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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,628


This is the grave of Louis Prima.

Born in 1910 in New Orleans, Prima grew up in the large Italian population there, the only real site of serious immigration in the South. Prima’s family was musical going back to the old country. His mom especially made sure that each of her children learned to play an instrument. Louis was given the violin and told to learn it. Well, take this up to the mid-20s and New Orleans is a hot bed of jazz. Prima got very into this. Of course, in New Orleans, these guys, starting with Louis Armstrong, were mostly Black and it was seen as somewhat forbidden for whites to play this music. That did not stop Prima though. And because Italians were seen as of somewhat questionable whiteness, it was a lot easier for socializing between Italians and African Americans than it was for other variants of white.

Prima’s older brother played cornet, which was more suited for jazz. One summer, his brother took a job in Texas and left his horn behind. Prima decided to learn it and did well enough to start his own jazz band in 1924. This was just his friends, no big deal, but it did start a career in jazz. One of his friends in the band was Candy Candido, later known for being an excellent voice actor in many Disney cartoons. Prima was good enough that by the time he graduated from high school in 1928, he decided he would go into music full-time.

The next several years are your typical stories of a struggling musician. No money, bad gigs, lots of traveling, no breaks. He was in New York for a bit, then went back to New Orleans, and then went out to California. There, he tried to capitalize on the big band craze, but really couldn’t break through there either.

Really, Prima is a no one until about 1939. By then, he and his band, which was now a small jazz combo, was playing in mostly Black clubs in New York. Somehow Eleanor Roosevelt saw his act and she became a big fan. She invited him to play at FDR’s birthday concert and he got his picture taken with the president, which made a big difference in his career. Prima also had a bad knee and the military rejected him for the war, so he just kept playing. It was during the war that he became the famous guy that we remember today. He did a bunch of silly “Italian” songs, many of which made fun of the Italian immigrant way of trying to speak English, such as “Please No Squeeza Da Banana,” clearly a highlight of American art. People loved that shit, despite or maybe because we were fighting Italy in the war.

By 1945, Prima was a hit-maker and by now, he had moved beyond novelty songs into mainstream vocal music, backed with his cornet and band. He moved from a big band to a small jazz combo style easily enough as the big bands went out of fashion, since he had played in multiple styles his whole career. He signed with RCA Victor and had a bunch of hits with songs such as “Civilization”; “You Can’t Tell the Depth of the Well”; “Say it with a Slap”; “Valencia”; and “My Flame Went Out Last Night”.

Now, one issue Prima had is complete infidelity with any woman he was with at the time. He married a bunch of times and he liked them young, especially as he reached middle age. That meant a lot of divorces. It also meant a lot of alimony. He had developed some high-end tastes too, especially owning horses. This finally led him to the young singer Keely Smith, who joined his band in 1948. They had several hits in their early years together, including more novelty songs such as “Chop Suey, Chow Mein”, “Ooh-Dahdily-Dah”, and “Chili Sauce.” Of course they ended up in bed pretty quickly. In 1953, they got married, less than a month after his latest divorce.

Prima and Smith continued to have hits together. He had a gig at the Sahara in Vegas in 1954 that proved quite popular. Capitol signed Prima in 1955 and his albums in this era featured Smith heavily. He was even willing to include some rock notes in his act. Smith was so young and he liked money, so unlike Frank Sinatra, he was cool with some rock and roll. Of course, neither he nor Smith were remotely concerned with fidelity in marriage. He slept with anything that moved, she fucked Sinatra, among others. They divorced in 1961.

But honestly, by 1961, Smith was the bigger star. He was old. She was musically pretty hot still and recorded an album of Beatles songs in 1964 that sold great in the UK. Prima went into his decline phase. He found a new singer in Gia Maione. He married her too, his 5th and final marriage. They had a couple of kids, but their albums were less successful. It wasn’t his fault that he was old. But Prima had good personality and he got animated film roles with his voice. That included being the voice for King Louie in The Jungle Book, with the song “I Wanna Be Like You” one of the most iconic songs in the Disney catalog (Los Lobos did a good cover of this back in the day).

Prima’s health started to fail in the early 70s. He had a heart attack in 1973 and then was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1975. They tried to do surgery but he went into a coma during it of a cerebral hemorrhage. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t die and had to spend three years as a vegetable before finally giving up the ghost in 1978. Ugh. He was 67 years old.

Louis Prima is buried in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, Louisiana.

If you would like this series to visit other legends of the mid-20th century big band era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lawrence Welk is in Culver City, California (oh would I enjoy this one) and Harry James is in Las Vegas. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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