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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Keely Smith--An appreciation

Louis Prima and Keely Smith perform their classic "That Old Black Magic"

Rightly regarded as the “Queen of Las Vegas,” Keely Smith, who came to fame with her musical partnership with first husband Louis Prima—the legendary bandleader--but carved out a stellar career as a solo recording artist as well, died Saturday at 89.

“She was a hidden gem of an artist who excelled in almost every genre of popular music,” says music historian John Alexander. “From big band to swing to blues and jazz, she was a uniquely gifted vocalist. She recorded solo singles, duetted with Frank Sinatra, and the work she did with her then husband Louis Prima is simply incredible and highly underrated. She was a featured vocalist on his classic 1956 album The Wildest, and their duet of ‘That Old Black Magic’ has become a bona fide standard.”

The role models for the married performer shtick made famous later by Sonny & Cher, Smith and Prima performed five shows a night—starting at midnight—in Vegas, from the late 1950s through the ‘60s. Their pairing of Prima’s zaniness and Smith’s deadpan demeanor while creating a signature blend of New Orleans jazz, swing, big band and jump blues made for a show tailor-made for the Rat Pack era.

“And what people might not realize,” continues Alexander, “is that she was one of the first traditional pop artists to record songs by the Beatles. Her 1964 album Keely Smith Sings the John Lennon-Paul McCartney Song Book had her performing 12 early Beatles tracks. The album was produced by legendary country producer Jimmy Bowen, whom Smith married in 1965. She was simply an all-around entertainer who commanded every stage she ever appeared on.”

Fellow music historian Mike Sigman, as the son of Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Carl Sigman (credits including such standards as “It’s All In the Game” and “Ebb Tide”), offers a more personal take.

“My favorite version of my dad’s ‘Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)’ was by the inimitable Louis Prima and Keely Smith, without whom neither the song nor I would ever have been conceived, let alone born,“ says Sigman. “My parents met in Louis’s office--my mom was his Gal Friday, and dad began writing the song during their honeymoon in 1948. I was born less than a year later.”

“For me, Keely was one of the few performers who could convincingly be deadpan hilarious/cynical at one moment and full of romantic love and/or longing the next,” adds Sigman.

“Besdes ‘Enjoy Yourself,’ which dad wrote with Herb Magidson, and ‘Buona Sera,’ which he wrote with Peter De Rose and which Louis and Keely also sang, Keely later cut ‘Buona Sera’ and ‘My Heart Cries For You’—which dad wrote with Percy Faith, as a soloist. My mom and I saw Keely at Feinstein's at the Regency in Manhattan some years ago. Her singing was sublime and the warmth with which she embraced us after the performance was equally heartfelt and memorable.”

Keely Smith sings "My Heart Cries for You"

Saxophonist Jerry Vivino, who serves in Conan O’Brien’s Basic Cable Band (led by his brother Jimmy Vivino), put together and played in the band that backed Smith at Feinstein’s in the mid-2000s.

“Cabaret singers today want to be Sarah [Vaughan] or Ella [Fitzgerald] or Billie [Holiday], but Keely had the ability to not try to be like any of them but be the pure singer who could swing and sound like Keely,” says Vivino. “And even as an established saxophonist, she taught me: She knew I loved [her and Prima’s great saxophonist] Sam Butera and John Coltrane, but gave me the confidence to play like myself.”

He recalls how shortly after Smith performed on Conan (which was then in New York) and featured him with her, her late husband and manager Bobby Milano called him to say how much she liked his playing and ask if he’d help put together a band for her run at Feinstein’s.

“I started playing with her and thought so much of her that I even went on the road with her when time permitted,” he says. “Even though she was in her seventies, she sounded as good as ever, and shared so much with me about Louis and Sinatra and the Rat Pack and that whole time when showbiz was really showbiz. And she treated me like a son, almost. I should have had a tape recorder, because it was an education I couldn’t get anywhere else.”

And remarkably for someone of Smith’s stature, “she had no diva attitude,” says Vivino. “She was one of the guys! She made a point of learning about all the musicians and introducing them with their credits and then featuring and sharing the spotlight with all of us—which no one does. But really, the spotlight always found her—that little girl who deadpanned with Louis Prima, one of the greatest entertainers ever.”

And to top it all, when it came time to record her 2005 album Vegas ’58—Today, “she took care of her boys,” recalls Vivino.

“Sometimes producers or record companies want to steer the ship and use their own people, but she insisted on using everyone who played with her at Feinstein’s,” he says. “I’ll never forget that.”

Vegas ’58—Today featured songs made famous in the Vegas lounges by Smith and Prima, including “Just A Gigolo,” “Buona Serra,” “I Wish You Love” and the Grammy-winning “That Old Black Magic.”

“It’s got that same shuffle rhythm that people love—that just makes people happy,” Smith said at the time. “I wanted to be a female Dean Martin because Dean would make his audiences feel so happy.“

Smith’s 2004 Feinstein’s stand was rewarded at New York’s annual NightLife Awards ceremony for “Outstanding Cabaret Female Vocalist in a Major Engagement.” She also received the MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

Over the course of her seven-decades career Smith was also honored with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, another on the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, and induction into the Las Vegas Hall of Fame.

“Working with Keely was a dream come true,” concludes Vivino. “I’ve lost a friend, and the rest of the world has lost a great entertainer.”



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