Prima was from a musical family in New Orleans. His father, Anthony Prima, was the son of Leonardo Di Prima, a Sicilian immigrant from Salaparuta, while his mother, Angelina Caravella, had immigrated from Ustica as a baby.Louis Prima was the second child of Angelina Caravella and Anthony Prima. His older brother, Leon, was born in 1907. He had two younger sisters: Elizabeth and Marguerite. Marguerite died when she was three years old. Leon, Louis, and Elizabeth were all baptized at St. Ann's Parish. They lived in a house at 1812 St. Peter Street in New Orleans, which was mainly populated by Italians, Arabs, Jews and African Americans.Louis's mother, Angelina, was a first-generation Italian American in New Orleans. She made sure that each child played an instrument. Louis was assigned the violin and started out playing at St. Ann's Parish. He became interested in jazz when he heard black musicians, including Louis Armstrong. Clubs such as Matranga's, Joe Segrettas, Tonti's Social Club, and Lala's Big 25 were all owned and operated by Italians but allowed Blacks and Italians to play.According to author Garry Boulard in his book Louis Prima
, Prima paid attention to the music coming from clubs and watched his older brother Leon play the cornet. Once Leon caught a break in Texas for a summer, Louis practiced continuously on his worn-down cornet. It was also beneficial that his mother was with Leon, so he could play as he wished. He formed a band in 1924 with his childhood friends Irving Fazola (clarinet) and Johnny Viviano (drums).Prima attended Jesuit High School but transferred to Warren Easton High in the fall of 1926. At Warren Easton, he played with the "Eastonites", the school band. In 1927, he played with Frank Federico and played in "The Whip", which was a run down French Quarter Club. By the spring of 1928, Prima decided he would drop out at Warren Easton and become a professional musician.
The search for success
After dropping out of high school, Prima had a few unsuccessful gigs, including when he joined the Ellis Stratako Orchestra in 1929. Prima, Federico and saxophonist Dave Winstein drove to Florida for a gig but no one showed up. They made it to a relative's house, where they were given money for gas and a meal. Prima did not give up. He joined Joseph Cherniavsky's Orchestra in 1929 at Jefferson Parish. He got a temporary job playing on Steamship Capital that docked on Canal Street.Although the Steamship Capital did not provide him with a break, he met his first wife Louise Polizzi. They married on June 25, 1929. From 1931 to 1932 Louis occupied his time by performing in the Avalon Club owned by his brother Leon. His first break was when Lou Forbes hired him for daily afternoon and early evening shows at The Saenger.
The Big Apple
New York was an attraction for hungry musicians during the Great Depression. It posed numerous risks, but all of the best artists in the nation made it in New York if not anywhere else. Guy Lombardo met Louis Prima while he was performing at club Shim Sham during the Mardi Gras season of 1934.Prima’s first gig in New York was supposed to be at a club called Leon and Eddie’s, located on 33 West 52nd street. Eddie Davis, one of the owners of the club, did not hire Prima because he thought he was a negro.
Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang
In September 1934, Prima began recording for the Brunswick label. He recorded "That’s Where the South Begins", "Long About Midnight", "Jamaica Shout", and "Star Dust". Prima and his New Orleans Gang was a band that consisted of five musicians. Frank Pinero was the pianist, Jack Ryan played bass, Garrett McAdams played guitar, while Pee Wee Russell played clarinet. The band had their first performance at a club called the “Famous Door” owned and operated by Jack Colt. Prima's recordings from 1935 were a combination of Dixieland and swing.In May 1935, Prima and Russell recorded "The Lady in Red", a national jukebox hit. They also recorded "Chinatown", "Chasing Shadows" and "Gypsy Tea Room". Martha Raye also played a role in Louis’s professional and personal life. She was a comedienne with potential to become a singer. The two featured a show at the club that granted Prima his first national debut on "The Fleischman Hour".
Prima moved to California to get away from that lifestyle and expand his music. During this time there was a movement for big bands and orchestras. Prima hired Louis Masinter on the string bass, a New Orleans native. He also fired McAdams so that he could have Frank Federico, his childhood friend, play the guitar.With all of his success, his marriage back in New Orleans had already failed. Louise and Louis were divorced in 1936 because Prima was found cheating on Louise back in 1933, in the French Quarter. Merely a few months later, he was involved in a new fling with Alma Ross, an actress.Louis and Alma were quite serious and after only a few months together he asked her to marry him while he started his tour out in the Midwest. The couple faced problems in Wisconsin and Chicago because they did not meet the marital requirements. Guy Lombardo helped them out by arranging a place in South Bend, Indiana. They wed on July 25, 1936. The couple had a few problems; one of the worst was that Louis denied much about his past. He never confessed to Alma that he had a daughter until she found out from a tax return. Louis also pushed Alma into signing with Paramount in 1937. He continued to travel along the East Coast with his band.Prima struggled to upgrade to big band style. It was not supported by his mentors in New York or Los Angeles. With the help of Guy Lombardo he traveled to Chicago to promote his new format at the Blackhawk in October 1936. The new format was not successful. The show did not bring out Prima’s performance ability, and the music sounded “overly rehearsed”. He lost money and did not pay some of his musicians.
Reinvented in New York
In 1937, Prima and his smaller gang (Federico, Masinter, Pinero, and Meyer Weinberg on clarinet) returned to the Famous Door in New York to perform. He also appeared at Billy Rose’s Casa Mañana club in May 1938. He racked up about a quarter million dollars throughout seven weeks at Casa Mañana. He was booked by William Morris Agency in late 1938. This entailed traveling throughout the east coast. Stops were made in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Miami Beach, New Orleans, and St. Louis. These trips were sometimes made in the course of one night of driving. The crew always traveled by car, since it was the cheapest option.
World War II
When World War II came around, many men were drafted. Prima was not fit for military service because of a knee injury, so he could continue performing. In 1939 he was under contract to appear in black theatres in New York, Baltimore, Boston and Washington D.C.. It turns out that Mrs. Roosevelt attended his performance in D.C., and formally invited him to the President's birthday celebration. He was in pictures with the president and political powers of the country, which ultimately boosted his publicity.By the mid-1940s, Prima was experiencing great success. People were purchasing tickets early in the morning for shows later on that evening. Despite the anti-Italian feeling during the war Prima continued to record Italian songs, the most famous "Angelina", named after his mother. Others included “Please No Squeeza Da Banana", "Bacci Galupe (Made Love on the Stoop)", and "Felicia No Capricia."He performed the Italian songs at the Strand Theatre in New York. He brought in $440,000 in six weeks. In Detroit he could bring in about $38,000 for an afternoon performance. With all of this success, he decided to go back to Chicago to prove himself. He sold out the “Panther Room” and reinvented himself in the windy city.Prima had some big hits in the summer of 1945 including, "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time" and "Bell-Bottom Trousers". As his career was growing even more, his marriage with Alma had ultimately failed. They got a divorce when she discovered he had been cheating on her with Jean Harlow, another actress. Alma was supposed to receive $15,000 a year or 7.5% of his earnings. Prima ignored the payments until they piled up to about $60,000, which forced him to write a settlement check of $45,000 plus $250 per week.He quickly met a new wife, Tracelene Barrett, who was Prima's secretary. She was a sweet and simple girl and he intended to keep her that way when they got married. She would manage his spending at the race track. He bought a horse and named it Tracelene II.With the end of the war, the music industry changed. Most couples were getting married and moving out of the city. Most of the big bands were diminishing, but Louis was able to resist for a few months. In 1947 he played more jazzy versions of music. Under the new contract with RCA Victor, he recorded "Civilization," "You Can’t Tell the Depth of the Well," "Say it with a Slap," “Valencia," and "My Flame Went Out Last Night." A few months later in November he recorded "Thousand Islands," "Mean To Me," and "Tutti Frutti Pizzicato." In 1948 Louis and Tracelene had a baby girl. He continued to work in the northeast, but cut back his orchestra.
To the record companies and big corporations, Prima showed little sympathy and was defiant in settling for an adequate salary. For instance, Warner Brothers offered him $60,000 to be in a movie on Helen Morgan’s life. He rejected the offer, and when Warner Brothers increased to 75,000, it still was not enough. He wanted $100,000 and control of his role, which was rejected by Warner Brothers. He had further disputes with Strand Theatre in New York and Majestic Records. He also did not allow a former songwriter to advertise herself as “formerly featured with Louis Prima’s orchestra”.To his family, friends, and fans Prima was a much different person. He was very patient with fans and always autographed or took pictures with them. He also became a fatherly figure for Barbara Belle, a songwriter and secretary for Louis.
He shopped at expensive clothing stores and wore top brand suits. Along with clothing, he spent much of his extra money on horses. He enjoyed gambling because it relaxed him. He had invested six figures in the horses and all seven of them were housed in Aqueduct, New York. Riding was one of the things that relaxed him the most outside of his busy performing life. He knew each of his horses well and read about training. Another hobby was boating. He purchased a boat for his third wife Tracelene Barrett for their honeymoon in the Hudson River.
