Jerry Fink, in the Las Vegas Sun, writes that it is high time that in a city with streets named after Sinatra, Martin and other famous folks, it is time to honor Louie Prima who did so much to help put Las Vegas on the entertainment map back in the 1950s and 1960s with his lounge act that included his wife, the wonderful Keely Smith, and Sam Butera and the Witnesses.
It’s time to give Louis Prima his due.
Actor Bruce Dern has a Las Vegas street named for him, for Pete’s sake. So does Ben Johnson. Neither had his name on Vegas marquees or set the neon nights ablaze with music.
But no street honors Prima, who created the classic songs “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Just a Gigolo.”
No star on the Las Vegas Walk of Fame recognizes the trumpeter who pumped life into the Vegas lounges during the ’50s with his boisterous showmanship. There’s no star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame despite his film and radio successes, nor does he have a spot in the rock, blues or jazz halls of fame despite his crossover music appeal.
One of the world’s great entertainers, who’s synonymous with Las Vegas, has no statues here or anywhere else. No plaques. No postage stamps.
Years ago he was inducted into Steve Cutler’s Casino Hall of Fame Museum at the Tropicana, but the museum has closed.
It’s time to crank up the righteous indignation.
It’s been 50 years since Prima and Keely Smith won a Grammy for “That Old Black Magic” — in the first year of the awards ceremony. It’s been 30 years since Prima died in his hometown of New Orleans; he succumbed Aug. 24, 1978, after being in a coma for three years. He was born Dec. 10, 1910, so there’s still time to name a street after him or put a star on a sidewalk somewhere by the time the centennial of his birth rolls around.
“The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will honor Louis on his 100th birthday,” his widow, Gia, says from her home in Toms River, N.J. “They will make a commemorative poster.”
That hardly seems enough for the man whose entertainment career spanned six decades from Dixieland through big bands, lounges and jump blues.
The giant mural at the Louis Armstrong International Airport honors 50 New Orleans legends — but not Prima. “There’s a jazz park on Bourbon Street and they have statues of Al Hirt, Pete Fountain and Louis Armstrong. I would like to see them get a statue of Louis in there,” says the former Gia Maione, who was Prima’s fifth and final wife. After Smith and Prima divorced, she also became Louis’ co-star onstage. “I’ve been trying to get some recognition in Las Vegas for Louis, but so far nothing, not even a park named after him, even though he helped make it the entertainment capital of the world in 1956. It amazes me.”
Prima’s children do their best to keep their father’s music alive. Lena Prima performs a tribute show, and Louis Prima Jr. sometimes gets a gig at an Italian festival or other event, such as a recent show that drew 1,400 fans at the Hilton. But even those gigs are getting tougher to come by. Prima Jr. would like to establish a Louis Prima lounge in one of the Strip resorts to honor his father and the other acts that created the Las Vegas lounge scene.
“The fans know and love my father and his music. It’s the venues,” says Prima Jr., who lives in Las Vegas. “They’ve forgotten him.”
The older generation that knew Prima’s music and saw him perform is dying, says Ron Cannatella, official archivist for Prima Music LLC in New Orleans. But the younger generation knows his music rerun-style through movies and TV.
“Louis’ music is still a vital part of mainstream pop culture,” he says. “They may not know Louis Prima but when you put his music into a contemporary context, people remember.”
Remember the orangutan singing “I Wanna Be Like You” in Disney’s “The Jungle Book”? King Louie was Prima.
All those khaki-clad “Swingers” and “Swing Kids” in the movies and Gap ads? Dancing to Prima. David Lee Roth hamming it up on “Just a Gigolo”? Channeling Prima. Musicians such as Brian Setzer, Los Lobos, Phish, Smashmouth and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy keep Prima’s music alive.
Just consider Prima’s classic composition “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
The stretched out version by Benny Goodman and a big band that included Harry James and Gene Krupa defines swing music. It’s shown up in movies from “After the Thin Man” to “Leatherheads,” in Broadway shows such as “Dancin’ ” and “Swing!” and on TV shows including “The Simpsons,” “The Sopranos” and a long-running Russian serial.
“It was a landmark composition,” Cannatella says. “Louis should receive a posthumous lifetime achievement Grammy or even an Academy Award.
“He’s like a brand name, musically. He would take anything, whether his own composition or a standard, and once Louis Prima got hold of it and put it in his own style it was unmistakable. He is still unique and recognizable today.”