The Wild Sicilian From New Orleans

Jun 14, 2022 3107

BY: David J. Domino

Louis Prima was a very talented Italian American jazz singer, trumpet player and bandleader. Fans knew Prima as a polite and friendly celebrity. He always signed autographs or posed for pictures with a smile. He was born in New Orleans on December 7, 1910.

His father, Anthony Prima, was the son of Sicilian immigrants from Salaparuta. His mother, Angelina Caravella, had immigrated from the small Sicilian island of Ustica as a baby. Angelina was a big fan of music and made sure that all of her children played an instrument. Prima took violin lessons as a child, but switched to trumpet at age 15.

He grew up on St. Peter St., in a section of New Orleans known as Little Palermo, near the French Quarter. Wandering around his neighborhood as a teenager, Prima was introduced to jazz music. Local nightclubs such as Joe Segretta's, Matranga's, Tonti's Social Club and Lala's Big 25 were popular nightclubs that were owned by Italians.

While attending Warren Easton High School in 1926, he decided to play in the school band. In 1927, he partnered with musician Frank Federico and the pair played at The Whip, a run-down nightclub in the French Quarter. After finishing high school, Prima had a few unsuccessful gigs, but never gave up. He found a temporary job playing with the band on the “Capital,” a steamship docked on Canal Street. It was where he met the lovely Louise Polizzi, who became his wife on June 25, 1929.

Prima spent some time performing at the Avalon Club, owned by his older brother, Leon. His first break was when Lou Forbes hired him for afternoon and evening shows at The Saenger Theater in 1932. Prima met Guy Lombardo while performing at the Shim Sham in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras season of 1934. Lombardo was impressed with his trumpet playing skills and felt that Prima would have more success as a musician in NYC. He took Lombardo's advice and moved to the Big Apple. He struggled to find work until he formed a band called the New Orleans Gang and landed a regular gig at The Famous Door, a nightclub on 52nd Street. Around that time, Louise accused Prima of not being faithful to her. They divorced in 1936. He married actress Alma Ross that same year. 

Prima landed a regular gig at Billy Rose's Casa Manana in May 1938. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt saw him perform in Washington D.C. in 1939 and invited him to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's birthday celebration. He appeared in photographs with the President, which ultimately boosted his publicity.

Prima recorded his version of "I'll Walk Alone" in 1944. It reached number 22 on the U.S. pop charts. Despite the discrimination that Italians received before and after WWII, he began successfully recording Italian songs, such as "Oh Marie” and "Angelina." Louis and Alma divorced in March 1947. Just a year after their divorce, he married Tracelene Barrett. Singer Keely Smith met Prima in August 1948. An amateur singer from Norfolk, VA, she auditioned to sing with Prima's band and ended up touring with them. The two recorded "The Bigger the Figure" in 1952. After Louis and Tracelene divorced, he married Keely Smith on July 13, 1953. The couple were asked to sing together at the Sahara in Las Vegas in 1954. They started performing there regularly for the rest of the decade.

Italian American saxophonist Sam Butera was playing at the 500 Club in New Orleans when Prima phoned him and asked if he would play in his show. Butera agreed to it, but only if his small band was able to come along. Prima obliged and Butera drove with his band from New Orleans to Las Vegas.

At the first annual Grammy Awards in 1959, Keely and Louis won the first Grammy for Best Performance by a Vocal Group for "That Old Black Magic." They performed at John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Ball in 1961, and divorced later that year. Gia Maione took Keely Smith's spot as the female vocalist in Prima’s band. Maione was a good-looking Italian American woman from Toms River, NJ. She was only 21. Prima and Maione wed in 1963. The couple regularly performed at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Louis Prima passed away on  August 24, 1978 in New Orleans, LA. He was only 68-years-old.


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