Keely Smith was seventeen when Louis Prima met her. Her hometown was Norfolk, Virginia. In August 1948, she made a point to stop by the Surf Club in Virginia Beach to visit one of her favorite artists, Louis Prima. To her surprise, he was looking for a new female vocalist to replace Lily Ann Carol. Keely had a bathing suit on and was not allowed into the club until she had proper attire on. Luckily, someone was able to lend her some acceptable clothing and she auditioned. She landed the part and travelled with the band.Louis signed with Columbia Records in the fall of 1951 to keep up with the rapid changes in the marketing industry. Throughout the sixteen-month contract his top hits consisted of "Chop Suey, Chow Mein," "Ooh-Dahdily-Dah," and "Chili Sauce". To manage his expenses, he had to drop his big band and play in low-grade clubs to support his horses. On top of it all, he divorced his third wife Tracelene on June 18, 1953. Less than a month later he married Keely. She was open to criticism and he wanted to make her a star. He had to find the style that fit her correctly, especially since rock and roll was emerging. Prima was not against rock’n’roll like some other artists, such as Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason. He accepted that the kids had "an instinct for the kind of music that’s fun to listen to and dance to."
A new act
In 1954 Prima was offered to stay at The Sahara in Las Vegas to open his new act with Keely Smith. He called up New Orleans saxophonist, Sam Butera. With Butera came his background musicians, "The Witnesses". They were talented musicians who Prima tweaked to his liking. The act was a hit, and ultimately led Prima to sign with Capitol Records in 1955.He released his first album with Capitol Records, The Wildest!
, in September 1956. Some of the popular songs include his medley of "Just a Gigolo" and "I Ain't Got Nobody". In 1957, they released The Call of the Wildest
. Keely worked with other artists to release the album I Wish You Love
, and received a Grammy in 1958. Keely also received a Playboy Jazz Award in 1959. She got a number one female vocalist reward in 58/59 from Billboard
. The duo also redid "Old Black Magic", which was a top 40 hit for two months. It earned the duo a Grammy. The couple also had two daughters together.Prima decided to relocate his acts to the Desert Inn because he would take in $3 million for producing 12 weeks worth of acts a year for five years.In 1959, Prima signed with Dot Records and they produced 8 albums. The top albums were Wonderland By Night
and On Stage
in 1961. The couple was constantly performing and it affected their marriage. To attempt relaxation, the couple set out on a trip on the Atlantic coast, but ended up grounded in the Intracoastal Waterway until rescued by the Coast Guard.In January 1961, Prima was invited by Frank Sinatra to perform in the Inaugural Gala for President John F. Kennedy They played "Old Black Magic". The constant performances and Prima's sometimes flirtatious actions were too much for Smith. After finishing up their contract at the Desert Inn, she filed for divorce at the Eighth Judicial Circuit Court of Nevada in Las Vegas.After Keely was out of his life and his performances, Prima tried to prove that he did not need her. In the New York Post
, there was a suggestion that Keely should rejoin for an act in New York's Basin Street East nightclub. Prima said, "I have no desire whatsoever to have any dealings with Keely Smith under any conditions. ... There is nothing in the world or no one that could ever make me accept this woman in our act."Prima's father died in 1961, the same year as the divorce with Keely. His mother died in the winter of 1965, for which he partly blamed Keely.In 1962 he tried to form his own recording company called “Prima One Records.” He tried to fill Keely's spot with Gia Maione, a waitress who was 21 years old. He did his best to make her famous by producing her first album “This Is … Gia.” It was funded entirely by him, and it was not successful. With Gia, Prima had a daughter and his only son Louis Prima, Jr. He was also in the middle of making appearances in Las Vegas and promoting the film “Twist All Night.”In 1967 Prima landed a role in Walt Disney's animated feature The Jungle Book
, as the raucous orangutan King Louie. He performed the hit song "I Wanna Be Like You" on the soundtrack, leading to the recording of two albums with Phil Harris: The Jungle Book
and More Jungle Book,
and also covering MC duties and singing the theme song Winnie the Pooh,
for the 1967 album entitled, Happy Birthday Winnie the Pooh
, all of these on Disneyland Records. He can also be heard on the soundtrack of another cartoon feature, The Man Called Flintstone
Prima suffered a heart attack in 1973. In 1975, following headaches and episodes of memory loss, he sought medical attention, and found out he had a brain stem tumor. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and went into a coma following surgery to remove the tumor. He never recovered, and died three years later, in 1978, having been moved back to New Orleans. He was buried in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans. His gray marble crypt is topped by a figure of Gabriel, the trumpeter-angel, sculpted in 1997 by Russian-born sculptor Alexei Kazantsev. The inscription on the crypt's door quotes the lyrics from one of his hits: "When the end comes, I know, they'll all say 'just a gigolo' as life goes on without me. Lovingly, your little family..."
On July 25, 2010 Louis Prima received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame's 50th anniversary on the year of his 100th birthday.