Songwriters Friends

Louis Prima

Of all the musical giants of the past seven decades, specifically since the days of the big swing bands and Dixieland jazz, there is one who stands out amongst them all as the greatest contributor towards modern music and the course it eventually took. His name is Louis Prima and it all started when he took off at the once-famed 52nd Street in New York City.

As a bold, talented, ambitious youngster, Prima rose from the rank-and-file of musicians in the now acknowledged great training ground of New Orleans in 1934 and headed for the "Big Time" in the city of New York. After a few weeks of waiting for the right opening, he was finally given the opportunity to debut at the then inconspicuous "Famous Door." By virtue of the Louis Prima Band becoming a smash hit in the small-but-jumping club, the entire 52nd Street, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, was renamed "Swing Street."

Thus, a whole new era of music began, with Louis coining such expressions as "swing" and other "hep" sayings like "solid jack," "crazy man," and many more. Later, it was decided to name Benny Goodman the King of Swing, but only as a result of a big hit on the song "Sing Sing Sing," written by Louis Prima - so what does that tell you?

The swing trend continued through the Prima drive. Then, when he received a contract for his band to play over CBS radio twice a week, swing was brought to everyone all over America. His music then started to top the sales of the then number one band, Guy Lombardo.

A few years passed and Louis hit again, this time with his twenty-two piece orchestra, on a now million seller "plus" titled, "Angelina." It started the whole country talking about pizza, veal parmegiana, pasta fagiole, and antipasto. These words were never before used in American life unless you happened to be a descendant of Italy. These songs picked up great momentum, with one smash after another, like, "Josephina," "Please No Squeeza Da Banana," "Bacciagaloop, Makes Love on the Stoop," "Felicia No Capicia," and on and on.

The year was 1944 and the Italian trend gained momentum. Through the next four years hair styles, dresses, suits, shoes, hats, etc. reflected Italian designers and all because of "Angelina." The door also opened for many great Italian singers such as Perry Como, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, Buddy Greco, Phil Brito, Dean Martin, etc. The popular DJ of time, Martin Block, crowned Louis "The King" over the Dorsey's Woody Herman, Charlie Barnett, and others.

Louis made history in the theatres, breaking house records wherever he appeared. The Palace Theatre, Cleveland - The Metropolitan, Providence - The Earl, Philadelphia - The Adams, Newark - The Downtown, Detroit - The Oriental, Chicago. He appeared an unprecedented three times, in one year, at the greatest theatre of them all, The Paramount Theatre in New York City. Louis was welcomed with open arms at the famous black theatres of the time, such as The Royal Theatre, Baltimore - The Howard, Washington, D.C. and while performing there received a personal invitation to the White House by Mrs. Elenore Roosevelt, who came to see Louis and the Band. Also, The Regal, Chicago - The Paradise, Detroit, and last but not least, the famed Apollo Theatre in New York's Harlem.

Louis then introduced novelty songs into his format and scored some great hits with the likes of "Civilization" (The Thousand Island Song), "Oh Babe," of which there ten covers by other bands.

Going into the fifties, Elvis Presley had the country "All Shook Up" and when asked where he got the wiggle, he replied, "From Louis Prima, of course." Louis knew that the times were changing and if he wanted to stay on top, he would have to change as well. He down-sized the big band to a small group and added the sounds and talents of the great sax-man Sam Butera and vocalist, Keely Smith. He performed magic again by developing a shuffle beat, combined with a New Orleans southern rock sound, added the wailing sax and for comedic value, transformed the vocalist into the dead-pan partner that he could play off of. Needless to say, history was again being written. The string of hits that followed included "Just a Gigolo - I Ain't Got Nobody," "Buona Sera," "Black Magic," "Zooma, Zooma," "When You're Smilin'," and on and on. Louis Prima was not just Louis Prima - he was the "Big Daddy" of them all! And he was the leader of the most talked about attraction in America. He was easily the youngest living legend in show business. In night clubs from coast to coast. . .on theatre screens. . .on television. . .on stage. . .on recordings. . .wherever discriminating audiences gathered for exciting entertainment, they looked first for Louis Prima.

In the truest sense of the words, Louis Prima was a "star." His name alone commanded top billing for some forty-seven years. From the time he was eighteen years old and the leader of his own group, Louis set a standard of showmanship seldom equaled and never surpassed!! He continues to receive the highest compliment that show business can convey - imitation!! Louis Prima's style is more than an exciting entertainment spectacle; it is a goal to which performers will always aspire.

These facts have their basis in the background of this magnificent man of music. His beginnings were actually his training on the violin. Until he was fifteen years of age, Louis was headed for a career as a concert violinist. The sheer physical brawn of Prima, as well as the hardening rigors of high school football, soon made it impossible for him to feel the sensitivities of the violin. It was then that he tried his brother Leon's trumpet and never put it down again.

