given name Louis Leo Prima
birth Dec. 7, 1910, New Orleans, LA
death Aug. 24, 1978, New Orleans, LA
physical description brown eyes, brown hair, 5'10", 190 lbs. [ 1951 ]
father Anthony Prima, b.Mar. 9,1887, driver for World Bottling [ soda pop ] Company,
d.Apr. 16, 1961
mother Angelina Caravella, m.Sept. 5, 1906, d.1965
brother Leon Prima, b.1907
sister Marguerite Prima, b.ca.1913, d. at age 3
sister Elizabeth Prima, b.ca.1915 ("Sister Mary Ann")
education Jesuit Junior High School, New Orleans, LA; transferred to Warren Easton High,
New Orleans, LA, in fall of 1926 but dropped out spring of 1928
first wife Louise Polizzi, m.June 25, 1929, div.1936
second wife Alma Raase (changed to "Ross"), an actress, m.Jul. 25, 1936, div.1947
third wife Tracelene Melva Bartlett, a secretary, m.June 17, 1948, div.June 18, 1953
fourth wife Keely Smith, b.1932, m.Jul. 1953, div.Oct. 1961
daughter Toni, b.1954?
daughter Louanne, b.1957?
fifth wife Gia Maione, b.1941?, m.Feb. 1963
daughter Lena Ann Prima, b.Nov. 14, 1963
son Louis Prima, Jr., b.June 16, 1965
interests horseracing, golfing, boating
memberships Local 174, American Federation of Musicians, New Orleans, LA; American
Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), 1941-
residence 42 Riverside Dr., New York, NY [ 1951 ]
During a visit to New Orleans in 1934, bandleader Guy Lombardo encouraged him to come to New York City, and helped him to get a job at a club on 52nd Street and a contract with Brunswick Records.
After a couple years, it was also Lombardo who supported Prima's desire to enlarge his
5-man group, the so-called New Orleans Gang, into a 12-piece big band.
With backing from the Music Corporation of America (MCA), Prima and his orchestra opened at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago in October 1936, and were signed with Vocalion Records.
He also appeared in a number of motion pictures, including "Rhythm On the Range" (Paramount, 1936), "Manhattan Merry Go Round" (Republic, 1937), "You Can't Have Everything" (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1937), and, with comedian Jimmy Durante, in "Start Cheering" (Columbia, 1938), as well as film shorts.
But the band seemed to lack the spirit and spontaneity that first brought attention to Prima, so some changes were inevitable.
By the early 1940s, Prima re-organized his orchestra to be more entertaining as a whole, able to have fun on stage and clown around with him, but also to be capable of making good dance music with a beat and, at other moments, to "play it pretty for the people."
Prima added two more musicians to the group, now at 14 pieces.
He also switched affiliations to the William Morris Agency and embarked upon a heavy schedule of road work, mostly cities in the northeast corridor, including Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
After years of scuffling, Prima began to hit the jackpot.
One of his proudest moments came in January 1942, when he was invited to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's birthday party. Mrs. Roosevelt, in particular, seemed to be a fan of Prima's music and when newspapers carried a picture of the two standing side by side, there was tremendous publicity generated, which led to more publicity for Prima.
At the Downtown Theatre in Detroit, MI on March 30th,1945 (which was Good Friday, said to be a traditionally slow date in the business), he and his orchestra broke all existing records by bringing in more than $38,000 for an afternoon performance. And during a six-week engagement at the Strand Theatre in New York City that year, they tallied up more than $440,000, another incredible figure.
Prima had a slew of hit novelties for Majestic Records, including Robin Hood, Please No Squeeza Da Banana, Baciagaloop (Make Love On the Stoop), Felicia No Capicia, and, with his mother's name in mind, Angelina ("the waitress at the pizzeria").
There were also popular ballads such as My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time and I'll Walk Alone, featuring vocalist Lily Ann Carol, who was the band's female vocalist from 1940 to 1946.
