107. Louis Prima (and Keely Smith)

Louis Prima was a singer, songwriter and trumpet player from New Orleans, Louisiana. Prima enjoyed modest success as a jazz musician in the thirties and forties, and is the author of “Sing, Sing, Sing”, made famous by Benny Goodman and his drummer, Gene Krupa. He achieved widespread popularity by developing an energetic and playful rhythm and blues (R&B) act in the fifties. He parlayed his success into a Las Vegas residency for many years.


Louis Prima (1910-1978), singer, trumpet, songwriter
Sam Butera (1927-2009), saxophone
Keely Smith (b. 1928), singer

The best Louis Prima song is “I Wan’na Be Like You” from the Walt Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The song’s authors Richard and Robert Sherman spent months composing the song, working with Prima (as King Louie the Orangutan) and actor Phil Harris (as Baloo the Bear) to get the details right. Not only is the music fun and exciting; the words express an underlying envy of man’s power and control. It’s one of my favorites.

“Now don’t try to kid me, man cub,
I made a deal with you.
What I desire is man’s red fire,
To make my dream come true.
Give me the secret, man cub,
Come on, clue me what to do.
Give me the power of man’s red flower.
So I can be like you.”

— Richard and Robert Sherman

A Love Letter To Peppy

The young woman singing is Keely Smith, who was Prima’s fourth wife. She has a strong voice and a Barbie-doll figure, which does not pass unnoticed. Her stoic stage demeanor was prescribed by Prima, as a counterpoint to his wild antics. Their husband and wife dynamic is considered the template for Sonny & Cher.

After college, I worked for eleven years as an aerospace engineer in Sunnyvale, California. I was unattached for only short periods in my life; between the summers of 1987 and 1989 was the longest stretch when I was free. I was smitten with Peppy the first time I saw her, though the circumstances and her attire were far from an attempt to entice. At the time, she was a lieutenant in the Air Force, and though she tried to hide her figure, my discriminating eye easily discerned the exaggerated curves beneath her button-down service uniform.

I didn’t see her much for a couple years, but then I changed jobs within my company, and she left the Air Force to work for another subcontractor on the same communications project. After noting the connection, and before I really knew her at all, I walked into her office one day and told her I was interested. Something along the lines of “Hello, my name is John. We work on the same project, and I want you to know I’m very interested in you.” I’ve been straightforward like this only a couple times in my life; my experience leads me to believe it’s an effective attention-getter.

At the time she a couple years into a relationship with an older man, a respected analyst within the satellite communications community. I was younger, athletic and handsome, and I had plenty of opportunities to discuss work with Peppy, enough to pique her interest and distract her from her ongoing relationship. She finally agreed to a Friday night date. I took her to the Santa Clara County Fair to see The Four Tops, one of her favorite bands. It was a magical evening. I even won a giant stuffed animal by making two basketball shots into an impossibly small basket. The Four Tops put on a good show, and nobody ever filled out a t-shirt better than Peppy did that evening. At the end of the great evening, I gave her a warm, gentlemanly hug, but did not kiss her. She did not wish to be kissed.

I saw Peppy a few more times in group social situations, but I never coaxed her away from her boyfriend. I eventually started dating the lovely Cheryl, whom I have been married to for over twenty years. Peppy married her Ron and they have been together ever since. Peppy and I both married older people with children from previous marriages, and were never able to have our own children, though Peppy adopted a child.

Should Peppy have taken a chance with me? We could have had our own family, but I understand why she thought I was the risky choice. I had experienced drug problems in the past, though I had stopped at that time. Would I have stayed sober during a life with Peppy? I respected her and wanted her very much. Were we well matched? Like me, she was smart, graduating with honors in chemistry from Vanderbilt. She was frugal and kinda dorky. She watched old movies on TV, liked old music and old cars, a nostalgic person. I would have given Peppy the “full catastrophe”, with children and love and heartache and glorious moments of elation. Looking at life in the rear view mirror, she would have had to be strong to handle some of the difficult aspects of my personality. She was not a classic beauty, but she was smart and petite and voluptuous, and I thought the world of her. I get attached and am very loyal; I would have married her and loved her forever, and I knew this without ever kissing her.

Peppy first noticed Keely Smith while listening to “That Old Black Magic”. Just last winter I saw Van Morrison sing the famous duet with his daughter Shana Morrison. Keely Smith appeals to me. She looks good. Smith’s career never improved after she and Prima divorced in 1961. One might argue the charms of a calm, established older man prevented her from achieving her full potential.

Could you have kept up with me and my desires? There were times long ago when I wished you would let your hair down and love me.

Louis Prima Songs:

I Wan’na Be Like You, Louis Prima & Phil Harris ✭✭✭✭✭

That Old Black Magic, Louis Prima ✭✭✭✭

Just A Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody, Louis Prima ✭✭✭
When You’re Smiling / The Shiek Of Araby, Louis Prima ✭✭✭
Sing, Sing, Sing, Louis Prima ✭✭✭

Buono Sera, Louis Prima ✭✭
Buono Sera (Goodnight), Louis Prima ✭✭
The Lady In Red, Louis Prima ✭✭
5 Months, 2 Weeks, 2 Days, Louis Prima ✭✭
Angelina / Zooma Zooma, Louis Prima ✭✭
All Night Long (Live), Louis Prima ✭✭

Cross Patch, Louis Prima
Jump, Jive An’ Wail, Louis Prima
Jamaica Shout, Louis Prima
Night Train, Louis Prima
The Lip, Louis Prima
Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me / I’m In The Mood For Love (Live), Louis Prima

Related Songs:

When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You), Billie Holiday ✭✭✭✭
When You’re Smiling (Live), Van Morrison ✭✭

Sing, Sing, Sing, Benny Goodman
Sing, Sing, Sing (Live), Benny Goodman

I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song), Los Lobos ✭✭✭

Just A Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody, David Lee Roth ✭✭

Night Train, James Brown ✭✭✭✭
Night Train, Jimmy Forrest ✭✭
Night Train / Closing (Live), James Brown

The Sheik Of Araby, Red Nichols & His Five Pennies ✭✭
The Sheik Of Araby, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
The Sheik Of Araby, Jack Teagarden

2 thoughts on “107. Louis Prima (and Keely Smith)

  1. Richard Supan December 2, 2009 / 7:01 PM

    That Old Black Magic- Listened to it, a good four star song John !!!!

  2. Cheryl January 16, 2010 / 9:54 PM

    A very passionate and heartfelt post – it is so you and quite beautiful. I was not familiar with Keely before you did this section and I now have several of her songs in my iTunes collection – I know, more than you feel is necessary but I really enjoy her.

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