Remembering Jazz Singer Keely Smith

Dec 22, 2017
Originally published on December 28, 2017 9:30 am
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Keely Smith, the singer who won a Grammy Award when paired with her bandleader husband Louis Prima, died last weekend at age 89. As a duo, they had a hit Las Vegas act in the 1950s. She with her cool and deadpan stage persona. And he with his much more enthusiastic singing and clowning around. Keely Smith's New York Times obituary credited them with having foreshadowed the style of Sonny & Cher in the 1960s.

Keely Smith was born in Virginia in 1928. By age 11, she was singing on a local radio children's show. As a teenager, during World War II, she sang with big bands for servicemen at area military bases. In 1948, still a teenager, she auditioned as a singer for Louis Prima's band and got the job. Five years later, she got him, too, when they were married. That was in 1953. Five years after that, after taking their lounge act to Vegas as a featured duo, they had a major hit.


LOUIS PRIMA: (Singing) Old black magic has me in its spell.

KEELY SMITH: (Singing) Old black magic that you weave so well.

PRIMA: (Singing) Those icy fingers up and down my spine.

SMITH: (Singing) The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.

PRIMA: (Singing) Same old tingle that I feel inside.

SMITH: (Singing) And then that elevator starts its ride.

PRIMA: (Singing) Down and down I go.

SMITH: (Singing) Round and around I go.

PRIMA: (Singing) Like a leaf caught in a tide.

SMITH: (Singing) I should stay away, but what can I do? I hear your name, and I'm aflame.

PRIMA: (Singing) Aflame, burning desire.

SMITH: (Singing) That only your kiss...

PRIMA: (Singing) Put out the fire. For you're the lover that I have waited for.

SMITH: (Singing) You're the mate that fate had me created for. And every time your lips meet mine...

PRIMA: (Singing) Baby, down and down I go. Round and round I go. In a spin, loving the spin I'm in under the old black magic called love.

SMITH: (Singing) Oo (ph), in a spin, loving the spin I'm in under the old black magic called love.

KEELY SMITH AND LOUIS PRIMA: (Singing) In a spin, loving the spin I'm in under the old black magic called love.

SMITH: (Singing) I should stay away but what can I do? I hear your name, and I'm aflame.

PRIMA: (Singing) Aflame, burning desire.

SMITH: (Singing) That only your kiss...

PRIMA: (Singing) Put out the fire.

BIANCULLI: Keely Smith and Louis Prima divorced in 1961. Prima died in 1978. But Keely Smith kept going and singing. In the year 2000, when she was 68, she released a collection of new recordings in a CD called "Sing Sing Sing" (ph) produced by her then-husband Bobby Milano. That's when she spoke with Terry Gross who asked her about auditioning for a job with Louis Prima.


SMITH: Louis, at the time, had a girl singer named Tangerine who was extremely nervous. And he told the people - the public that he was looking for a singer. And several girls went up and sang. But I didn't because I was really very bashful. And on that...

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Wait. Did you want to, though? Did you want to go up and sing?

SMITH: No, not really. I just figured I was going to wind up getting married and having kids and being in Virginia.

GROSS: Because you didn't think you'd be a professional singer?

SMITH: No. I sang with a little local band around Norfolk, and I earned $5 a night. I sang with a Navy band during the war, and I didn't earn any money with that. And at that point, I was 14. My mother had to travel with me. But I was content doing what I was doing. And it never dawned on me that I could possibly go with somebody like Louis or anybody, any big band.

But on the Sunday afternoon tea dance, Louis called me from the stage. And my real name is Dot - Dorothy Keely. And he said, Dot Keely come to the bandstand. And I went up thinking there might be something wrong with my parents because they went with us everywhere. And he said, I understand you're a singer. And I said, yes but not your kind, you know? And he said, no, no, I understand - I want you to sing a couple of songs. And I was really nervous. And I told him, no, I didn't want to. And I got up, and I sang "Sleepy Time Gal" and "Embraceable You." And he hired me on the spot.

