Friday, May 16, 2008

Ladies and Gentleman: I give you Louis Prima

Fell down on the job, did I (my Yoda voice)? On December 10, 2007 I posted “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which essentially made the argument, even if I didn’t exactly say it, that Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing is the greatest instrumental piece of the 20th and 21st centuries. Although it is always iffy to write on anything subjective being the “best,” the arguments in favor of Prima’s masterpiece being exceptional, perhaps unique, are formidable (I’m not writing it all over again – please go look at the post).

I promised then, and promptly forgot, to write more on Prima. I’ll start with my personal opinion and take it from there. Prima is my favorite musician, bar none, ahead of Louis Armstrong, Richard Wagner, Peter Tchaikovsky, Bruce Springsteen and even Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the favorite group of my teenage years.

As with SSS’s pre-eminence, there are a host of supporting arguments why Prima should be counted at least in the top tier of twentieth century musicians, much more than say Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra and other obvious choices might deserve it. The Capitol Records Collection of Prima’s hits has been played by this little blogger literally hundreds of times, both in my car and at parties. Almost every recording on it is infectious, charming, pulsing and clever. Rarely have I played it for guests without exceedingly positive comment or inquiry about it.

Let’s be more controversial though. Prima should be in the most select of musical hall of fames celebrating 20th century musicians and singers along with Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, Sinatra, Chuck Berry and few others.

Of course, the first powerful argument why Prima should be in this stellar group is, of course, that he wrote (and played and recorded) SSS. That alone makes him an immortal. One of the central arguments of my post about that song was how many times it has been used in film to help set the mood for the swing error. Only a few months after that post was written, we could already add another film to the list – George Clooney’s Leathernecks used it even though SSS was written and recorded long after the time period signified in that movie (the 20s) and I have found a number of other films I didn’t include.

There are other arguments though. Prima’s musical versatility, his highly popular Vegas stage act, his virtuoso performances on the trumpet, the extraordinary length of his music’s popularity right up to today (even if no one knows it), his unique singing style and skat singing credentials, are all extraordinary.

Prima has been dead since 1978, but we are continually hearing his music. Rarely a month goes by when I don’t stop what I’m doing and point out to whomever I’m with that the song on a television or radio commercial is a Prima piece, possibly by Prima himself. Although I have searched for information on all the commercials his music has been featured on, I have come up empty, but it is an enormous amount.

Since Prima’s death, aside from new versions of SSS, two other of his trademark songs have been re-recorded and made into hits. Few seemed to know at the time that they were even remakes. (I know this, because I asked).

David Lee Roth’s hit Just a Gigolo, a rollicking and fun recording from 1985 started the recent Prima band wagon going. I note that the Wikipedia article on Roth does not mention his indebtedness to Prima at all for ratcheting up his career. Still, I have to admit that Prima did not write Just a Gigolo, or even first record it. It actually is an Austrian song, and was first adapted to English in the 1920s. Yet, for good reason, we can have no problem giving Prima credit for inspiring Roth and even an earlier version by The Village People from the 70s.

How can we do this? Because Prima did something unique with his 1956 recording and Roth and the Village People both copied it. He merged Just a Gigolo with another song, I Ain’t Got Nobody, with such skill, everyone thinks it is all one song. Both Roth’s recording and The Village People’s effort actually bear the names of both songs, just like Prima's did.

Just as Goodman co-opted S, S, S, so Prima has co-opted Just a Gigolo. It is his so much, that words from it were put on his tombstone.

Roth wasn’t the last to successfully honor Prima. Brian Setzer’s Jump, Jive and Wail was a faithful copy of Prima’s swing classic, which had been largely forgotten by the populous. It was also picked up by The Gap clothing stores as the theme for a popular commercial if you are trying to place it. Written in ’39 by Prima, a few years after SSS, it actually won a Grammy award with Setzer’s performance SIXTY YEARS after Prima wrote and performed it and over forty years after Prima’s most famous recording of the song. That’s staying power.

Although winning a Grammy is hardly part of the recipe for musical greatness (hasn’t Britney Spears won?), Prima actually won himself in 1959 for That Old Black Magic, a song he covered with such pizzazz that his version makes all others seem dull and listless in comparison.

