Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

Keely Smith!

No Fauxcahontas, she, but a bona-fide part-Cherokee Southern lass. One part this, one part that, and all pure-tee dynamite as far as I’m concerned.

In the course of the show, I mention that my friend Monique Fauteux sang with Charles Trenet, and I credit him as the writer of “La Mer” (famous in English as Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea”) and “Boum!” (memorably deployed by Bond’s nemesis in Skyfall). But this week’s Song of the Week is another Trenet song, a lovely ballad. It’s celebrating its 75th anniversary, and it has an additional significance, in English, as the signature song of Keely Smith, who left us just before Christmas.

Keely died just shy of ninety in Palm Springs, where for many years she was the town’s Honorary Mayor and discharged that role with great distinction. Part Cherokee, part Irish, and all southern, she went to the Surf Club in Virginia Beach one night to catch Louis Prima and his band. For some reason, she showed up in a bathing suit, and the doorman wouldn’t let her in until she’d rustled up some clothes.

Yowza. Just…yowza. Onwards.

Once dressed, she was offered a singing job by Prima. They married and became one of the greatest double-acts of all time. In the Fifties, their records – “That Old Black Magic”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” – weren’t big smashes in the Hit Parade sense, but they’ve endured over the decades, and their combination of gleeful zaniness and brilliant musicality is unique. They were both comic and cool, which is tricky to pull off. If you first encountered Louis and Keely on disc, the visual shtick can seem a bit limiting – Prima goofing around while the missus, in a persona he created for her and controlled very tightly, looks on stoney-faced and bored. But they were a phenomenon in Las Vegas, and one of the acts that, two-thirds of a century ago, helped build the town.

One of the others, Frank Sinatra, liked to turn up at the Sahara late at night after his own shows and catch the duo. He loved Prima for the laughs, and he loved Keely, period.

As well he might have; I always thought she was pretty hot stuff myself. In fact, I have a dim recollection of having done a post on her somewhere way back in the distant, gauzy past of this here hogwallow, although there’s a pretty good chance of its having been lost along with a lot of other stuff when I made the switch to the WordPress platform.

The chemistry was so good that the ol’ test-tube started overheating and Frank asked Keely to marry him. She turned him down because she found all the Rat Pack slang he liked to use a little raunchy for her tastes – words like “bird” (for penis), “charlies” (breasts), “mother” (half a word). “I’m not a prude,” she said, “but I knew I couldn’t raise my kids around that.” So instead she married Sinatra’s lieutenant at Reprise, Jimmy Bowen, the inventive producer who in the Sixties gave Frank and Dean their big hits and then in the Eighties moved to Nashville and did the same for Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire.

As to her deal-breaking objection to Frank’s lingo, I think of that whenever I play Keely’s splendid trot through “South of the Border”, with its cheery sign-off to the band: “Olé, you muthas.”

A prude she most certainly was NOT, or so it would seem: I’ve heard plenty of torrid old stories about her and Prima being a swinging couple in more than just the old Rat Pack/hipster sense, including some pretty appalling ones about how Prima really got the nickname “The Lip” which had nothing whatever to do with playing the trumpet. Well, not the kind made out of brass, anyway.

Be all that as it may, they’ve long been favorites of mine, and I had no idea she’d died. So if I’m saddened by her passing, I’m also glad Steyn memorialized her in this piece. She surely deserves the recognition; I should’ve guessed he’d be a fan too. She wasn’t what anybody would consider rock and roll, I guess, aside from a certain sexual adventurism that even then was far more common among show biz types than ordinary folks ever imagined. She’s gonna make one hell of an addition to Heaven’s Hell Of A Band just the same, and rock and roll be damned anyhow. Rest in peace, Keely, and well done.

Here’s a bonus, because you can’t hardly talk about the Prima band without also doffing the cap to the purely incredible Sam Butera on saxomaphone. Or you shouldn’t, anyway.


1 thought on “Keely Smith!

  1. I was lucky enough to be a fan of David Lee Roth when he resurrected the Louis Prima legend. In the 90’s another fave of mine, Brian Setzer, bridges the gap between jazz and rock ‘n’ roll with his Brian Setzer Orchestra. All of a sudden I was looking around for a Louis Prima Greatest Hits collection. That’s when I first came across Keely’s singing. Some YouTube videos later I had another lesson in showmanship and talent.

    I sometimes feel bad that today’s yoots aren’t learning anything about their history and their musical history is a part and parcel of that. They really don’t get how the convergence of Jump Blues, Vegas acts like Prima, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Johnny Otis, Mississippi Delta Blues gone electric like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and urban bluesmen all converged in Post-War America like a Jack Kerouac novel speeding 120 mph across the country to create something totally new and wonderful.

    They think music began with Snoop Dogg sometime in the 80’s and perhaps they know Marvin Gaye. But the legend Marvin, the one you sample to be hip, not the real Marvin who could actually wow them live and undubbed.

    Thanks Mike. Thanks Mr. Steyn. For keeping the memory alive. Now where did I put that Prima CD…

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