What he didn't know is that I knew all of his arrangements. After we saw him in Atlantic City, I had gone home and bought every Louis Prima record I could find. And I knew all of his vocals. I knew how to come in, how - what the endings were. I knew the boy vocals, the girl vocals. And he was amazed when he found that out, which meant I didn't have to have any rehearsals with the band.

GROSS: What was it like to go on the road with Louis Prima when you were 16?

SMITH: Well, when I left home, my mother had one condition and that was that I had to travel with Louis and his wife. And Louis had three conditions. And they were, you can't smoke or drink or date the musicians, which I wasn't interested in any of that. So it worked out fine.

After a few weeks, though, they moved me over to traveling with the musicians. And I must say they took care of me. They looked out for me, and they were perfect gentlemen. Not one of them hit on me. And it was just - it was a great friendship and camaraderie in that band. He had some really nice men.

GROSS: Now, did Louis Prima give you any suggestions about your singing?

SMITH: No. For years, he never said a word to me. And then when we went to Vegas, someone said to him, are you going to send her to a vocal coach? And he said no. He said, she'll find whatever she needs onstage.

GROSS: So what about in phrasing and in rhythm? Did you feel like you could just naturally fit in to the kind of swing rhythms that Louis Prima was using?

SMITH: Well, no. I have to be very honest about that. I've always been known as a ballad singer. And I prefer singing ballads. But when this situation came up, my husband, Bobby Milano, who was also my producer of the record - he said, I think you should go back. We should listen to the old Louis songs and some Louis Jordan things and really pick out some good swing things that haven't been done.

And he played "Sunny Side Of The Street." And he said, to me, can you do a - Louis' version? And he said to me, can you do that? I said, sure, I can do that. Well, Terry, I didn't have the faintest idea if I could do it or not. And with a lot of studying and slowing the tape down, I was able to do it. And you know something? I loved it. I loved copying him. I loved the feeling that I got singing it. And it just - I was very happy making this CD.

GROSS: You're talking about the new CD?


GROSS: Why don't we hear "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" from the new CD.

SMITH: Great.

GROSS: Do you want to say anything more about learning to sing in Prima's rhythms?

SMITH: Not really. It's not hard if you slow the tape down on his scatting. His - he just phrases completely different than anybody else. And you have to listen to it and pay attention. But, no, it's not hard if you really study it.

GROSS: This is Keely Smith from her new CD, which is called "Swing Swing Swing."


SMITH: (Singing) Grab your coat, your tie, your hat. Leave your worries on the doorstep and just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street. I can hear the pitter-patter. The happy tune is your step. And life can be so sweet on my sunny side. I used to walk in the shade with my blues on parade. But I'm not afraid 'cause (scatting). I ain't got a cent. I feel rich as Rockefello (ph). And gold dust round my feet. Oh, (scatting). Grab your coat, your tie, your hat, your pants, your shoes, your (scatting) baby. Just direct your feet, sunny, honey, bun (scatting), bunny, (scatting), baby. I can hear the pitter-pat.

GROSS: It's Keely Smith from her new CD, "Swing Swing Swing." When you were singing onstage with Louis Prima, the act evolved in such a way so that, you know, he'd be clowning around on stage and scat singing, and you'd stand there perfectly still and, you know, occasionally, come out and sing a ballad. But you'd even look bored and, you know, scratching your face. And, I mean, that was part of the act. How did that part of the act evolve? And I should mention, too, sometimes he'd go over to you on stage and try to, like, provoke you into a reaction and you would just be reactionless, just totally straight-faced.

SMITH: Well, actually, I scratched because I itched. It was not part of the act. We had very hard water in Las Vegas. And I remember one time we did the Sinatra TV show and the director came over to Louis and he said, I want her to scratch her nose at this point. And Louis looked at me. He said, man, she scratches when she itches. And that's the truth. I never scratched unless I itched.