In fact, although Prima did not write all his hit songs, when you listen to his covers and compare them with anyone else’s, including the much more famous Sinatra, it is like comparing a search light with a light bulb. There is one exception I can think of – both Prima and the combination of Danny Kaye and The Andrews Sisters released covers of Civilization: Bongo Bongo Bongo at about the same time in 1947, when it was a hit in a Broadway play, and the Kaye/Andrews version did slightly better. No excuses, it is better (and one of my favorite non-Prima pieces).

How many classics can you name by Bing Crosby (mostly holiday songs, which is almost unfair) or Glenn Miller (maybe two) or Benny Goodman (probably one, and Prima wrote it)? Prima has a long list of hits you can still hear on television shows, movies and commercials today that he was recording until a few years before he died. Think about it, he wrote SSS in his mid-twenties and Jump, Jive an’ Wail before he was 30, both in the 1930s. The first is still the classic swing song and the second again a recent Billboard hit. Leaving aside Christmas songs, for who else does this repeatedly happen?

When you hear Louis Prima, there is no mistaking him. His voice, his Italian ethnic/jazz mixture is entirely unique and personal to him. I doubt it could be duplicated well, although someone should right the Broadway musical (if I had any musical ability, I’d give it a shot). When he sings, and he can sing well, he doesn’t worry about staying with the beat, or laughing in the middle of a song. Although scat singing is by definition a style unique to each practitioner, Louis Prima’s scat is somehow more unique than others, if that makes any sense. Just for the hell of it, here are this blog’s list of the three greatest scat singers in history (and Ella Fitzgerald is not one of them).

Louis Armstrong
Louis Prima
Danny Kaye (I know, who would have thought, but download the recording of Kaye and Armstrong doing When the Saints Come Marching In and you will see what I mean).

Prima swerves back and forth between English and Italian effortlessly and sometimes seemingly chaotically. He clowns with his band and especially with Keely Smith, his fourth wife and partner on stage. Sometimes he will challenge a band member to mimic his voice with his instrument. It is well known, and Sonny has confirmed it, that the dour faced Cher to Sonny’s happy sprite is a Prima/Smith copy. Often the songs seem like one big improvisation, but it was all the product of endless rehearsal.

Other than Keely Smith, the best known of Prima’s compatriots is the great Sam Butera, an electrifying saxophonist, who, like Smith, is still alive and still playing. Sam and Louis kid around like they grew up together. I’m still waiting for him to come around someday so I can hear him live.

Prima started out with a small band, but then had to go the big band route like everyone else in the 30s. When big band faded he went back to a smaller band and headed for Las Vegas where he was one of the greatest acts ever to play the City of Lights. After that, he slowly started to move into rock n’ roll, even progressive rock, although these are not among the bands greatest work.

Late in his career, a few years before he slipped into a three year coma and died, Prima recorded for Disney the voice of King Louie, an orangutan determined to get the secret of fire from Mowgli in Jungle Book. It is still being covered by other bands. For a while, the legendary Mitch Miller produced Prima in a series of novelty songs which are not among my favorites, although some are up to his usual standards.

Actually, before the animated Jungle Book, Prima was in a few movies himself, although these I have never, and will never likely, see. Although, if I did, it would be Hey, Boy! Hey, Girl!, if for nothing else, to see Louis and Keely perform the song.

Back in the Stone Age, I would just recommend you buy The Capitol Collectors Series: Louis Prima, but nowadays, you can just download the songs you like. Here’s my recommendation for the classic Prima download, many of them with, Keely Smith, although, if you want to buy a CD, that is still the one. Here’s the list:

- Sing, Sing, Sing (get both the Prima vocal version and the Goodman 1938 classic recording with Gene Krupa and other stars)
- I’m Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody
- Jump, Jive an' Wail
- Buena Sera (there are several great versions – all good. I’d get at least two at different tempos)
- St. Louis Blues (perhaps the first great Jazz song; like most Prima covers, he just does it better than everyone else; again, try to get two with different tempos)
- Angelina/Zooma-Zooma medley
- Brooklyn Boogie (a real instrumental oldie, but one that really boogies)
- I’ve Got the World on a String
- Hey, Boy! Hey, Girl!
- I’ve Got You Under My Skin
- The Lip (this is one of his novelty songs, and lots of fun)
- The Music Goes Round and Round
- Oh, Marie- Pennies From Heaven
- That Old Black Magic
- Twist All Night (early rock & roll from a jazz master born in 1910)
- When You’re Smiling/The Sheik of Araby medley
- I've Got You Under My Skin
- I Want to be Like You (the Disney classic)

