, on primetime television, and on the Billboard charts.

In 1959, the couple won a Grammy for their hot performance of “That Old Black Magic”. The sound they made in that cramped, low-ceiling room (and tried to reproduce on vinyl) fused Dixieland together with jazz, swing, and rhymn and blues, another sonic hybrid taking shape and challenging conventions during the early rock and roll era. It was a sound that pulsed and throbbed and literally never stopped, not for a beat. On stage, Prima and Smith smoldered and simmered. He danced, thrust his hips, and shook his tail feather. Smith coolly stood there, deadpanned and bemused by her lover’s come-on and quips. When she sang, her clear and needy voiced gave the party another lusty layer.

As Prima and Smith reinvented and re-defined the lounge act, Las Vegas grew up around them, and this, too, is part of Clavin’s story, which again relies on somewhat familiar sources. Sam Giancana and Howard Hughes went all in and all the while, Prima, Smith, and Butera remained the hottest act in town. This is where the Rat Pack gathered when they finished their boozy shows for a nightcap. But of course the fame wasn’t enough. Somewhere along the way, as Clavin reports without really explaining why, Prima got lost. He showed up at 11PM and did his four or five shows a night, without ever seeming to stop smiling. But when the band played that last version of “The Saints Come Marching In” and the sun came up, he went dark, retreating to the golf course, the racetrack, the bottle, and other women.

By 1961, the “old black magic” was gone. The couple divorced. Prima married another girl singer, and went back out on the road and into the showrooms. Smith stumbled for a while, raised her three children outside the limelight, but she, too, hit the road again. By the end of the last century she was still going, and made her mark singing Sinatra covers in a perfect pitch. Others meanwhile were rediscovering Prima and Smith’s work. Sonny and Cher essentially copied their act joke for joke from Prima and Smith. David Lee Roth launched his post-Van Halen career with a (tepid by comparison) cover of the Prima classic, “Just a Gigolo.” The 1996 art show hit, Big Night, revolves around a possible Prima appearance at a Jersey Shore restaurant. And of course, Prima songs played in the background of several Soprano’s episodes.

Prima and Smith’s spectacular careers with Las Vegas’s rise in the background forms the arch of Clavin’s narrative, and he tells the tale well. But he misses, in the end, the real mystery and the real importance of Prima. As a subject, Prima is not much explored here. We know that despite five marriages, he never let anyone in. Even Butera, his perfect sideman says he barely knew “the Chief”. Further, we never really get a sense of Prima’s historic important, and he was historically significant. This singing-trumpet-blowing entertainer was a kind of subterranean revolutionary, exploding boundaries that separated people and genres. When the only avenue to inclusion in America was assimilation, Prima defiantly scatted in Italian. When American music was as segregated as church on Sunday morning, Prima played in integrated bands, performed at the Apollo, and borrowed from the blues, gospel, and R &B. When middle managers hide their sexuality under gray flannel suits, Prima, anticipating the '60s, strutted and preened and made his desires clear. Prima was in many ways a bridge to a new, more inclusion, though far from perfect, America.

Now that Clavin and others have helped us to get our Prima facts down, it's time to move forward. It's time for a Prima biography that tells the full story of this great, wonderful, fun, incendiary trendsetting cultural figure and why he helped to revolutionize the last century.






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