by Bob Edwards
I grew up with a crush on Keely Smith. She looked like the girl next door, only sexier and more mysterious. Maybe it was the rare combination of Cherokee and Irish ancestry I found appealing because Kelly looked like no one else. She also sings like no one else. Listen to a couple of notes and you know that’s Keely—a distinctive voice with great tone and clear enunciation. She’s the perfect jazz singer, breaking your heart on the love ballads and swinging the up-tempo burners. And how about her staying power? Tony Bennett is still going strong, but how many other of Keely’s contemporaries still have a career?
She was born Dorothy Jacqueline Keely in Norfolk, Virginia in the heyday of the Big Band Era. The big bands always had a “girl singer.” That’s how Patti Page, Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney got their starts. Keely Smith was destined to join them, but she matured just in time to join a big band when the Big Band Era was dying.
Keely Smith was just 17 years old when she joined Louis Prima’s band in 1949. She couldn’t stand him. Keely was the shy young girl from Norfolk. Louis was a big, exuberant Sicilian, born to parents who emmigrated to Argentina and then to—-where else?—-New Orleans—and that’s where Louis was born. He was a singer, actor, trumpet player, songwriter, bandleader, an over-the-top entertainer, so upbeat and in your face—and he’d been married three times. He was everything she was not—so four years later, she became wife number 4. With post-World War II musical tastes changing rapidly, it was over for the big bands. Louis Prima was losing money and his wife Keely was pregnant. It looked like the end of the road, but they did have this two-week booking in Las Vegas. With nothing to lose, they went. And stayed for years.
Las Vegas is largely a post-World War II creation. In what once was an empty desert valley of cacti and deadly snakes, gangsters and real estate moguls saw something more and raised a neon oasis within driving distance of Los Angeles—complete with legal prostitution. Louis and Keely arrived just in time. Las Vegas became the destination for America’s school teachers, accountants and dentists to break out of their miserable, petty existence in Milford, Ohio and Bayonne, New Jersey and go roll the dice and party—far from the prying eyes of the preacher and the town gossips. Louis Prima and Keely Smith added to the party by developing the lounge act. They were perfect for that time and that town. Keely was you—the good girl from Iowa seeking a little adventure. Louis was the dangerous guy your mother had warned you about. And here they both are—-on stage and married. Maybe in this new world of Playboy Magazine and the Kinsey Report, we can court a little danger and survive. They punctuated their act with comedy. Keely was the “straight man” to the outrageous Louis. Years later, Sonny and Cher would copy this act into show business gold.
Here’s what the website swingmusic.net says about Keely Smith and Louis Prima: “Performing five shows a night at the Sahara’s Casbar Lounge, they became a huge draw for both the average blue-collar tourists as well as some of the biggest celebrities at that time. On any given night, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Howard Hughes, and the young Senator John F. Kennedy could be found in the audience. Many of the show business elite would add to the audience’s enjoyment of the show by affably heckling the duo and sometimes even getting up on stage to join the act.”
The dynamic of Louis Prima and Keely Smith played wider than Vegas. Their duet on “That Old Black Magic” was a huge hit in 1958, and rightfully so. It perfectly illustrated their stage act. Louie was the gumba, the brassy, outgoing, scat-singing jazz man who would never have made it if he had to depend on his voice. Meanwhile, Keely was the clear-as-a-bell, spot-on vocalist hitting every note perfectly, while still swinging, as only she can do. They put enormous life into a song by the incomparable Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen that was already ancient. But the magic couldn’t last forever.
Louis Prima was popular with the ladies. He had affairs and Keely divorced him. She bounced back well by hooking up with Frank Sinatra and Frank took good care of her. He launched her solo career on Reprise Records and had Nelson Riddle and Billy May provide her with music—so you know he loved her. She had a very successful solo career—and I played a lot of her songs on my show when I was a DJ in New Albany, Indiana in 1968, my first radio job. I was still smitten and her voice was arresting. But then she shut it down to raise children. Many years later, she left the house and went back on tour.
Among her many fans are filmakers Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. That’s why you hear Keely Smith singing in the movies “Raging Bull,” “Analyze This,” “That Old Feeling,” “Big Night, and “Mad Dog and Glory.”
So here we are in a hotel room in New Orleans at Jazzfest in April of 2010—-producers Chad Campbell, Geoffrey Redick and me, interviewing Keely Smith—who has four or five people in her entourage of family and management. Keely is now 78 years old—-though she doesn’t look it, and certainly doesn’t feel it, judging by what happens next. She tries to take over the interview—-to disarm me and give me some sass. I welcome this because it’s great fun. But then she turns her attention to the guy who’s holding the long, cylindrical shotgun microphone to her mouth. That would be Geoffrey who is 31 years old, and tall and handsome in a Clark Kent sort of way. Maybe Keely thought that was Superman behind those glasses he wears because twice Keely asked me if Geoffrey is married. I told her that Geoffrey is the most married man I know—the only other contender being Chad. So here I am, the only single guy—-and the one who had a crush on her—out in the cold. She made up for it by insisting that the obligatory post-interview photo be taken with her in my lap. Keely Smith hasn’t been the shy one for many years now.
Click here to see more pictures of our first New Orleans adventure.
Next week we conclude our music series with a visit to Jon Cleary’s home studio for a history lesson in New Orleans music.
Here’s the full schedule for our summer music series:
Jon Cleary - July 28