As far as the deadpan thing was concerned, that was very accidental. We worked from midnight till 6 in the morning in Las Vegas. And we did five shows a night. And the shows were 45 minutes long. For the first half hour, I had nothing to do but stand there. I was not a hand clapper. I wasn't a finger snapper. I was not a moving type of a person. So we had a little tiny upright piano because we were working behind the bar up on a little tiny stage that just barely held all of us. And I just crossed my arms 'cause I didn't know what to do with my hands and stood there.

And when we first started, the lounge was wide open. There were no curtains, no windows, no nothing. I could see the people that came in the front door. I could see the people that came in the side door. I could see the people coming out of the big showroom. And I paid attention to what was going on in the casino. I could tell you who came in, who they were with, what they were wearing, almost what time they left. And I was so busy doing what I call being nosy that when Louis would come over and pull on my skirt and I'd turn and I'd look at him it was like, don't bother me. You're interrupting my thought here. And that's how it happened.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you - how would it feel when you were singing, you know, a beautiful ballad onstage and then in the middle or toward the end of the ballad Prima would come over and start clowning?

SMITH: It didn't bother me. The people loved it. And you know what? It's really crazy to say this, but when we were very big I never knew we were very big. I didn't know how big we were until after we broke up, and - which is kind of crazy 'cause it shows that I lived in my own little world. I was very protected. I never had to make a decision. Louis never made me wear a gown I didn't like or sing a song I didn't like. And that was all I cared about. All the decisions he made pertaining to music, business, whatever. And all I had to do was get up and do my shows and sing. And then the daytime I spent with my children. So I was very happy.

GROSS: Maybe all of that was a function of starting with him so young when you were too young to make big decisions.

SMITH: Well, I was going to say something, but I'm not going to say that (laughter).


SMITH: When we broke up, I didn't know how to talk to people. We were - I was broke. I don't know about him, but it was a little tough, you know? And thank God for people like Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. You know, Dinah's the one that got me out of the house after Louis and I divorced. He had convinced me that I'd be nothing without him. And he told me that he'd hire a girl and call her Kelly Smith, and that I should just forget about a career because I was nothing without him. And I believed him.

And then Dinah called one day about - well, golly, about five or six months after we broke up. And she said, I want you to come do my TV show. And I told her, I said, Dinah, I can't do that. And she said, yes, you can. You've got to get out of that house. And then Frank was calling. And I was very close with Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy. And they were all wonderful to me. And they got me out of the house. And I went back to work.

GROSS: Let me play a record that kind of demonstrates what I was just talking about with you singing a beautiful ballad and then Louis Prima coming along and interrupting it while clowning around. And this is your recording of "This Love Of Mine." Sam Butera is leading the band. And this was recorded at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.


SMITH: (Singing) This love of mine goes on and on, though life is empty since you have gone.

PRIMA: I'm here.


SMITH: (Singing) You're always on my mind, though out of sight.

PRIMA: I'm right behind you (unintelligible).

SMITH: (Singing) It's lonesome through the day and all the night.

PRIMA: All the night. Oh.

SMITH: (Singing) I cried my heart out. It's bound to break. Since nothing matters, let it break. I ask the sun and moon...

PRIMA: Yeah, ask me, baby.

SMITH: (Singing) ...The stars that shine what's to become of it.

PRIMA: (Singing) This love of mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, this love of mine (scatting).

GROSS: So, Keely Smith, that's not distracting (laughter) to have Louis Prima doing that...


GROSS: ...While you sing?

SMITH: You know something, Terry? I don't even remember that song. That's nice. I like that (laughter).

GROSS: Well, I like it, too. That's why I wanted to play it.

SMITH: Yeah. No, actually, I loved when Louis did this stuff. I really did. I just thought he was great and he was funny. And the - and he did it with such a little boy, hound dog attitude. It's like, you know, here I am, honey. Help me. That kind of a thing I got from that sad little face he had.