Less than a handful of performers make the transition from one generation to another. Louis' successes are not limited by any such arbitrary standards. His music is just as refreshing today as the day he first played it.

1960 brought an end to the Prima-Smith marriage off stage and on. Despite what you may read or hear elsewhere, Louis did not become a drinker or gambler as Smith now contends. She filed for divorce, had other interests for her career, and refused to complete their current contract with the Desert Inn Hotel. As a result, at the end of the contract, Louis received a check for $000,000.00. Louis never set foot in the Desert Inn again.

Again, this did not stop Louis from his continual pursuit of the best he could be. He conducted a talent search from the west coast to the east coast. His fans continued to follow him, love his music, and were curious to see where he was going next.

The rage, at the time, was the twist. Louis loved it so much that he made a movie called "Twist All Night." Co-starring with him was actress June Wilkeson. The twist was never the same. During this time, Louis still conducted auditions from coast to coast looking for that special person to join him on stage. This time, he wanted an innocence, a cherub-like naivety. It took him two years, but he found her. While performing at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, he conducted auditions, and there she was. He introduced her, four days later, at Basin Street East in New York City. Standing room only, the largest press ever in attendance, and Louis invented himself all over again. The year: 1962.

The new group consisted of Gia Maione, Sam Butera, Lou Sino, Drummer Jimmy Vincent, Rolly Dee the Italian Troubador, and multi-instrument player Morgan Thomas.

During the 60s and 70s Louis continued to break attendance records at The Sahara Hotel, The Sands Hotel, The Hilton and Tropicana Hotels in Las Vegas, Harrah's Reno and Tahoe, The Copacabana in New York City, The Palmer House, Chicago, Ben Maksik' Town and Country, New York, The Bachelors Three, Fort Lauderdale, and theaters in the round throughout the country.

Not getting the attention he required from the major record labels, Louis started his own recording company called "Prima Magnagroove Records." The year was 1964, the world was contending with the British invasion of The Beatles. But this could not hold Louis back. He became one of the first independent record producers. He purchased the finest recording equipment of the time and proceeded to record himself and shortly before his illness started to sign other talent to the label. Louis' love for golf drove him to build his own course, which he called Warm Springs Country Club, better known as "Fairway to the Stars." This gave him a wonderful outlet away from show business. He would play golf everyday with his buddies during the day and perform on stage at night. Everything was just perfect. But wait. . .perfect gets better. In 1966 Louis Prima was approached by Walt Disney to do an animated feature film for him. This led to a whole new venue for Louis. He became the voice of "King Louis," the orangutan, in the award winning Disney production of "The Jungle Book." The film was nominated for an Oscar and Louis received a gold album for the sound-track recording of the same.

Although he lapsed into a coma in October of 1975 and passed away of August 24, 1978, his legend and music live on. For example, his award winning composition "Sing Sing Sing" was placed into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Louis' life was featured at the World's Fair in New Orleans, in the Italian Exhibit. In the 80s, David Lee Roth recorded a word for word, note for note, solo for solo copy of Louis' "Just a Gigolo - I ain't Got Nobody," which won Roth awards for the song and video. 1989 brought Louis to the attention of country music charts, with Reba McEntyre's recording of Louis' composition "Sunday Kind of Love." Louis received an ASCAP Writers Award for this song and recording.

Now, believe it or not, the disco era did not over-look Louis. David Lee Roth was not the first to re-record "Gigolo." The first group to do it was none other than "The Village People" on their first smash album along with "YMCA." Also, Louis' great "Sing Sing Sing" was on the disco charts for almost one year, recorded by the Charlie Callelo Orchestra.

On to the 90s. . . .the "Gap" stores brought Louis and swing music to the attention of a whole new generation. Their television commercial, "Khakis Swing" used another great song that Louis wrote and recorded entitled "Jump, Jive and Wail." This song and commercial gave life to such groups as "The Cherry Poppin Daddies," the "Big Bad VooDoo Daddy," the "Royal Crown Revue," and the "Brian Setzer Orchestra." Setzer copied Louis' exact arrangement except for adding a guitar solo. Needless to say, Setzer received a "Grammy" for this recording of "Jump, Jive and Wail" thanks to Louis' arrangement and talent.

In the late 90s Mr. Don McGlynn and Mr. Joe Lauro produced and filmed a brilliant biography of Louis entitled "The Wildest." It has won film festival awards and great critical acclaim. It has been shown on AMC, American Movie Classics channel, along with two of the movies Louis made, "Hey Boy Hey Girl," and "Twist All Night." It will be shown at selected times on AMC for the next two years. Check your television listings for date and time.

Official Bio from