Louis Prima Biography

7 December 1911, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, d. 24 August 1978, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. A trumpeter, band leader, singer and composer, Prima was the son of Italian immigrant parents. He was educated at Jesuit High School, and studied the violin for several years under Hemmersback, before switching to the trumpet. At the age of 17, inspired by jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, he gained his first job as a singer/trumpeter in a New Orleans theatre - his elder brother, Leon, also played trumpet at a local nightspot. For a time in the early 30s Prima worked with Red Nichols, before forming his own seven-piece New Orleans Gang, with its signature tune, ‘Way Down Yonder In New Orleans’, who recorded more than 70 titles in New York for various labels from 1934-39. Several of them made the US Hit Parade, including ‘The Lady In Red’, ‘In A Little Gypsy Tea Room’ and ‘The Goose Hangs High’. His sidemen during this period included Georg Brunis (trombone), Claude Thornhill (piano), George Van Eps (guitar), Artie Shapiro (bass), Eddie Miller (reeds), Ray Bauduc (drums), Sidney Arodin (clarinet), Frank Pinero (piano), Frank Frederico (guitar), Oscar Bradley (drums), and Pee Wee Russell (clarinet). By this stage, Prima was also composing songs, and one of them, ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, when developed by Benny Goodman, became a smash hit for the ‘King Of Swing’, and remains a Swing Era classic.

Over the years, Prima wrote or co-wrote many other numbers, including ‘Robin Hood’, which was successful for Les Brown in 1945, and the 1947 Jo Stafford hit, ‘A Sunday Kind Of Love’, along with ‘Alone’, ‘Little Boy Blew His Top’, ‘Marguerita’, ‘New Aulins’, ‘Angelina’, ‘Where Have We Met Before?’, ‘Brooklyn Boogie’, ‘Boogie In The Bronx’, ‘Bridget O’Brien’, ‘Boogie In Chicago’, ‘It’s The Rhythm In Me’, ‘Sing A Spell’, ‘It’s A Southern Holiday’ and ‘Rhythm On The Radio’. His collaborators included Jack Loman, Dave Franklin, Milton Kabak, Bob Miketta, Barbara Belle, Anita Leonard, and Stan Rhodes. After making an good impression on his feature film debut in the Bing Crosby movie musical Rhythm On The Range (1936), Prima continued to have relatively small, but telling roles in a number of other movies, notably Rose Of Washington Square (1939), in which he enhanced Alice Faye’s rendering of ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry’ with his ebullient and exciting trumpet accompaniment. By this time he had his own big band which he fronted with great showmanship and panache. It had 40s hits with ‘Angelina’, ‘Bell-Bottom Trousers’ (vocal: Lily Ann Carol), and ‘Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo)’, an amusing novelty from the 1947 Broadway revue Angel In The Wings.

In 1948, Prima began working with the poker-faced singer Keely Smith, and, after having a US hit in 1950 with their joint composition, ‘Oh, Babe!’, they were married two years later. During the next decade they were recognized as one of the hottest nightclub acts in the USA, and became known as ‘The Wildest Show In Las Vegas’. Prima’s inspired clowning and zany vocals delivered in a fractured Italian dialect, coupled with Smith’s cool image and classy singing, were augmented by tenor saxophonist Sam Butera and his group, the Witnesses. A typical performance was filmed at Lake Tahoe in 1957, and released under the title of The Wildest, and they reassembled in 1959 for the featureHey Boy! Hey Girl! Prima and Smith were awarded Grammys in 1958 for their inimitable reading of the Harold Arlen - Johnny Mercer standard, ‘That Old Black Magic’.

In 1958 Prima was briefly in the UK Top 30 with Carl Sigman and Peter de Rose’s likeable ‘Buona Sera’, and two years later made the US singles and albums charts with the instrumental ‘Wonderland By Night’. Other Top 40 albums includedLas Vegas-Prima Style and Hey Boy!, Hey Girl! In 1961, while still at the height of their fame - and having recently signed a multi-million dollar contract with the Desert Inn, Las Vegas - the couple were divorced. Prima and Butera subsequently attempted to cash in on the then-popular dance fad by appearing in the movieTwist All Night, which sank without a trace, in spite (or because) of items such as ‘When The Saints Go Twistin’ In’. Far more lasting was Prima’s contribution in 1967 to T he Jungle Book, the Walt Disney Studio’s first cartoon feature for four years, which went on to gross around $26 million. Prima provided the voice of hip orang-utan King Louie, and sang the film’s hit song, ‘I Wanna Be Like You’. In later years he mostly confined himself to performing with a small group at venues such as the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas, and in 1975 underwent surgery for the removal of a brain tumour. He never recovered from the operation, and remained in a coma until his death nearly three years later in a New Orleans nursing home.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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