BIANCULLI: Singer Keely Smith speaking with Terry Gross in the year 2000. She died last weekend at the age of 89. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's interview from the year 2000 with singer Keely Smith, who died last weekend at the age of 89. Together with Louis Prima, she was half of a popular Las Vegas lounge act in the '50s. From their 1960 album called "Together," here are Smith and Prima teaming on a rendition of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love."


PRIMA: (Singing) I can't give you anything but love, baby.

SMITH: (Singing) That's the only thing I have plenty of, baby.

PRIMA: (Singing) Dream a while.

SMITH: (Singing) Scheme a while.

PRIMA: (Singing) We're sure to find, oh, happiness.

SMITH: (Singing) And I guess all the things you always pine for.

PRIMA: (Singing) Gee, I'd like to see you looking swell, little baby.

SMITH: (Singing) Diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn't sell, baby.

PRIMA: (Singing) Till that lucky day you know doggone well, baby.

SMITH: (Singing) I can't give you anything but love.


GROSS: How did you end up being a Vegas band? How did you first start playing there?

SMITH: Well, we were in New York, actually, which is - we had a farm in Covington, La., but we spent most of our time in New York working out of here. And we were broke. I was pregnant. And we didn't have a job. And Louis called Bill Miller. I don't know if you remember him or not. He owned the Bill Miller's Riviera in New Jersey years ago, a very big nightclub.

GROSS: And it wasn't he Sinatra's rehearsal pianist, or is this a different Bill Miller?

SMITH: No, no, different man.


SMITH: Different man.

GROSS: All right.

SMITH: And Louis called Bill, who was the entertainment director of the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas at that time. And he told him, he said, Bill, he said, we're broke. My wife's pregnant. And we need a job. I mean, just that plain, that blunt. And Bill told him, he said, Louis, the only thing I've got is two weeks in the lounge here. And Louis said, I'll take it. He said, I told you lounge, Lou. He said, I know you're used to playing - headlining the big rooms. And Louis said, no, Bill. We'll take the lounge. We'll be there. What date? He gave us a date. And we had a small group at that point. And in five cars we drove across the country.

And we got to the Sahara. And we went to see that night before we opened - Cab Calloway was working there, who was a friend of Louis'. And we went to see Cab. And when the show was over he came over to the table to say hello to Louis, and Louis asked him to sit down and have a drink. And Cab told him, he said, well, we're not allowed to sit. And he said, what do you mean by that? He said blacks are not allowed in here. And Louis said, you mean even though you're entertaining here you're not allowed to sit down and have a drink in this lounge? And he said no. Louis was going to quit the job because they didn't allow the blacks in the lounge. And Louis was very upset over that.

BIANCULLI: Singer Keely Smith speaking to Terry Gross in the year 2000. Keely Smith died last weekend at age 89. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a CD from trombonist Roswell Rudd, and film critic David Edelstein reviews "Phantom Thread," the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson and maybe the last film starring Daniel Day-Lewis. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


SMITH: (Singing) I'm confessing that I love you.

PRIMA: (Singing) I'm confessing that I love you, too, baby.

SMITH: (Singing) I'm confessing that I need you.

PRIMA: (Singing) Honest, I do, baby.

SMITH: (Singing) I need you every moment.

PRIMA: (Singing) In your eyes I read such strange things, baby.

SMITH: (Singing) But your lips deny they're true, baby.

PRIMA: (Singing) Would your answer really change things making me blue?

SMITH: (Singing) Making me blue.

PRIMA: (Singing) Making me blue. And I'm afraid someday you're going to leave me, saying can't we still be friends, baby.

SMITH: (Singing) If you go, you know you'll grieve me. All my life on you depends. Am I guessing that you love me?

PRIMA: (Singing) Dreaming dreams of you in vain, babe.

SMITH: (Singing) I'm confessing that I love you over again.

PRIMA: (Singing) And I'm afraid someday you're going to leave me, saying can't we still be friends.

