You know him. We all know him. You know who I mean. The Guy. That Guy. You met him at school, at college, or you met him at work or at what in your glory days was your favourite bar. He might have been your uncle or your dad’s best buddy – call him Eddie or Tom or Mike. That guy – the walking, talking, laughing, crying, joking, catalytic, charismatic, party starting Guy! Yes, that Guy.
Might be years since you’ve seen him but you can still remember and spin the stories: ‘What about the time he … And would have got arrested if the cop hadn’t had him singing at his wedding!’
Well, Show Business and the music industry is heavily populated with those Guys – it comes with the territory of exposing yourself by getting up on stage for an audience to judge just how good you are or indeed if you’re any good at all.
And, of all those Guys, of all those Guys, the Guy who stands out for me as the most catalytic and charismatic; the most guaranteed to start the party you can never forget was Louis Prima. Let’s have a Party!
To start the party a recording from Louis’ great period with Capitol Records in the late 1950s when he produced a fountain of hits that had crowds jumping, jiving and wailing all across the world (but most especially in Las Vegas where he had legendary residencies at the Sahara and the Desert Inn).
Well, that has all the fun of the circus! Louis sells this operatic paean to love under the moon and stars of Naples with a mixture of genuine romanticism and sheer show biz pizazz. Often in Prima performances he seems to wind up like a baseball pitcher deciding, seemingly in the moment, whether to throw the fastball, the change up or the curve according to his own mood or the mood he senses coming across the footlights from the audience (and even in the studios Louis Prima always played to the audience).
The distinctive shuffle beat that is at the heart of Louis’ 50s sound is augmented by a wailing sax curtesy of bandleader and right and left hand man Sam Butera and by an assortment of hortatory foot stomps and handclaps. Now that I think of it Louis Prima may just be the most musically hortatory performer who ever lived!
I imagine that among the audience listening to this song will have been many former WW2 GIs who had indeed found love under the moon and stars of Naples. Some who brought brides home must have smiled at the memory of those Mediterranean nights and some who decided to return to the sweetheart waiting at home must have smiled more ruefully as they remembered the girl they left beside the beautiful Bay of Naples.
Louis Prima started out in New Orleans imbibing the spirit of Jazz in the cradle of the music. But, like so many others it was in the Big Apple in the mid/late 1930s that his career took off both as the dynamic live performer who could sell out theatres in both the white and the black communities and as a recording artist. It was in New York in 1936 that he wrote and recorded, ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ which in the version by Benny Goodman would become an iconic Jazz standard.
Louis, notwithstanding Italy’s Axis status during WW2, continued to record and have hits with songs celebrating Italian-American life during the course of the war. ‘Angelina’ may well have introduced many rural Americans to terms like,’Pizzeria’ and ‘Pasta’. Few, however would have needed dictionaries to get the point of, ‘Please No Squeeze Da Banana’ or ‘Bacci Galupe (Made Love On The Stoop).
Post war Louis struggled to maintain a big band along with his stable of horses and alimony payments to a string of ex-wives. Key developments that would lead to his renaissance as a big league performer were his meeting with the 17 year old singer(and soon to be wife number 4) Keely Smith in 1948 (when Louis was 37) and his hiring of Sam Butera as band leader and arranger for his Vegas residencies and for his recordings with Capitol. Buttera, a fluent, no nonsense tenor sax player had a great instinct for songs and arrangements that would suit Louis Prima’s crowd pleasing genius.
It was Sam Butera who had the inspired idea to mash-up the songs, ‘Just A Gigolo’ and, ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’ to create a matchless vehicle for Louis Prima’s overwhelming ebullience. The live version below features what can only be called a burlesque performance with Louis clowning and mugging like a solid-gone hep cat. The band and the sometimes bewildered Keely do their best to keep up and echo their leader as he plays with the song, them and the audience.
Louis could tone things down on record as you can hear in his and Keeley’s hit duet on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s evergreen romantic classic, ‘That Old Black Magic’ which won a Grammy Best Song in 1959. I still think you can insert an imaginary exclamation mark after every line sung by Louis but it does not to my mind distract from a fine recording which showcases a cool Keely vocal.
The late 50s and early 60s were golden days for Louis (despite splitting with Keeley in 1960) as he hit peak form as a live performer while recording several excellent sets for Capitol. He was, of course, hit by the tsunami of The Beatles appearance on the scene and it might have seemed that his days as an artist of note were numbered. Louis reacted by continuing as a considerable live draw and by setting up his own record label.
Then by one of those quirks of fate beyond all analysis Louis found himself right back in the spotlight with an enormous hit through the unlikeliest of collaborators – Walt Disney! Louis had recorded Mary Poppins and Robin Hood LPs and a Winnie The Pooh theme before he scored a great triumph with his movie stealing performance of the Sherman Brothers’, ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ as the voice of the Orangutang, ‘King Louie’ in the film, ‘The Jungle Book’.
With the assistance of Phil Harris, voicing the character of Baloo the Bear, Louis lays down a classic performance that still stirs young and old some 50 years after it was recorded. I love the way the song builds slowly, beginning almost drowsily and the way Louis takes such care in enunciating the lyric.
I remember first hearing this song as an 11 year old at the cinema and being thrilled by the abandon of the characters to rhythm, to the beat! I also remember that even on the way out of the cinema some bright sparks had already memorised the song and gave stentorian performances with exaggerated simian antics to puzzled passers by going about their Saturday morning shopping. That defines an instant classic pretty well for me!
Louis Prima never gave up performing – how could he? It was oxygen and ambrosia for him. Louis died, after three years in a coma on 24 August 1978. He had lived a big-hearted, generous, big life. Louis packed an enormous amount of music and joy into his 67 years.
SING UP LOUIS! SING UP!
Louis Prima! Now that was some Guy!
‘The Wildest’ (Capitol 1958)
‘The Widest Comes Home!’ (Capitol 1962)
‘Lake Tahoe Prima Style’ (Live on Capitol 1962)
There is also a valuable film documentary, ‘The Wildest’ from 1999 which shows Louis in unstoppable full flow.
Thom, another classic and thank you for the bio. I’d seen clips of Louis Prima’s performances and there’s a definite influence on the dancing of Suggs and Co. in Madness. But those shuffle beats, tight brass arrangements and the transitions from one song to another and overall exuberance make him one of the great performers.
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Thanks Mark. Yes Louis put on a tremendous show. Regards Thom