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American Routes Shortcuts: Keely Smith

Keely Smith and Louis Prima
American Routes
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In The Wildest, the film about Louis Prima’s life, he and Keely Smith are seen on the Ed Sullivan Show. The contrast in personae is striking. He, the rough and ready Sicilian jokester and trumpeter, and she, the slightly prim but voluptuous ingénue reacting blankly to his double entendres. Louis Prima and Keely Smith were married from 1953 to 1961. Keely passed away in 2017. Nick Spitzer spoke to her at home in Palm Springs in 1999 about how she and Louis Prima met.

Keely Smith: In 1947, my stepdaddy took my family to New York, and we drove up in a car from Norfolk, Virginia. 

Nick Spitzer: You’re from Norfolk.

KS: Right. And it was very hot in New York, so we left there and went to Atlantic City. My brother Piggy was with us, and my brother Piggy and I were jitterbug nuts. We all went out on the Steel Pier, I had my baby brother with me, Busta, and I used to take him with me everywhere. A lot of service men would leave me alone because they thought he was my kid. So I had my little brother, and we go over to the Steel Pier, and there’s this man named Louis Prima who we’d never heard of. We thought we knew every dance band there was. So I put Busta on the edge of the stage, and they were doing some comedy. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. So I finally went back to my parents, and I told them, I said, “You know, we’ve got to get him to Virginia,” I said, “They will love him in Virginia Beach.” The following year, August of ’48, Louis comes to Virginia Beach, and the crowd went crazy with his music and his actions and his dancing and his movements and the whole thing. There was this very pretty young girl standing next to the stage, and my brother went over and asked her would she like to sit at our table, and she introduced herself to him as Louis’s wife. She said, “No thank you,” and he said, “Well my mother and father are with us, I’m not coming onto you or anything, just if you’d like to sit instead of standing here all by yourself.” So she did, she came and sat at the table. The next night, which was Saturday night, he had a girl singer that he called Tangerine, and she was extremely nervous, so noticeable that he made an announcement that he was looking for a singer. 

NS: On stage he said this?

KS: Yeah! And my brother Piggy mentioned to Louis’s wife that I was a singer. Tracy–Louis’s wife’s name–told Louis that I sang. Louis called me on the loudspeaker, and I was on the beach in a bathing suit, so I borrowed a blouse and a skirt to go in, and I went in and I went up to the bandstand, and I didn’t see my mother and father. I said, “Is there anything wrong?” He said, “No, are you Dot Keely?” I said “Yes,” and he said, “Well I understand you’re a singer.” I said, “Yes but no.” And he said what do you mean no? And I said, “Well yeah but I’m not a singer like for you.” He said, “Well let me be the judge of that.” Anyhow I went up and I sang, and I sang “Sleepytime Gal” and “Embraceable You,” and he hired me right on the spot. 

NS: And you were 17 and he was…

KS: Louis was 38, but you know, I didn’t like him at first. Louis was too hairy for me. We would do summer tea dances, and he would put his arms around me in a song, and that hair would touch me, and I just cringed. It really bothered me, so I didn’t like Louis for a long time. And then over a period of time, I fell in love with Louis. 

NS: And Louis seemed to be pretty interested in you too, I think. 

KS: Oh yeah. But I didn’t know it. 

NS: What kind of place was Las Vegas in the 1950s? 

KS: Absolutely wonderful. Louis and I originally went there in 1952, and Louis headlined the show at the El Rancho. 

NS: Who was coming to Vegas to come to gamble and to come see you folks? 

KS: We catered mostly–I always say this anyhow–to the working people. I think that’s who made Louis and I, the working people: the cab drivers, the hookers, the security guards, the dealers. We were accessible. 

NS: Won’t this music live forever? 

KS: Oh yes, oh yes. I definitely believe that. I don’t think there’s anyone even come near Louis Prima really. 

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.