SMITH: (Singing) If you go, you know doggone well you'll grieve me. All my life on you depends.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from the year 2000 with singer Keely Smith, who died last weekend at age 89. Keely Smith was discovered by band leader Louis Prima as a teenager and asked to sing with his big band. She later married him, and they went on to become a popular Vegas lounge act from 1954 to 1961.


GROSS: You said that the lounges seemed to be created so that women would have a place to hear good music while their husbands were at the gambling table. Were there usually more women than men in the lounge when you were playing?

SMITH: Not when we played, no. Well, let me rephrase that. That's incorrect. We used to get all the showgirls. We used to get all the hookers in town. We got the cab drivers, the waitresses. These were the people that supported us. When Frank would come in, naturally he would bring all of his group - R.J. Wagner, Natalie Wood, all those kind of people.

GROSS: Frank Sinatra. Right. OK.

SMITH: Right, right. Howard Hughes was a regular with us. Elvis was - actually when we opened there, the lounge was strictly what I said to you originally, a place for people to come sit while their husband is gambling or just kill time. Louis changed that within the first two-week period. We were - as I said before, we were on stage behind the bar, and the service station was directly in front of us. And we'd be singing a song, and the waitress would come up and yell, three beers, four Coca-Colas or whatever. So Louis called Mr. Perell (ph) and he said, could we please move the service bar down to the end of the room? And Mr. Perell said, OK.

So within two weeks' time, we had the room setup the way Louis wanted it. And it was due - because I think of the shows that we put on. We weren't a background group. We were a show. And Louis would not absolutely accept anything else. People had to pay attention or he wasn't going to be there.

GROSS: I think - you know, you were friends with Sinatra and the other members of the, you know, Rat Pack.

SMITH: Right.

GROSS: What was it like to hang out with them then when they were the stars of Vegas? You were a star of Vegas, too. I mean, you guys kind of, you know, owned the city in a way in terms of entertainment. What - could you, like, tell a story that would bring to life those days and that crowd?

SMITH: Well, I think I mentioned before that when they would come in our lounge, they would get up on stage with us. Frank did every time; Sammy did almost every time; Dean did a few times. But we were - I was closer to Frank, and when we would go to his show, I would get up and sing with him. Now, Louis and I didn't, but I would. And then on Monday nights, which was our off night, Frank would call and he'd say to Louis - he'd say, hey, chief - they called Louis the chief. Hey, chief, why don't you and the Indian come on in? I'm going to have a little cookout tonight or whatever, show a movie. And Louis didn't fly, so Louis would say to me, babe - he said, you go ahead and have a good time because Louis knew I was really thrilled with meeting all those people.

And I'd get on a plane and I'd go into LA, and Frank would pick me up and we'd go to his house and there I'd be sitting with Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and Kim Novak and all these kind of people - Billy Wilder and Rosalind Russell. And, you know, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. So I did that almost every Monday night for quite a while, and it was a thrill. And then, of course, Frank and Peter - Peter and Pat Lawford were my good, good friends. And they kind of looked out for me when I was in there, and they took me all over. And then the next thing I know, Frank asked me to record with him, and I did a couple of duets with him.

And then Sammy is an interesting story because when Louis had the big band in the late '40s, early '50s, we worked the Apollo Theater. And one of the acts on the show was this young kid, the Will Mastin Trio, and that's all it was called in those days. It wasn't even Sammy Davis Jr. And I became friendly with Sammy from then on, and he became like a member of my family. And so I was very involved in what you call the Rat Pack. And I loved it. It was just wonderful.

GROSS: What are some of the good and bad things about being in an act with a man who's also your husband?

SMITH: Well, I think it's great actually. And with Louis - in the daytime, Louis would play golf, and I'd spend all day with the kids, and then at night we'd all have dinner together. The kids would go to bed. We'd take a nap, and we'd go to work at midnight. Then we'd come home at 6 in the morning, we'd take a nap or get about four or five hours sleep and we'd get up, and that was the routine of our day. It was wonderful, Terry. The problem was when we kept getting bigger and bigger, I don't know what happened to Louis. I call it male menopause. And he just went through a complete change. He never smoked. He didn't drink. He didn't - he was smoking cigars, which - I can't stand cigars. And he just changed completely, and he started running around, and that's what broke us up.

GROSS: Right.

SMITH: And it really got very bad.

GROSS: And you were still singing on stage after it got bad.

SMITH: Yes, yes.

GROSS: That must have been hard.

SMITH: It was very hard. It really was. It was tough.

GROSS: When you divorced in 1961, he married a woman who also became the female singer in his act. Did you find it strange that you seemed to be replaced by a person, you know, in his personal life and in his act? I don't know. It...

SMITH: No, no. As a matter of fact, she wasn't the first singer. He had about three singers before her.

GROSS: I see.

SMITH: And he didn't marry her right away. But a very quick story - one of the singers that he hired, the one he hired right after me - I don't even remember her name - she was a nice girl. And she came up to me one night at a club, and she introduced herself, and she said I'm the new singer. She said, I just want to tell you that I've always admired you. And I thanked her and she was very sweet. Louis heard about it and fired her. So in those days, I was taboo. Nobody was allowed to talk to me, none of the musicians. You know, just like, I mean, a complete erasing somebody from your life.

GROSS: Did you become friends again? Did you become friends again with Louis Prima before his death?

SMITH: Yes, yes. As a matter of fact, he asked me to remarry him. And I told him - I said, I love you very much, but I'm not in love with you. And I said I could work with you, if you want. But as far as marriage, that's out of the question. And he had a mild heart attack, and that's when we became really good friends again and stayed in contact up until he died.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite recording of the years that you recorded with Louis Prima?

SMITH: You mean with Louis actually or recording period?

GROSS: Recording period. Choose whatever you want.

SMITH: "I Wish You Love."

GROSS: Great. OK. Tell us how you started singing this song. This was originally a French song. Yeah.

SMITH: Yes it is. When Capitol came along, when we were at the Sahara, they wanted to record the group. And Louis told them that you have to give Keely her separate contract. And they didn't want to do that. And Louis said, well, I'm sorry, then you can't have the group. So they - finally, they wanted the group so bad that they came along said, well, OK, we'll give her her contract. And when we went in to sit down and pick out the songs - our producer was a man named Voyle Gilmore, and he played a bunch of standards. And he played this song. He said, well, I'm going to play a pretty song for you. It won't mean anything, but it is pretty. And he played "I Wish You Love."

And in those days, I didn't talk to anybody. I did all my talking through Louis. I would tell Louis what I wanted, and he would go tell whoever. And I turned to Louis, and I told him - I said, babe, I'll sing any 11 songs y'all want me to, but you got to let me sing "I Wish You Love." And Voyle stood up and said - he said that song is never going to amount to anything. That's just a pretty French song that they put English lyrics to. And I looked at him, and I said, babe. And he looked at Voyle, and he said, Voyle, she will sing "I Wish You Love." And that's how we got it.

GROSS: And how did it do for you?

SMITH: Oh, it was a smash hit. My very first album was a hit album. And today, it's my theme song. And I have a gold record on it. You know, it's wonderful.

BIANCULLI: Singer Keely Smith speaking to Terry Gross in the year 2000. Keely Smith died last weekend at the age of 89.


SMITH: (Singing) I wish you blue birds in the spring to give your heart a song to sing and then a kiss. But more than this, I wish you love. And in July, a lemonade to cool you in some leafy glade. I wish you health. And more than wealth, I wish you love. My breaking heart and I agree that you and I could never be. So with my best, my very best, I set you free. I wish you shelter from a storm, a cozy fire to keep you warm. But most of all, when snowflakes fall, I wish you love.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD featuring Trombonist Roswell Rudd and his quartet. This is FRESH AIR.