Louis Prima: Life After Keely Smith
Singer/trumpeter and master entertainer Louis Prima may have died 31 years ago, but from an entertainment industry standpoint, he’s now bigger than ever.
His music graces dozens of film and television soundtracks and commercials, repackages of his recordings sell briskly, rockers cover his material, the DVD issue of Disney’s “Jungle Book,” where Prima played an animated version of himself, has endeared him to yet another generation.
And Gia Maione deserves the most of the credit. Married to Prima from 1963 until his death in 1978–and singing alongside him and Sam Butera and The Witnesses until Louis lapsed into a coma in 1975, she has almost single-handedly perpetuated and preserved the Louis Prima legend and legacy.
Before Gia there was vocalist Keely Smith, the forth Mrs. Prima. Louis and Keely were certifiable stars, beginning in 1954, when they first took Las Vegas by storm, until their personal and professional split in 1961. Prima, however, remained as popular than ever, and in 1962, after a nationwide talent search, he hired Maione as Smith’s replacement. A year later, they married.
One of the myths that Maione works hard to dispel is the oft-repeated story that her husband’s career was virtually over after the divorce from Smith. That inaccuracy is just one of the mythical and erroneous story lines that play a part in a tribute show called “Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara,” which has been running in the Los Angeles area for a time.
“His life after Keely was great,” Maione recently said in a prepared statement. “His career was moving full speed ahead and in some new directions. He was not rejected and alone as depicted in this musical. He continued to play to packed, standing room only crowds. He worked the finest places America had to offer, and he appeared on every top television show of the 1960s and 1970s.”
And a good deal of these dates–plus a number of marvelous recordings–featured the singing of Gia Maione. “The young singer’s rich voice was an ideal match for Prima’s rugged jazz riffs,” wrote one music critic. It is,
By the time the Gia and Louis met, Louis Prima had already reinvented himself a number of times. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was at the forefront of Dixieland jazz, led a wildly popular big band in the 1940s with a number of chart-topping Italian novelties (“Angelina” was the first), successfully combined elements of jazz, rhythm and blues and comedy in the 1950s and 1960s; and by the 1970s, even introduced elements of hard rock into his shows.
He was also quite the savvy businessman, having started one of the first, artist-run record labels in music history.
Things have been challenging for Gia Maione. Replacing one-half of one of the most popular attractions in show business was a major achievement, as has running the business of Louis Prima. Indeed, it was not until l994 that she assumed control of the rich Prima archives, after years of litigation. “The struggle took 17 years out of my life,” she says.
But she’s proven to be a master business person, operating Prima Music, LLC, www.LouisPrima.com, and entertaining lots of book and movie offers. Maione is particularly proud of the two children she had with Prima, Louis Jr. and Lena, both performing in their own, critically acclaimed musical tributes to their father.
Above all, Gia Maione is dedicated to setting the record straight.
“I am so tired of the lies and inaccurate information that I see and read almost daily about my husband, that I must finally speak out,” she said in her statement. “There are inaccurate Prima biographies all over the Internet. There is one book on Louis, riddled with untruths and false, historically incorrect material.”
Maione’s mission is a refreshing one, especially in an industry as complex and as difficult as showbusiness. “Give truth, credit and respect where it is due,” she says. “Truth matters.”