“The closest you may ever come in a nightclub to reliving the raucous all-nighters of Las Vegas lounges in the late 1950s is by savoring Keely Smith’s new show Vegas ’58…especially when the band attacks upbeat numbers like ‘Jump, Jive and Wail,’ a mood of frantic excitement prevails.”
– Stephen Holden, New York Times (a review from Feinstein’s at the Regency)
“Keely Smith, who secured a place in the neo-hipster pantheon as the vocal sidekick to
her former husband Louis Prima, is both legendary and underrated. She can still sing the stuffing
out of a ballad as well as swing any tune into the stratosphere.”
– The New Yorker (a review from Feinstein’s at the Regency)
“This woman still catches fire like a kid, still has the voice, energy and commitment of the days
when she and hubby Louis Prima ruled the Vegas strip.”
– Liz Smith, New York Post (a review from Feinstein’s at the Regency)
“Keely Smith is still an icon of swing, one of the most beloved female crooners of her generation, since Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee died, maybe the high priestess of the cult. She’s in the best voice she’s enjoyed in years.” – Rex Reed, New York Observer (a review from Feinstein’s at the Regency)
The “Queen of Las Vegas” swing, Keely Smith, is one of the last living legends of the great Rat Pack era of the 1950s and ‘60s. For nearly half a century, the Cherokee-Irish singer has thrilled audiences around the world, entertaining music fans with unequaled charm. Keely is perhaps best known for her partnership with Louis Prima, with whom she helped turn Las Vegas into an entertainment mecca for the rich, the famous and everyone in between. Her latest CD, Vegas '58-Today is her homage to Prima and “The City That Never Sleeps.” On her fourth release for Concord Records, Keely relives the time she was the undisputed queen of this world-renowned playground for kids of all ages, just as the Vegas begins its 100th birthday celebrations.
Keely’s royal ascent began in Norfalk, Virginia, where she, aged just 11-years old, became a regular on a popular, Saturday morning children’s radio program, “Joe Brown’s Radio Gang.” By 16, she was singing professionally alongside local big bands, entertaining servicemen at local Army, Navy and Marine bases and, more importantly, getting a chance to experience the swing movement first-hand. However, a chance to audition for Louis Prima, one of the hottest musicians on the scene in a vibrant post-war America, changed everything.
Prima’s forte was his animated, trumpet-carrying swagger that mixed his music with humor and an unforgettable gravel voice. On his visit to Virginia Beach in 1948, he would discover that Keely’s sizzling vocal delivery perfectly suited his established swing orchestra. They went on to tour the country, her with older brother Piggy as her chaperone. The pair soon fell in love, marrying in 1953. Only a few years later, they, Keely pregnant with their first child, brought their unbeatable act to Las Vegas and opened wider horizons for both. What was initially a two week gig at Sahara’s Casbar Lounge went on to help change the face of Las Vegas entertainment.
Louis Prima and Keely Smith gave their audiences a study in contrasts, both musically and physically. She was half his age, and much prettier to look at than the gregarious male Sicilian with broad features and a coarse attitude. But it was her contrasting deadpan humor and clarion vocal tone that brought out the best in their act. Together, Louis and Keely gave Las Vegas a fun-filled musical show that melted the icicles off those neon light fixtures and plastic geraniums.
By 1959, they were the hottest show in town, filling the Casbar Lounge in the Sahara Hotel and Casino with a veritable who’s who, from Frank Sinatra, Spencer Tracy and Howard Hughes, to Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy and Humphrey Bogart. They were “King and Queen of Las Vegas.” “That Old Black Magic” won them a Grammy Award, and Dinah Shore introduced them on her television show as, “the greatest nightclub act in the country.” Together, they left unforgettable impressions with favorite songs, such as “When You're Smiling,” “Just a Gigolo” and “Lazy River,” all of which Keely now includes on Vegas '58-Today.
Vegas '58-Today was recorded live at Feinstein’s At The Regency in uptown New York in 2004, a date that was described by the Observer as, “the most joyous show she’s [Smith] ever performed in New York.” Whether she’s resurrecting a lively tarantella rhythm or swinging through a traditional New Orleans anthem, Keely’s on top form. Her program is full of fun as she turns loose the charm, the swing and the humor that has kept her so vibrant and fresh over the years. With Jerry Vivino, Ben Williams, Joe Cocuzzo, and a stunning big band of contemporary swingers, she brings back the memories of the Louis Prima and Keely Smith hey day. Musical arrangements by Nelson Riddle and Billy May provide her with a powerful partnership that complements all facets of her performance, from sultry ballads to foot-tapping burners that swing the dancehall doors wide open. With old favorites like “Jump Jive and Wail,” “That Old Black Magic,” “I Wish You Love” “Buona Serra,” and “When You’re Smiling,” she leaves no doubt that the music carries with it the same upbeat message today that it did nearly 50-years ago.
