Keely Smith, who made a name for herself as vocalist for big band legend Louis Prima, has passed at the age of 89. The wife of New Orleans-born swing trumpeter and singer Louis Prima (1910-1978), Smith became a household name when together they became the hottest act in Las Vegas in the 1950’s.
The vocalist was born Dorothy Keely in Norfolk, Virginia in 1928, of part Irish and part Cherokee roots. Her musical talent emerged as a teenager when she sang with a naval dance band at a military base during the Second World War. In 1947 she was introduced to Prima, by then one of the hottest trumpet players of the swing era, and the composer of several hits, including one made famous by Benny Goodman’s orchestra, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Prima lead both small combos and full big bands in New Orleans and later New York City. Vocalist Smith joined Prima’s band in mid-1947, and brought balance to Prima’s juggernaut musical and vocal style.
As a performer, Smith became more than just a “girl vocalist” and later wife to Prima. She brought a unique vocal gift notable for both range and a driving sense of swing. Smith, along with New Orleans’s veteran jazzman saxophone player Sam Butera, became musical innovators. Together, they pushed the Prima organization toward a new level of success with a “jumping jive” prototype of the Rhythm and Blues sound that was popularized in the 1940’s by artists like Louis Jordan. Under this direction, Louis Prima found a whole new audience and level of success.
As Prima and Smith became hits on the Las Vegas strip, Capitol Records brought them under contract and began recording them onstage and releasing multiple hit albums starting in 1956. Some of her hits included “Just A Gigolo”, “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, “When Your Lover Has Gone” and the million-record seller “That Old Black Magic”.
Prima and Smith, their marriage failing from the pressures of show business, divorced in 1961. Louis Prima continued to perform in Las Vegas as Smith embarked on her solo career. A close confidant of fellow Las Vegas performer Frank Sinatra, Smith signed with Sinatra’s Reprise label in the 1960’s, and by 1965 married producer Jimmy Bowen, producer of many of Sinatra’s and Dean Martin’s hits of the period.
Continuing to record and perform, Keeley Smith became less visible in the 1970’s, but returned to popularity in the 1980s, focusing more on jazz-flavored pop material. Her influence on the musical scene became more apparent over the last decade, as the Prima-Smith style of big band music became fashionable again, showcased by artists like California’s “Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.”
In December of 2017, Keely Smith died of apparent heart failure in Palm Springs, California at the age of 89. She is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills.