That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas

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Overview

In 1948, New Orleans veteran trumpeter and singer Louis Prima stumbled into a young girl named Keely Smith. She was barely a performer at all, almost half his age, destined for a relatively quiet life; their encounter was pure coincidence. But they went on to invent “The Wildest,” the most exciting and successful lounge act Las Vegas has ever seen, an act that became one of the hottest in the U.S. in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their records were hugely popular, and they were courted by Frank Sinatra, Ed ...

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Overview

In 1948, New Orleans veteran trumpeter and singer Louis Prima stumbled into a young girl named Keely Smith. She was barely a performer at all, almost half his age, destined for a relatively quiet life; their encounter was pure coincidence. But they went on to invent “The Wildest,” the most exciting and successful lounge act Las Vegas has ever seen, an act that became one of the hottest in the U.S. in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their records were hugely popular, and they were courted by Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Robert Mitchum, and other well-known entertainers of the day. Their professional success helped bring about the rise of Las Vegas as a mecca of American entertainment. Their love story ended soon after they helped usher in John F. Kennedy’s presidency—singing “That Old Black Magic” for him at his inauguration—but their influence is still evident. And Keely still draws SRO audiences to her nightclub appearances.

            Now, on the occasion of Louis Prima’s 100th birthday, comes the first book on this duo, illustrating not only one of show business’s greatest love stories but also the Vegas milieu in which they reached the pinnacle of their success.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Clavin (Halsey's Typhoon) commemorates the centennial of trumpeter Louis Prima's birth with an entertaining biography of the bandleader's colorful life, music, and marriages--especially his union with fourth wife, singer Keely Smith, 18 years his junior. In the Vegas of the early 1950s and '60s, Prima and Smith's raucous all-night lounge act, nicknamed "The Wildest," thrilled both tourists and celebrities with an energetic mix of Dixieland, swing, rock, and off-color humor. Clavin brings the stage act to life, ably evoking the Vegas lifestyle it helped popularize. Through anecdotes, pop criticism, and comments from print and video sources as well as original interviews, the complex Vegas backstory of racism, gangsters, the Rat Pack, and Howard Hughes is palpable. Not so the Primas' offstage existence, the descriptions of which are surprisingly flavorless. After tracing Prima's musical fortunes from his New Orleans roots through gigs at Manhattan's famed 52nd Street jazz clubs to his reign at the Casbar Lounge of the Sahara Hotel, Clavin portrays Prima's relationship to the alluring Cherokee-Irish Smith as a bit of musical luck that turned romantic, until their divorce in 1961. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"This book brought me back to my days in Vegas, which we’ll never see again. That was a one-time-only event. I enjoyed Louis Prima more than any other entertainer I’ve seen onstage, that’s how good he was."  —Shecky Greene

"Clavin has produced an easy read that is informative, entertaining and enlightening . . . makes a valuable contribution to the world's body of knowledge about one of the greatest entertainers of all time."  —NewOrleans.com

"Crisply written and engaging."  —PopMatters

Kirkus Reviews

Lazy, hackneyed biography of the lounge act to end them all.

Former New York Times contributing reporter Clavin (Sir Walter: Walter Hagen and the Invention of Professional Golf, 2005, etc.) provides a gee-whiz look at singer-trumpeter Louis Prima's Las Vegas heyday with spouse and musical partner Keely Smith. Enthralled by fellow New Orleans native Louis Armstrong, Italian-American Prima began his musical career in the 1920s and became a popular fixture at New York's during the '30s. Forced to break up his big band by changing tastes, Prima was down on his heels in 1954 when, out of desperation, he took a gig at the Sahara Hotel's Casbar Lounge, doing five sets a night from midnight to 6 a.m. Rambunctious Prima, deadpan Smith and their high-voltage band quickly became the toast of Vegas, and they were recording stars pulling down a million-dollar salary by the time divorce broke up their act in 1961. Clavin appears utterly unqualified to parse Prima's musical style, which combined the sound of the small black R&B combos, who rose during the '40s as the big-band era waned, with his own Italianate repertoire and extroverted showmanship. The author also provides very few primary sources and offers no explanation of why Smith failed to sit down for an interview. Most of the material is dredged up from past tomes about Vegas' showbiz and mob history, yellowing press clippings and previous film biographies of Prima. Extreme padding is evident in passages that catalog contemporaneous movie-house attractions and TV broadcasts for no apparent reason. The main narrative is larded further with threadbare recaps of Vegas' history as a playground for Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack and gangsters like Sam Giancana. Clavin's fondness for cliché, idolatrous tone and unwillingness to supply even a glimmering of intelligent analysis make for torturous reading.

There's no magic, black or otherwise, in this cut-and-paste bio.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781556528217
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/1/2010
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 666,495
  • Product dimensions: 7.94 (w) x 11.80 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Clavin

Tom Clavin is the author/coauthor of ten books, including Roger Maris, The Last Stand of Fox Company, and Halsey’s Typhoon. His articles have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Family Circle, Men’s Journal, Parade, Reader’s Digest, and others. He was a contributing reporter for the New York Times for 15 years.

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Customer Reviews

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