On the Exuberant Louis Prima

I love that Louis Prima’s (1910-78) birthday falls during the Christmas season. He sang on one of my favorite Christmas records when I was a kid, which I wrote about here. Prima was a favorite of my mom’s (she was of the big band generation) and she had fond memories of having seen him perform live in Providence. That Prima would do shows in Providence is the most logical thing in the world. It is one of the most Italian cities in the U.S. — they were his audience. Prima was Sicilian-American, and he worked all kinds of Italian celebration into his act. (And if I may just interject, as I wrote in this earlier post, the Italians really know how to do Christmas).

The other thing that adds to one’s appreciation of this musical star is that he was from New Orleans. Prima grew up worshipping Louis Armstrong, and like his hero, he played the trumpet and sang in a distinctive raspy, joyful voice. He started out with small jazz combos in the French Quarter, along with hometown friend Candy Candido. He first gained fame in the mid ’30s in new York with his band The New Orleans Gang, and began appearing at chic night clubs, as well as on radio, and making popular records. Prima performed with stars like Martha Raye, and at clubs like Billy Rose’s Casa Manana. he appeared in movies like Rhythm on the Range (1936), You Can’t Have Everything (1937), Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937), Start Cheering (1938), and Rose of Washington Square (1939). Most important of all, in 1936 he wrote the tune “Sing Sing Sing”, which became a major hit for Benny Goodman the following year, and became one of the longest-lasting and best known pieces of music from the swing era.

In the mid ’50s Prima reinvented himself, teaming up with his younger fourth wife Keely Smith and incorporating rock and roll and jump blues into his sound. The pair divorced in 1961, the same year the performed their big hit “That Old Black Magic” at President Kennedy’s inaugural gala. Also that year Prima starred in the movie Twist All Night a.k.a The Continental Twist, released by AIP.

Prima performed a lot on television; you could see him on The Milton Berle Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show and The Joey Bishop Show, et al in the ’50s and ’60s.

In 1967, he played the role for which he is best remembered today, the voice over part of King Louie in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. Around this time he made a lot of recordings for Disney (hence the Christmas one we opened with). I paid homage to this character in my play Universal Rundle.

In 1963 Prima married singer Gia Malone, with whom he spent his last years and made several records. He appeared on the talk shows of Johnny Carson, David Frost, Mike Douglas, and Merv Griffin. He played himself in the 1975 comedy Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins with Alan Arkin, Sally Kellerman and Mackenzie Phillips. That year Prima suffered a stroke which put him in a coma from which he never awakened. He finally passed away in 1978.

To learn more about show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,