No One Says It Better Than Keely
On Her Early Influences:
While I listened to the greats, like Ella Fitzgerald when I was growing up, I loved country music—I still love country music. In fact, Gene Autry sponsored my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. When I was about 12, my folks took me to see him. It was freezing cold, and I made my family stand outside that stage door, waiting for Mr. Autry to come out so I could get his autograph. He asked me, “Well, what’s your name?” I said, “Dot.” Years later, Louis and I were working the Moulin Rouge in Hollywood, CA, and Gene Autry came to see the show with a lot of other country guys and western actors. After the show, I went to say hello to him and said to him, “I know you’re never going to remember me, but he said, “No, no – you’re Dot, aren’t you?” I was thrilled.
On Her First Encounter with Louis Prima:
It was the summer of 1947, and my step-father had taken us up to New York. It was so hot that we decided to go to Atlantic City instead. My brother Piggy and I were real jitterbug nuts, and, we noticed a sign out on the steel pier, “Louis Prima and his Orchestra.” We wanted to see what this band was about. There must have been about 150 people standing around the bandstand in this huge ballroom. I was eager to see what was so special about this man so I made my way up to the stage. I saw Louis and was absolutely mesmerized. He was unbelievable! I’d seen bandleaders just stand up in front of the orchestra and wave, but I had never anyone with so much energy or humor. He was wonderful.
On Bringing Louis to Virginia Beach:
At Virginia Beach, there was a club called the Surf Club, and the gentleman who owned it was called Mr. Kane. Each week over the summer, he would bring in a different big band to play on their outside dance floor. After Atlantic City, my brother and I told the owner that he had to invite Louis Prima to perform. He was reluctant, but we were adamant. I think we even told him, “Just trust us.” The next August, he brought in Louis and, sure enough, opening night was packed. That night, Louis announced from the stage that he was looking for a singer to join the band.
On Her Audition for Louis:
About ten of the girls from the “Joe Brown Radio Gang” sang on Friday and Saturday night. On Sunday afternoon, he had a tea dance. I was out on the beach in my bathing suit, and I heard over the microphone, “Dot Keely, come to the bandstand.” I thought maybe something had happened to my mom. I had to borrow a skirt and a blouse to get in, although I had no shoes. I ran up to Louis expecting bad news about my mother, but he asked me if I was a singer. I said to him, “Yes, but not your kind of singer.” He replied, “Well, I want you to sing a couple of songs.” I was barefoot, in a borrowed skirt, and when he said that to me, I started shaking. I said, “No, no – I can’t do this.” But he talked me into doing it. I sang “Embraceable You” and “Sleepy-Time Gal,” and he hired me on the spot.
Keely On Louis:
He was extremely sexy. He had something about him that was almost animalistic. He was so intense and had such command of the music and the audience. And the way he moved his legs—you know, he was the original Elvis Presley, and I believe that somewhere along the line, Elvis even gave credit to Louis for that.
On Her Famous Hair-Cut:
When I joined Louis on the road, we were playing venues similar to the Surf Club, but also the black theaters on the East Coast and big ballrooms all over the country. But none of them had air-conditioning. One night on stage, I was unbearable hot and I noticed a girl in the audience with a cute bobbed hair style. During the half-time, I went back stage, and she cut off my long hair.
On Coming to Las Vegas:
The big bands were on their way out. At one time, Louis and I hit rock-bottom, working just the little joints and dives around the country. We had no money and I became pregnant, so Louis called a friend, the entertainment director at the Sahara Hotel, named Bill Miller. He offered us two weeks at the lounge, and we jumped at the opportunity.
Las Vegas was small when we first got there, just about 30,000 people. It was nothing like it is today. The hotels were run by people out of different cities, and the only road that wasn’t dirt was the Strip. But it was so personable and charming. If you walked into a hotel, they treated you like royalty. There was always flowers in your room and they called you by your name. I just loved being with Louis. I loved my job.
On Her Famous Dead Pan Face:
Off-stage, I was very shy; I didn’t talk to anybody. During intermission, I would go to the ladies room to read a book. Even when Sinatra was in the audience, I’d say hello and then disappear to the restroom. We did five shows a night, from midnight to 6AM, each show lasting 45-minutes. For the first 30 minutes, I did nothing, so just stood at the edge of the stage and watched the audience and the whole casino. I could see the entrance of the big room, the main doors. I could see who was coming in with who and who was leaving. When Louis would come over and pull at my skirt to pull me on stage, I was so busy being nosy that I would be annoyed with him bothering me. That’s how the dead-pan look came about!
On Her First Record Deal:
When Capitol came to Vegas to sign the group, they didn’t want me. Louis said, “You’ve got to give Keely her own separate record contract,” but they refused. He was adamant and turned them down. About six-months later, Capitol came back and said, “Okay, we’ll take her.” That’s how I got my record contract. Louis always pushed for me. When we first opened at the Sahara, he insisted that the marquee read, “Louis Prima and Keely Smith.”
I remember the first time we sat down to do my first solo CD, which was with Nelson Riddle. The producer was playing a bunch of standards, including a French song called, “I Wish You Love.” When it was all over, I turned to Louis and said, “Babe, I’ll do any eleven songs y’all want, but let me sing the French song.” And, our producer said, “Well, that’s not going to amount to anything. That’s just a pretty song.” Louis said, “Man, if she wants to sing the French song, she’s going to sing the French song.” And that’s how I got “I Wish You Love.”