One hundred years ago tomorrow, and 31 years before actions at Pearl Harbor would forever cast Dec. 7 as “a day of infamy,” a boy was born in New Orleans who would bring fame to his city. On Dec. 7, 1910, Anthony and Angelina Prima had a child whom they named Louis.
If New Orleans had a posthumous Person of the Year for 2010, a case could be made for Louis Prima. Singer Tony’s Bennett’s splendid painting of Prima adorned the Jazz Fest poster, and Prima’s son did a right-on re-creation of a Prima performance at the Fest and around town.
Growing up I heard about Prima as an entertainer from New Orleans who made it big elsewhere. The only slight interest I had in him was that he was local, but because he was from another generation and Las Vegas lounges were out of my reach, that interest was mild.
One day, though, that old black magic would suddenly cast its spell, and I would become a Prima fan. I even remember the date and the hour: It was August 24, 1978, between 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. I became a Prima fan on the day that he died. That afternoon the local news stations opened their broadcasts with stories about Prima’s life and included snippets of his songs. The more news I watched and the more songs I heard, the bigger fan I became.
There was the bouncy sound of "Just A Gigolo" as well as "Angelina," a song with a full-flavored Italian accent written in honor of his mother –– and most of all, "That Old Black Magic," with the gravelly voiced Prima clowning around and singing counterpoint to the belted lyrics by wife Keely Smith. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Prima and Smith were the prototype for a popular more contemporary act, Sonny and Cher. In both cases, she was the talented wisecracking songstress putting down her husband, who often played the buffoon but was really the creative genius. Louis and Keely would have seemed natural performing "I’ve Got You Babe." Later, I would appreciate Prima’s segues into Italian during his songs, giving pop audiences music that was multicultural before that term was even invented.
Within 72 hours I became such a Prima fan that I even attended his funeral. To this day when I drive to work along the Pontchartrain Expressway where the road parallels the clusters of white tombs, I think about the crowd in Metairie Cemetery that day.
Sam Butera, Prima’s protégé, also a New Orleans guy, would, in the years after Prima’s death, perform in his hometown occasionally. One year I saw him at a place called the Shim-Sham Club where much of the banter and the music were about his days with Prima. David Lee Roth, the guy who put the jump into Van Halen, recorded his own version of "Gigolo" and introduced the song to the MTV generation. Maybe Prima’s song will inspire others. Music is so often identified as being generational. But as Prima’s legacy is starting to prove, when your act is good enough, it can be timeless.
NEW: SEE ERROL LABORDE’S MARDI GRAS VIDEO HERE.
Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival- Comus to Zulu by Errol Laborde is available at all area bookstores. Books can also be ordered via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 895-2266).
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. ON WYES-TV, CHANNEL 12.