Louis Prima (Wikimedia Commons / William P. Gottlieb)
Louis Prima was a talented singer, songwriter and trumpeter, but perhaps what the bandleader did best was reinvent himself. For decades, Prima stayed on top by playing the music that was trendy and cool. Along the way, he showcased qualities that his earliest fans may not even have known he possessed. By the time he died, 35 years ago today, Prima had journeyed through a wide variety of musical styles, from Dixieland to Big Band to classic kid-fare – and won millions of fans along the way.
It all started in the 1920s, when Prima was just a teen. In his hometown of New Orleans, he played in the school band and with friends at clubs in the French Quarter. A distinctive style of Dixieland swing emerged, one that would carry Prima to fame in the 1930s. Louis Prima and His New Orleans Gang, as he was calling his band at the time, moved to New York City to make it big – and made the big city come alive with their infectious jazz.
As the 1940s began, Dixieland was on the way out. WWII-era America was dancing to the music of the big bands, and Prima was ready, willing and able to grab that audience. Sometimes with a female singer at the mike and sometimes singing himself, Prima played tunes that were just right for a USO dance.
Cue the 1950s: big bands are out, and finger-snappin' cool is in. Prima found his way to Las Vegas, where gigs at the Sahara and the Desert Inn kept his career swinging. A Vegas nightclub performer does best if he's not just musically talented, but charismatic as well – and Prima had charisma in spades. And he was just plain funny, too.
At the dawn of the 1960s, Prima was 50 years old: an age when many singers would slow down and enjoy life a bit. But not Prima – he released an amazing eight albums in 1960 and 1961 alone. And then he reinvented himself once again, becoming something new… and oddly orange and furry. That something was The Jungle Book's King Louie, the jazzy singing orangutan. Prima's solo number was one of the hits of the Disney classic, a toe-tapping tune that is still beloved today.
The 1970s saw Prima's health decline sharply. After a heart attack in 1973, and the discovery of a brain tumor two years later, Prima spent his last years in a coma before passing away on August 24, 1978.
Just over a decade ago, Prima’s widow released re-mastered versions of the recordings he made under his own label in the 1960s and early ‘70s, ensuring that fans can discover and remember the music of the man The Times-Picayune called “one of New Orleans’ most important, colorful and underappreciated musicians and entertainers.”
Buried in his hometown, Prima’s crypt includes an inscription that quotes from one of his greatest hits and speaks, perhaps, to his underappreciated musical legacy: "When the end comes, I know, they'll all say 'just a gigolo' as life goes on without me..."
Written by Linnea Crowther