Louis Prima - In his Own Words
". . . I was playing an engagement at the famous Paramount Theatre on Broadway . . . I was in my
dressing room between shows going over a song entitled 'Angelina' that had just been submitted to
me by Mr. Frank Kelton, one of Broadway's leading publishers. Suddenly the phone rang and it was
my mother Angelina Prima, calling long distance from New Orleans . . . I got the chills . . . "
" . . . Look, people have been very unfair to me . . . They see us on the stage clowning around and
they call us a show band . . . They forget that we can play very good dance music when we feel like
it . . . We adapt ourselves to moods. The sooner a lot of bands realize that they can't live forever if
they play strictly dance music, the better . . . "
" . . . The audience never knows what's coming up . . . And to tell the truth, neither do we . . . When
I get the feel of the people out there, I change everything. To put it simply, the audience controls
us . . . "
When the audience for the big bands declined in the late '40s and early '50s, Prima re-imagined his music to focus on three aspects: his own charming personality and vocals; the lovely singing of his latest bride, Keely Smith; and a rock n'roll beat from a new, small combo of back-up musicians, Sam Butera and the Witnesses.
Together, they found in Las Vegas nightclubs an ideal outlet for their talents, first in the Casbar Lounge of the Hotel Sahara, where they opened in the mid-1950s.
While additional favorites like That Old Black Magic and The Lip emerged, even if he, Smith, and Butera started off with mostly the same set of songs on a nightly basis, Prima followed the flow of the crowd and interpreted his numbers in a totally unpredictable, yet always entertaining and fast-paced manner, assuming, at various times, the role of crazed paesano, innocent troubadour, or slick hep cat. Butera and the Witnesses joined his every move on their instruments. Smith, meanwhile, just stood there, waiting patiently and politely for her turn.
It didn't happen overnight, but gradually the size of the crowds increased, and, by 1959, Prima was being paid $10,000 a week by the Sahara and was several albums into a new recording contract with Capitol.
Considered the hottest nightclub act in show business, they moved down the strip to the Desert Inn at a record-breaking fee of $3 million for 12 weeks a year over five years.
However, not too long after the switch, their marriage disintegrated, taking the act with it.
Still, like a cat with nine lives, Prima continued working with Butera and the Witnesses, discovering someone else, Gia Maione, to fill both the on and off-stage roles which Smith once had, and finding new projects, like the soundtrack of Disney's animated movie "The Jungle King," which kept his name before the public.
How ironic that a man so full of energy as Prima would, following surgery in October 1975 to remove a brain tumor, wind up in a coma for the last few years of his life.
Only middle-aged when he died, it's too bad that Prima couldn't have been around in 1985 when rock singer David Lee Roth made a note-for-note copy of his classic version of Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody into a new video hit or when one of the tracks from his "The Wildest" LP, Jump Jive an' Wail, helped to spark a revival of sorts in swing music during the 1990s.
Garry Boulard, "Just a Gigolo": The Life and Times of Louis Prima (Lafayette, LA:
University of Southwestern Louisian, 1989).
Catherine Cella, "Louis Prima Documentary Captures A Master Showman Of Swing Music,"
Billboard, May 12, 2001, pp.128-129.
Charles Garrod, Louis Prima and His Orchestra (Zephyrhills, FL: Joyce Record Club, 1991).
"Louis Prima, 66, dies after 3 years in coma," Chicago Tribune, Aug. 25, 1978, p.D6.
S. Clayton Moore, "Atomic Presents Live! The King of the Swingas: From Vegas to the
Magic Kingdom, Louis Prima Kept 'em Swingin'!," Atomic, Winter 2003, pp.44-48.
"The Official Louis Prima Website," louisprima.com.
"Prima Family Chart of America," ustica.org, retrieved Feb. 24, 2006.
"Prima, Louis," in ASCAP Biographical Dictionary, Fourth Edition (New York City: R.R.
Bowker Company, 1980), p.404.
"Prima, Louis," in Who Is Who in Music (Chicago, IL: Who Is Who in Music, Ltd., 1951),
I would like to expand this tribute with, if possible, a new interview of someone who was important to Louis Prima's life or career. Are you an alumnus of his band, a member of his family, or a collector who is knowledgeable about his accomplishments? Please contact me via e-mail