Remembering Keely Smith, Musical Partner To Her Husband, Louis Prima

Dec 18, 2017
Originally published on December 18, 2017 5:21 pm
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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Keely Smith, a popular jazz vocalist and a fixture in the 1950s world of Las Vegas and a musical partner to her husband, Louis Prima, has died. She was 89. Conjure up an image of Prima's lounge act - the rubber-faced singer bopping through a jazz standard with his backup band, The Witnesses. He's trying to get a pretty, aloof, almost bored-looking woman to jump into the number. He yanks her arm. She ignores him. He mugs. She rolls her eyes. And finally, Keely Smith steps up to the mic and lets it rip.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC")

KEELY SMITH: (Singing) Old black magic that you weave so well.

LOUIS PRIMA: (Singing) Those icy fingers up and down my spine.

SMITH: (Singing) The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.

SUAREZ: "That Old Black Magic" won Prima and Smith the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal. Joining me to talk about Keely Smith is Tom Clavin, author of "That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, And The Golden Age Of Las Vegas." Tom Clavin, welcome.

TOM CLAVIN: Thank you for having me.

SUAREZ: What was a lounge act? You know, we use that phrase so easily now, but it's kind of a special moment in showbiz, isn't it?

CLAVIN: Well, in the early days of Las Vegas - by early, I'm talking about the late-'40s into the early '50s - the lounge was for second-rate, even third-rate performers. You know, you stick them somewhere and hope an audience finds them. And that's where Louis Prima and Keely Smith were able to get their first job in Vegas. They practically begged for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY, BOY! HEY, GIRL!")

PRIMA: (Singing) Oui, oui, oui, oui - well, all right.

CLAVIN: It was kind of controlled chaos. The chaos was a big part of the attraction of it - that almost anything could happen. Butera would be on his back playing the saxophone. Louis would be jumping all over the place - seemed like they were spontaneously just coming up with what they were doing and they were coming up with it at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY, BOY! HEY, GIRL!")

LOUIS PRIMA AND KEELY SMITH: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, do you feel the same?

SUAREZ: It was a high-energy act, but she had great vocal chops, too, no?

CLAVIN: She did. I mean, that was the first thing that attracted them to each other - was you know, she was a teenager in Virginia Beach, and he was looking for a girl singer. Did anybody want to audition? And she got up there, and she opened her mouth, and out came this amazing voice. And right there, Louis was sold - offered her the job right there. And they left town the next day with her mother in tow because she was underage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMBRACEABLE YOU")

SMITH: (Singing) Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you.

SUAREZ: As you look across female vocalists today, is there a little bit of Keely Smith in anybody?

CLAVIN: You know, Keely Smith wasn't as famous as, say, a Peggy Lee or an Elle Fitzgerald, but she had this wonderful, wonderful voice, this unique look to her with the short, black hair. And I think a lot of performers were influenced by her and maybe not even quite knew it. You look at Louis Prima and Keely Smith, and there's a direct connection to Sonny and Cher.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMBRACEABLE YOU")

PRIMA: (Singing) Don't be a naughty baby.

SMITH: (Singing) Oh, why don't you come and get your baby? Do.

PRIMA: Call for an appointment.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: (Singing) My sweet embraceable you.

SUAREZ: That business onstage where she almost seems detached from the wild goings on - that was an act, right?

CLAVIN: It was an act. You know, it really is saying something about Keely Smith's talent because Louis Prima was always trying to make her laugh, whatever kind of reaction he could get. It was not easy, I'm sure, for her to kind of keep that straight face. But by being the person on the stage who was doing the least, people were watching her. At what point, if ever, is there going to be a reaction from her?

SUAREZ: Remembering vocalist Keely Smith, dead at 89. Tom Clavin, thanks a lot.

CLAVIN: Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT IT BAD AND THAT AIN'T GOOD")

SMITH: (Singing) I got it bad, and that ain't good.

PRIMA: (Singing) And when the weekend's over... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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