Zooma Zooma : Louis Prima©2005 JCMarion


Louis Prima was born in New Orleans on December 7, 1911. Louis originally studied the violin which was preferred by his parents Angelina and Anthony. He eventually followed in the footsteps of his older brother Leon by becoming a trumpet player. By the time he was in his early twenties, he patterned his playing after that other Louis from New Orleans - Armstrong. By the mid nineteen thirties he led a combo that featured novelty numbers and rhythm tunes in the classic New Orleans style. Among the musicians that played with Prima were George Brunis on trombone, Eddie Miller and Peewee Russell on reeds, Claude Thornhill on piano, George Van Epps on guitar, Bonney Pottle on bass, and Ray Baudac on drums. With this talented combo, Prima became a big hit at the "Famous Door" along New York City's 52nd Street which was soon loaded with clubs that featured jazz and blues. Prima also attained popularity with his appearance in a number of musical comedy motion pictures in the late thirties. Among them were "Rhythm On The Range", "Manhattan Merry-Go-Round", "You Can't Have Everything", and "Start Cheering". Prima also wrote a song called "Sing Sing Sing" that Benny Goodman turned into a swing era classic and featured as the show stopper in his historic concert at Carnegie Hall in January of 1938.

In 1940 Prima joined the crowd and formed a big band that played music in a hard swinging style. The band featured young trumpeter Sonny Berman and vocalist Lily Ann Carol along with Prima who more and more was a featured vocalist. The early recordings by this band were "Say Si Si" on Variety # 8170, "Dance With A Dolly" on # 8245, "Daydreams Come True At Night" on # 8247, and "Tica-Tee Tica Ta" on Okeh # 65620. He composed hit songs "Robin Hood" (recorded on Hit # 7083) and "A Sunday Kind Of Love" (on Majestic # 1113) which became a big hit for his old band mate Claude Thornhill and vocalist Fran Warren. During these years Prima and his band became a huge hit on the personal appearance circuit in clubs and especially the theaters such as the Paramount in New York. During the forties Prima also became a rarity - a reverse crossover artist in which a White performer was popular in the Black theaters such as the Howard in D.C., Uptown in Philadelphia, and Apollo in New York.

In 1947 the band recorded "Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)" from the Broadway musical "Angel In The Wings" on RCA Victor # 20-2400 a novelty number which was a big seller for Prima. It was a three month featured hit in the top ten in America. The flip side featured Cathy Allen on vocal on the tune "Forsaking All Others". You can hear the developing pattern of the Prima style with Allen on straight vocal while Prima comes in with a shuffle rhythm and his jivey scat singing. Other late forties recordings for RCA Victor were not as successful. Among them were "I'll Never Make The Same Mistake Again" on #20-2477, a cover of Arthur Godfrey's hit "Too Fat Polka" on # 20-2609, "I Feel So Smoochie" on # 20-2763, "All Of Me" / "Sweet Nothings" on # 20-3034, "California Is Wonderful" on # 20-3229, "Anticipation Without Realization" on # 20-3276, and the novelty "All Right Louie, Drop The Gun" on # 20-3410.

In 1948, Prima had met Keely Smith an aspiring singer from Norfolk, Virginia. They began recording together and in 1950 recorded some well received sides for Robin Hood, a record label established by Prima and Leo Rogers. First was "Angelina" and a remake of "Robin Hood" on # 100. Then the duo had a national hit with the tune "Oh Babe" on Robin Hood # 101. Keely Smith would eventually become Prima's wife. Other records for Robin Hood were "Zooma Zooma Bacalla" on # 106, and "Come On -A My House" on # 111. In the 1950s, Prima ended the big band and produced and fronted an act that featured the dead pan Keely Smith playing off Louis manic personality, and was backed up by Sam Butera & The Witnesses. They became a top act in Las Vegas, had a hit record with their version of "That Old Black Magic" on Capitol # 4063 which won a Grammy award, and appeared in the motion picture "Hey Boy Hey Girl" in 1959. Other Capitol releases were "French Poodle" / "Handle With Care" on # 4119, "I've Got You Under My Skin" on # 4140, "Twist All Night" / "Everybody Knows" on # 4732, and "Little Girl Blues" on # 4906. In late 1959 Prima moved to Dot Records. Such recordings for the label such as "Night And Day" on # 15978, "Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop" on # 16009, and "When My Baby Smiles At Me" on # 16060, were not successful, but an instrumental version of the tune "Wonderland By Night" (a cover of German Bert Kaempfert's number one seller) was a surprising hit for Louis Prima. It was a three month mainstay on the charts and was a top fifteen seller nationally.

After his divorce from Smith, Prima featured vocalist Gia Maione with the band. He remained a favorite in Vegas and made many appearances on television. Prima appeared in a quickie motion picture called "Twist All Night" to capitalize on the dance fad. In the mid sixties, Louis Prima was discovered by a whole new audience. He did the voice over for one of the main characters for the Disney animated feature "The Jungle Book". The result was a huge movie hit and a million selling sound track album from the picture. He and Phil Harris also did a sequel to the LP called "More Jungle Book". In the mid seventies, Louis Prima was finally slowed down by poor health and in August of 1978 he passed away. But the music lived on. David Lee Roth former front man for the group Van Halen, recorded a dead on version of Louis two song segue - "Just A Gigolo - I Ain't Got Nobody" that made the national best seller charts, Reba McIntyre recorded a country styled "A Sunday Kind Of Love" that was also a chart topper, and in the late nineties the "retro swing" sound caused "Jump Jive and Wail" to be covered by a host of musicians including former Stray Cats leader Brian Setzer's great big band version.

There are many CDs available that capture the spirit and talent of Louis Prima. He was a singular talent, one that comes along once in a lifetime, maybe many lifetimes. The best starting point is Rhino's "Zooma Zooma (the best of Louis Prima)". There are many more "best of" compilations such as on Capitol, but all have a lot of duplication. Savoy Jazz has a CD of Prima's 1940s big band with vocalist Lily Ann Carol called "Play Pretty For The People". France based Jazz Classics has two CDs from the war years -" Louis Prima 1940 - 1944", and "Louis Prima : 1945". There is also a 23 track CD on Cleopatra called "The Best Of The War Years". Collector's Choice has a CD of V-Discs recorded by Prima. "Say It With A Slap" on BMG covers the big band in 1947-49 featuring a young Keely Smith, while covering that same period is Reflections "1940s Broadcasts Featuring Keely Smith". "Breaking It Up" on Sony is the early 50s at Columbia which was originally produced by Mitch Miller giving Prima a more subdued sound. The years at Capitol are represented by a great 2 CD set from England's EMI containing the original tracks from "Call Of The Wildest" and the live "Wildest Show At Tahoe", and DCC's "The Wildest" from 1957. "On Stage : Live" is a Dot Records era CD on Jasmine that is mostly instrumental, and so is "Wonderland By Night" for MCA. Post Keely Smith recordings are Reflections "50s And 60s Broadcasts", "Show In The Casbar" on Prima, and the odd CD "Let's Fly With Mary Poppins" on Disney all which feature Gia Maione. Then there is the last of the recordings - "Wildest : 75" with Louis and Gia. There are two other imports that are of interest - "Beepin And Boppin" on Hip-O, and "Let's Swing It" on Charley that capture the essence of the music. After the Rhino CD and the EMI two-fer, you will be hooked and wonder why this great performer is not more readily known as the tremendous influence he has been for so many years, and not just an icon of a bygone era to be trotted out to sell jeans or automobiles. Louis Prima was an American original. There will not be another like him.

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