Remembered more for his novelty hits and contribution to a certain Disney soundtrack, Louis Prima was an under-rated trumpeter and composer with a fine jump blues and swing band pedigree. He passed away today in 1978.
Entertainer Louis Prima died at the age of 67, almost three years after lapsing into a coma following surgery to remove a brain tumour. Born in New Orleans of Sicilian parents, Louis began playing trumpet in local Dixieland bands as a teenager (having switched from the violin he’d practiced as a child).
By the age of 22 he’d been lured to New York City by bandleader Guy Lombardo and was performing as ”Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang”, later graduating to a full-blown swing band and airing some of his own compositions including “Sing, Sing, Sing”. However Prima’s trumpet playing would become overshadowed a singing style exaggerating his Italian roots that helped him score several novelty hits.
First teaming up with teenage singer Dorothy Keely Smith in 1948, within a year Louis had refashioned his act as a lounge combo, Keely becoming the fourth Mrs Prima in 1952. However it would be the recruitment of saxophone player Sam Butera (and his backing band) in 1954 that brought about belated success, initially in Las Vegas.
1956 proved to be something of a golden year for Prima, with his cover of “Just A Gigolo” quickly becoming synonymous with him and “The Wildest” album – a no holds-barred live recording – showcased his enormously successful, proto rock and roll stage show. Within five years though his career was fading again and Mrs Prima number five (another singer) had been recruited to replace Keely.
A further resurgence followed Prima’s vocalising of the “King Louie” character for centrepiece of the 1967 Disney animation “The Jungle Book” - “I Wanna Be Like You.” By the following decade however the Vegas bookings had dried up and Louis was back in New Orleans playing the clubs he’d frequented four decades previously.
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And here’s some footage of LP in action: