SAM BUTERA: What Made Sammy Run
Note: I saw Sam Butera hundreds of times in the 1980s at various
casinos in Atlantic City, notably Resorts International. At that juncture,
I was writing for Atlantic City Magazine by day and playing in the lounges
by night, but I always made it my business to be in the lounge of
Resorts when Sam Butera and The Wildest were in residence. It
was the hottest show in town. Eventually, I became close with Sam
and the talented members of his band, including the late Buck Mainieri
and Chuck Stevens Ignolia (Connie’s brother) and keyboardist
and arranger Arnie Teich. Sam had me helping with sound, with
publicity, etc. In other words, I was a hanger-on with a purpose. Sam
and the boys gave me some of the most exciting and most
educational moments of my life. Though the following tribute
concentrates on Butera’s long association with Louis Prima, be
aware that he participated in many projects on his own, both before
and during the Prima years, including recording sessions as a
soloist, fabulous pairings with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy
Davis, and even a film or two, including “The Rat Race.” Sam’s music,
with and without Prima, is timeless and will never, ever date or age.
Was it art? As Sam might have answered, “I don’t know, man…but it
was sure fun.”
Saxophonist Sam Butera, the architect behind the sound of the legendarysinger and trumpeter, Louis Prima, passed away in Las Vegas on June 3rd. He would have been 82 in August. Butera, who retired in 2004, died as a result of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, said his wife of 62 years, Vera.
The Butera/Prima pairing constitutes one of the great show business stories. In 1954, young Butera was quite the sensation on the New Orleans club scene, with his raucous combination of jazz, dixieland and rhythm and blues sax solos and vocals winning over locals and tourists nightly. He was, in fact, already a national name, as he was voted as one of the most outstanding teenage jazz musicians in the country by Look Magazine a few years earlier.
Unfortunately, Louis Prima career was all but shot by 1954. Though he had enormous success in the late 1930s with a Dixieland combination on 52nd Street in New York city, a popular and quite entertaining big band throughout through the 1940s and plenty of hit records, by 1954, the big band era was long over and Prima’s “jumpin’ and jivin” style was pretty much considered old hat. Prima and then-wife, vocalist Keely Smith–they married in 1953– were working every dive imaginable, with local rhythm sections. “Louis had us playing in bowling alleys, or wherever else he could get us a job,” Smith said years later.
Prima needed a break, and he got one in the form of Bill Miller, Entertainment Director of Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel, where Prima had once headlined. Miller gave Prima and Smith two weeks in December. In the lounge. On the midnight to 5 a.m. shift.
Though they went over well with the Vegas audience—they were extended throughout the month, and the musicians provided for them worked well–Louis Prima knew something was missing. Prima’s New Orleans-based brother, Leon, told Louis about this fabulous band in New Orleans, led by a swinging, honking, entertaining dynamo of a saxophone player, Sam Butera. Instinctively, Prima knew that Butera could give him the sound, and help realize the musical concept, he wanted. Prima begged Butera to come to Vegas on Christmas. Butera came out December 26th, and shortly after, the face of Las Vegas entertainment changed.
Louis Prima had already been through a number of musical styles, including swing, big band sounds, dixieland, Italian “jive” novelties like “Please Don’t Squeeza-Da Banana,” and several more. His goal was to somehow incorporate all of these in his act, with contemporary rhythm and blues overtones. At the same time, he was developing the role of his singing wife, Keely Smith, into that of bored, deadpan vocalist who could care less about Prima’s on-stage scatting, jiving, dancing, be-bopping and other musical shenanigans. Sonny and Cher were an updated version of Louis and Keely.
Sam Butera and his talented New Orleans crew, dubbed “The Witnesses,” brought it all together. Even Prima’s cornball novelties–like “Josephina Please Don’t Lean-A on the Bell”–were now catchy, electrric swingers, held together by a modified swing beat called a “shuffle.” It wasn’t rock and it wasn’t jazz and it wasn’t dixieland. The music of Louis Prima, as defined by Butera, had elements of them all.
Louis Prima, Keely Smith and Sam Butera and The Witness were a hit and took Las Vegas by storm. The Casbah Lounge at the Sahara was the spot in Vegas. Tables were impossible to come by and after-hours visits to the lounge by the headliners–which frequently included Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack co-horts–became the norm. The group signed a lucrative contract with Capital Records, had a bunch of hit records, made a movie or two and were all over television. Ed Sullivan, who employed them frequentely on his television program was fond of calling them “the hottest act in the country.”
And the songs? Venerable oldies like “That Old Black Magic,” “Just a Gigolo,” “Oh Marie,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and dozens of others were arranged by Sam Butera for maximum effectiveness, utilizing the skilled talents of Prima’s wild vocals and trumpet playing, Smith’s sweet singing, and on most every tune, the booting and rousing tenor saxophone of Butera.
Prima, Butera and The Witnesses remained Vegas staples–and toured the country– for years, even after the very public divorce of Keely Smith and Louis Prima in 1961. Though the hits stopped coming and audiences and tastes changed, they always had their following. In 1967, Prima, Butera and the Witnesses got a tremendous shot in the arm via their casting, albeit as cartoon characters, in Walt Disney’s “The Jungle Book.” Prima, naturally, was “King Louie,” King of the Apes. Youngsters are still mesmerized by the songs and the characters in that film today.
The man who Sam Butera called “The Chief” played his last gig in 1975, after lapsing into a coma during an operation to remove a brain tumor. Louis Prima died three years later. Butera understandably floundered a bit on his own in the beginning, and sadly, a pairing with Keely Smith didn’t work out. Vegas, of course, wasn’t the same.
But things changed with the advent of legalized casino gaming in Atlantic City in 1978. As Sam Butera and “The Wildest” (Prima widow Gia Miaone owned the name “The Witnesses” and wouldn’t allow Butera to use it), the rabble-rousing tenor man garnered an entire “new” audience who remembered and loved the music of Louis Prima. It was that Vegas excitement–every night–all over again. Butera had a fine, fine band which was seven or eight strong at one point, and for years, they were the stars of the lounge within Resorts International, often alternating with other Vegas lounge legends, The Treniers and Freddie Bell and The Bellboys. Again, everyone who was everyone came into the lounge to catch Sam Butera. Including Frank Sinatra.
Rocker David Lee Roth’s remake of Prima/Butera’s “Just a Gigolo” brought even more audiences, nationwide, to see and hear “the original,” as did The Gap’s use of the Butera arrangement of “Jump Jive and Wail.”
In 2004, Sam Butera formally retired, tired of the constant travel and having to deal with a changed Las Vegas and a changed Atlantic City. He didn’t need to work. He worked and played long and hard, and even during his last gigs at the age of 78, he played with more energy than I have ever seen on stage before or since.
I once asked, during a band break at Resorts International in the early 1980s, if there was any secret to to his longevity. “There are two things to remember,” he told me. “One is that it’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice. The second is, and I love pure jazz more than anyone else, that we don’t play for critics. We play what I call happy music, and as Louis used to say, ‘We play it pretty for the people.'”