Search the Special Collections and Archives Portal
Prima, Louis, 1910-1978
Louis Prima (1910-1978) was an American singer, songwriter, trumpeter, bandleader, and actor during the mid-20th century. He was known for performing jazz, swing, and jump blues music. Using his background from New Orleans and his Italian heritage to shape his distinctive sound, he encouraged other performers at the time to embrace their ethnic heritage. He frequently performed with his wife, Keely Smith, at the height of his popularity.
Louis Prima was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on December 7, 1910. His family were Italian immigrants who came to the United States from Argentina. He learned to play the trumpet at the age of fifteen when his older brother left his spare instrument behind. Prima was inspired by musicians Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, and began professionally performing at the New Orleans theater when he was seventeen years old. In 1934, he moved to New York and formed the New Orleans Gang, a Dixieland-style backing group. They performed regular gigs at a 52nd Street club, the "Famous Door," and rose to popularity. Prima traveled to Los Angeles, California occasionally and appeared in Hollywood musicals, such as the Bing Crosby Western Rhythm on the Range in 1936.
Prima began to compose his own original material such as the song “Sing, Sing, Sing” and broke up the New Orleans Gang in 1939 to form his new band, the Gleeby Rhythm Orchestra. The band landed multiple hits that drew from his Italian background and accent. In 1948, Keely Smith joined his band as a female vocalist. On stage, Prima and Smith performed together with contrasting styles that made their performance entertaining to their audiences. After a few years, Prima signed with Columbia records in 1951 and dropped out of his big band in order to manage his expenses. He continued to work with Smith at nightclub acts and the two of them married in the summer of 1953.
Living and performing at The Sahara in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1954, Prima and Smith’s act became a huge hit and they entertained regularly in Las Vegas for the rest of the decade. Prima changed his record deals, signing with Capitol Records in 1955 and with Dot Records in 1959. He relocated to the Desert Inn and had the opportunity to perform at the inaugural gala for President John F. Kennedy in January 1961. After their contract with Desert Inn was finished, Keely Smith filed for divorce later that year. Prima replaced Smith’s position as female vocalist with Gia Maione and married her in 1963. He tried his best to increase her popularity as a singer, however it was no where close to Smith’s.
In 1967, Prima had the chance to voice King Louie in Walt Disney’s film, The Jungle Book. He featured in the Disney song of the era, "I Wanna Be Like You.” He then went on to spending the late 1960s and early 1970s at Las Vegas casinos and lounges, such as the Sands Hotel. He soon returned to his home in New Orleans and spent his time playing in the French Quarter for tourists. Louis Prima passed away on August 24, 1978 at the age of sixty-seven.
Sands Hotel Public Relations Records, 1952-1977. MS-00417. Special Collections and Archives,University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.