Classic Las Vegas celebrates Louis Prima

Louis Prima- renowned bandleader, musician and songwriter -Sing, Sing, Sing-became a Las Vegas icon.

 Louis Prima, Sam Butera and the Witnesses  image courtesy of Louis Prima, Jr.

Louis Prima, Sam Butera and the Witnesses  image courtesy of Louis Prima, Jr.

He was born on Dec. 17th, 1907 to a musical family in New Orleans. His mother made sure that all of her children were musically inclined. Prima grew up playing a hand-me-down coronet from his older brother, Leon.

He dropped out of high school and hit the road trying to make a living as a musician. He had his first national hit in 1935 with The Lady in Red. He and comedienne Martha Raye- who hoped to also be a singer- became good friends and Prima made his national  debut on The Fleischman Hour.

In 1936, he recorded Sing, Sing, Sing which became a boffo hit for Benny Goodman. When WWII broke out, Prima was unable to enlist because of a knee injury. Prima continued performing throughout the war years even playing for one of President Roosevelt's birthday parties.

He also was on his third wife by the end of the war. He had expensive tastes in clothes and food and loved to play the ponies. But big time success kept eluding Prima.

In 1948, a young 17-year old singer named Keely Smith auditioned as a replacement for singer Lily Ann Carol.

By 1953, Prima and Smith were married. Soon after that,  he and Smith teamed up fellow New Orleans sax player, Sam Butera and hit the road.  They lit up theaters and clubs where ever they played.

In Las Vegas, Entertainment Director Bill Miller was working for Milton Prell at the Sahara Hotel with a mandate to bring in customers.  Miller had at one time been the booking agent for Louis Prima. 

In 1954, Prima called Miller looking for work.  "How would you like a seven-year deal?" Miller asked.  Prima thought it was a good idea and so he and Keely Smith arrived in Las Vegas just before Christmas.  After a few nights of playing the Casbar Lounge, Prima knew their act wasn't working.  Traditionally, the week between Christmas and New Year's is a slow time but Prima was afraid that the hotel might cancel their contract if things didn't improve.  He called an old friend and saxophone player in New Orleans.  

"He called me on Dec. 24th and said 'Sam, you want to come to Vegas?' and I said when and he said tomorrow.  I told him it was Christmas and I got my kids and I can't leave on Christmas but I could be there on the 26th.  He said good, see you then."  Sam Butera told me in an interview in 2003.  "I brought along my drummer and my piano player."

The drummer and piano player barely had time to meet Prima and Smith before going on stage that night.  Louis Prima introduced Keely Smith, Sam Butera and the Witnesses.  The audience liked the name and it stuck.  The lounge entertainers performed  five sets between midnight and 6:00 am, every night.   They rotated generally with a comedian so that there was always entertainment in the lounge.

"And there was no one, ever, in the history of show business, that did the business that this man did from midnight until 6 in the morning. You could not get into that club. That was really one of the biggest things that happened in Vegas," says Miller. "It created people like Shecky Green. All the lounge acts started with Louis Prima." 

Prima, Smith, Butera and the Witnesses kept the joint jumping all night long. 

"We were the hottest act in the world." remembered Butera

"People like Frank Sinatra, Sophie Tucker would be there, 5:00 in the morning,  just to watch this act." Carme, a venerable performer from those by-gone days, told me in an interview in 2004.

Performing five shows a night, three half hour shows and two forty five shows, Prima brought his raucous New Orleans style of entertainment toLas Vegas and it made not only them famous but the Sahara became the late-night place to be.

Unfortunately, it was not to last. By 1961, Smith filed for divorce and Prima found himself without a singer.

He found a 21-year old waitress turned singer, Gia Maione and she became not only a member of the band but married Prima shortly thereafter. Prima cut a deal with Jack Entratter over at the Sands Hotel and the band left the Casbar for good.

In 1967, Prima was tapped to provide the voice of the orangutan, King Louie in Walt Disney's animated version of The Jungle Book. The character was surrounded by a group of singing chimps and Sam Butera and the Witnesses joined Prima in recording the song, I Wanna Be Like You. At the TCM Film Festival last year, song writer Richard Sherman remembered traveling to Las Vegas to oversee the recording of the song for the movie and described a raucous session that occurred after a night of performing in the Sands lounge.

In 1973, Prima was diagnosed with a brain stem tumor. He went into a coma following surgery and never recovered. Louie Prima died on August 24, 1978 and was buried in New Orleans.

 Sam Butera  kept performing with the Witnesses. including opening for Frank Sinatra at Caesars Palace. Prima's widow sued him for using the name "the Witnesses" and Butera renamed his group, the Wildest.

In the 1990s, he and Keely Smith performed together at the Desert Inn.

Sam died on June 9, 2009.

Today, both of Louis Prima's children with Gia Maione, Louis Prima, Jr and Lena Prima, keep their father's music alive for a new generation.

Here is a clip of Louie, Keely, Sam and the Witnesses:

From December 4th-Feb. 14th, 2015, the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas News Bureau and the City of Las Vegas are presenting an exhibit at the Charleston Heights Art Center Gallery called The Midcentury Las Vegas Stage: Acts that Built the Entertainment Capital of the World. 

Be sure to check it out for some rare, candid photos of this bygone era.

Don't forget our Special Sale on The Story of Classic Las Vegas is still going on! Details can be found here:

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