In our series in which musicians write about their icons, Simon Harris, London-born singer-songwriter and leader of Trio Manouche, considers the entertainment, the appeal and the longevity of Louis Prima, with examples drawn from four decades of his career:
Louis Prima (1910-1978) represents, for me, the epitome of the joyful fun side of jazz and swing. If Prima and the other musicians in the band weren’t so accomplished and the standard of musicianship wasn’t so high then many of these arrangements would risk sounding seriously cheesy.
Because the actual sound and swing of these guys is so huge, the music itself doesn’t need to be complicated in order to work. I suppose you could call Prima’s musical entourage a ‘working’ band as they were constantly doing gigs and residencies in places like Las Vegas.
I like the unashamed nature of this music-making and entertainment jazz where the audience does come first but the musicians all seriously enjoy the ride and still get to express their musicianship and personalities along the way.
Louis famously said “play pretty for the people” and it would have been an electrifying experience to catch him and the band giving it their all on a good night. I wish I could have!
1. Felicia No Capicia (Live) 1946
I love this and perform it regularly with my alter-artist-ego band Capitano & The Whistleblowers. Prima really goes to town on the ‘Britalian’ play on words: “she made me dizzier than vino & you know just what I meano”. It’s a great lyrical twist if you follow the story until the end of the song and I think here it really highlights one of the less often spoken about artforms that is comedy lyrics in jazz. Obviously you have to make it work but I think Prima really nails it.
2. Just A Gigolo (remastered version) 1957
The song itself I love and there’s another great solo piano version played by Oscar Peterson that’s well worth checking out. The groove on this is relaxed but seriously swinging and one of the most notable things about Louis’ version is the build culminating in an incredible trombone solo climax with a repeated note played with serious attitude! The call and response outro demonstrates Prima’s comic timing and is a fitting end to what could arguably be called a masterpiece!
3. Angelina / Zooma Zooma (Live At Tahoe) 1957
”I eat zuppa minestrone just to be with her alone Angelina”! This one’s definitely on the comedy side of the fence with clever original funny lyrics but it also shows off Prima’s Sicilian roots. He was one of the first Italian Americans not to shy away or dumb-down his Italian ancestry. Still, when it goes in to the double time medley bit we get a nice shot of his vocal chops and timing. This reminds me of the vibe when I visit my own family in Puglia!
4. On The Sunny Side Of The Street/Exactly Like You (Live At Tahoe) 1957
A fabulous version of this much covered classic, in my view only rivalled by Dizzy & Sonny Stitt’s take on the song, then morphing in to a really lovely arrangement of Exactly Like You with great backing vocals by Prima’s then wife Keely Smith. I love that both Sam Butera on saxophone and Louis on trumpet both really seem creative and goading each other on with the solos.
5. Buona Sera (1956)
Such a great song, and it shows Prima’s romantic serenading style which then suddenly switches in to a super exciting, energetic, jump blues style solo by Sam Butera on tenor saxophone. Artists like Sinatra would never venture away from jazz into what was essentially rock ‘n’ roll type grooves, however Prima and his crew had no shame, clearly enjoying themselves, and they understood that young people wanted to dance and feel cool listening to what was then the sound of the ’50s.
6. I Wanna Be Like You (1967)
What a great track and what a great scene in my favourite cartoon film of all time! Prima is perfect as King Louie and his trumpet playing is exceptional in this, playing a lot higher than normal. Prima performs a hilarious and classic scat duet with Phil Harris. The recording was originally intended to be Prima and Butera’s small band arrangement but it was re-arranged by George Bruns, the film’s composer. Our man still smashes it on vocals and trumpet I think!
7. Swing It – 1936
I think we have to include this clip from the ’30s, even though it’s not one single track, as there aren’t many recordings from that period. Already you can hear what a consummate musician and performer Prima was. Sometimes it almost has to verge on cabaret but always there’s a greatness to his playing, in my humble opinion. Some of the playing is seriously technically virtuosic, especially towards the end of the clip playing Dinah and he can clearly play great swing trumpet!
8. Rhythm On The Radio – 1936
This reminds me of Slim and Slam in terms of the rhythm, groove and lyrical witty style, however Prima’s band in the ’30s was still firmly rooted in the swing and showmanship vibe whereas Slim & Slam were swing but leaning towards be-bop and regularly played with guys like Charlie Parker, etc. I think it’s a great example of how the split happened. No less musical, just different directions and sensibilities.
9. I’m In The Mood For Love – 1957
I think the golden decade was the ’50s and this duet is just great. Keely Smith added the sweetness to the group and you can see in this performance the dynamic between Louis and Keely is electrifying. What I’ve realised about Prima is that whilst he was a star in his own right, and generally the lead performer in the band, he was actually stronger as a team player and the combination of Louis, Keely Smith and Sam Butera on sax was just incredible in my opinion, hence why almost all the recordings I’ve chosen are from that period.
10. Night Train (1957)
With that in mind here’s an absolutely killer version of Night Train to play us out, which features the great Sam Butera on tenor. His sound and timing is just sensational. You can hear and see the chemistry between this group and hopefully see why I’m so crazy about this particular period in Prima’s varied musical journey.
LINKS: Simon Harris’ website