Leave aside SSS, for which I have already tried to list every movie and tv show which played it that I could find in the 12/10/07 post (and have found more since), Among the many, many uses of Prima’s other works in film and television includes:

Mission: Impossible III (2006)(A Sunday Kind of Love)Find Me Guilty (2006) (When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles with You))Where the Truth Lies (2005) (Josephine, Please No Lean on the Bell)Kicking & Screaming (2005) (Zooma, Zooma)Elf (2003) (Pennies From Heaven)Anger Management (2003) (When You're Smiling)Mafia: Lost Heaven (2002) (Long About Midnight, Sing It 'Way Down Low’, I'm Living In A Great Big Way)Don't Say a Word (2001) (Fee Fie Foo)Liberty Heights (1999) (A Sunday Kind of Love)Mickey Blue Eyes (1999) (Just a Gigolo, Buena Sera Senorita)Swing (1999) (Five Months Two Weeks Two Days)Analyze This (1999) (Angelina/Zooma Zooma, When You're Smiling/The Sheik of Araby)City of Angels (1998) (Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop)Lolita (1997) (Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)Big Night (1996) (Buona Sera, Oh Marie, Love of My Life (O Sole Mio), Five Months, Two Weeks, Two Days)Casino (1995) (Zooma Zooma, Zooma Zooma, Basin Street Blues/When It's Sleepy Time Down South, I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)Forget Paris (1995) (Lazy River)Cobb (1994) (That Old Black Magic)Mad Dog and Glory (1993) (That Old Black Magic, Just a Gigolo, I Ain't Got Nobody)Mystic Pizza (1988) (I Ain’t Got Nobody)The Man Called Flintstone (1966) (Pensate Amore)

This is just a small sample based on what shows or movies I would guess would be familiar to you. There are many, many more, and endless commercials.

When I write about someone on this post, it is almost always because I feel like they should be reverred and don't get enough ink. Prima was one of the all time greats, even if he is barely remembered today except by the older generation, despite the fact that his music is still recorded and used by others more than any almost anyone else (maybe I don't need the "almost" either). He started out and was successful in the dixieland era, through big bands, small stage bands and even some limited success in the rock era. Although Danny Thomas, the late comedian, is not exactly a musical authority, I'll go with his quote during the Las Vegas years about Louis Prima and the Witnesses (including Sam Butera): "Man for man, pound for pound, it is the greatest music organization in the world," although I could have went with Ed Sullivans "Greatest act in show business today".

Benny Goodman got the title "King of Swing" primarily for his great work on a Louis Prima song. If he's the king, the Prima should be emperor (Louis Armstrong fans, don't kill me. I know, I know -- can we call it a tie?).

Mark my words, some day, some Broadway producer is going to wake up and realize that a Louis Prima celebration would run for years. You’ll see.


  1. I adore Prima, but don't think it is necessary to dis Benny Goodman to praise Louie. Your remark about what has Goodman done beside cover SSS, is not right. Goodman is a musical giant in his own right. Other than that, good rave about ole' Louie. Rock on. Love that you worked Danny Kaye and Danny Thomas into a blog on music. Wonderful.

  2. Did I dis Goodman. I agree with everything you said about him and if it came across negative, mea culpa. I was just comparing him to someone I feel deserves more modern praise, particularly given how much he is still covered by musicians and in movies/tv/commercials, covered today, and is known less than Goodman. Danny Thomas? Well, I said he was not an authority, but Kaye is so underrated b/c he is a comedian. I recommend downloading both Civilization, Bono Bongo Bongo and Kaye/Satchmo's When the Saint's Come Marching In. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Anonymous3:24 AM

    Am sa va adauga in lista mea de bloguri favorite

  4. Our Romanian visitor wrote that he is adding this to his list of favorite blogs.

    Mulţumesc - Thank you.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .