A few days ago, I stumbled over an article in the Louisiana Cultural Vistas, a journal sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. It was by a fellow archivist and friend, Bruce Boyd Raeburn, director of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. It was about Louis Prima, a genre-bending singer and bandleader, who fascinates me. I knew he was Italian-American and from New Orleans. He is perhaps best known as one of the first big headliners in 1950s Las Vegas and for being the voice of Ape King Louis in the 1960s Disney feature, The Jungle Book. However, it was Bruce’s 2006 article that made clear how much of New Orleans Prima carried with him when he left his hometown in the 1930s.
Prima, the son of a Sicilian grocer, grew up in the predominately African-American neighborhood of Treme. And while he was unquestionably Italian, it is clear that he absorbed the music, the Creole food, and the patois of his neighborhood. Undoubtedly, it served him well growing up and later in life, but it was the source of some confusion when he tried to launch his career in New York in 1934.
Prima came from a musical family; his mother encouraged him to learn the violin, which he played in St. Ann’s Parish. At the same time, Prima was influenced by local musicians, such as Louis Armstrong and his own brother, Leon, both cornet players. Leon and Louis left New Orleans for greener pastures and Prima eschewed the violin for the horn, jazz, and the club scene. In 1934, while playing in a dive on Bourbon Street, Prima caught the eye of bandleader Guy Lombardo. He thought so much of Prima’s act that he got the young entertainer a gig at Leon and Eddie’s on New York’s 52nd Street.
Prima made the trip to New York and introduced himself to club owner Eddie Davis. What Davis saw was a swarthy, jive-talking musician from New Orleans and retracted the offer because he thought Prima was black. Clearly, Davis could not comprehend the melting pot that is New Orleans and the power of neighborhood over ethnicity. In spite of the setback, Prima had the last laugh as he ending up launching his career at the Famous Door, just two doors down from Davis’ club. He took the town by storm and the rest, they say, is history.
Prima went onto fame in music, film, and later, in Las Vegas. In spite of the confusion at Leon and Eddie’s, Prima continued to draw from the music and musicians of his New Orleans. He went on to write such standards as “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which he recorded with his New Orleans Gang; however, the tune would become emblematic of the Swing Era, when Benny Goodman covered it in 1937. In addition , Prima became one of the first Italian-American entertainers to promote his ethnicity and it became an important part of both his professional identify and repertoire. And he continued to do so throughout World War II, despite increased anti-Italian sentiment.
Prima went on to fame as a performer at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas with his fourth wife, Keely Smith. He surrounded himself with a musical ensemble, the Witnesses, led by New Orleans saxophonist, Sam Butera. Years later, Prima and the band would record “I Wanna Be Like You” for Disney’s The Jungle Book. Both the recording session and the animation paid homage to the music and exuberance of the second line parades of Prima’s old neighborhood.
So, while Prima may have left New Orleans in 1934, it is clear that New Orleans never left him. For Raeburn’s article on Louis Prima, click here.