Louis Prima: Just a Gigolo
On the 7th of December 1910, Louis Prima, an American trumpet player and singer of Italian descent, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. His performances, starting from the jazz infused 1920s right up to the pop and rock dominated 1960s at the end of his career, were a rich combination of musical showmanship, comic genius and Italian ‘non so che cosa’, or as the French would say – ‘je ne sais quoi’. Especially, such hits as Felicia No Capricia, Please No Squeeza Da Banana, and Zooma Zooma were like those cheesy but delicious toppings on Italian pizza. Referring to his origin, there is one more trait that allows a conclusion that Prima was more Italian than pasta – it was of course his love of the ladies.
Louis Prima married five times. He met his first wife, Louise Polizzi, when he was only 19. And he dazzled her instantly: “Shy, Italian, dark-haired and of simple origins, Louise later admitted she had never quite met anyone like Prima. ‘He was very different,’ she said. ‘But he wasn’t like people thought, he wasn’t always happy and dancing around. Sometimes he’d be very sad. He’d cry very easily if something was bothering him. He didn’t even have very many close friends, although he knew a lot of people.’ “(Garry Boulard, Louis Prima).
Despite his sensitive side, Prima did not cry too long after divorcing Polizzi in 1936. The reason for the divorce was in fact Prima’s infidelity. It took him only a few months after the divorce to wed again. In July 1936, Prima married an actress Alma Ross: “Prima and Ross attended various Hollywood social events and nightclubs together and were mentioned as an item in the gossip columns. The relationship became very serious quickly. Oddly, Louis waited until he was on the road with his band to propose marriage. Alma met him in the Midwest, and when they encountered Guy Lombardo in Chicago, he invited the couple to accompany him to a gig in South Bend, Indiana, where they could be married, with Lombardo as the best man.” (Tom Clavin, That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas). The couple faced some initial difficulties after Alma’s discoveries about Prima’s hidden past. Apparently he had never confessed to his new wife that he had a daughter. This fact came out accidentally when dealing with tax return formalities. Eventually, this marriage ended in divorce after Alma learnt of Prima’s affair with the actress Jean Harlow. Bearing in mind that Harlow died in 1937, the liaison must have happened shortly after Prima’s marriage with Alma. But Harlow simply could not withstand Prima’s charm and charisma. “Her chauffeur would bring her to the Famous Door and she’d sit back in a smoky corner and watch Louis perform and wait for the show to be over to spend her time with Louis.” (Clavin). She loved him dearly and he was apparently very serious about her too. Unfortunately this love ended with Jane Harlow’s sudden and very premature death.
After divorcing his second wife in 1945, Prima increasingly gained fame and commercial success. This of course made him even more attractive to the ladies. He very quickly got involved with his secretary, Tracelene Barrett, who in 1948 became his third wife. “The couple launched their honeymoon by getting on a boat that Louis had bought for his bride and named the Tracelene II. In what could be seen as symbolic, the boat hit a sandbar in the middle of the Hudson River, and the newlyweds had to be rescued.” (Clavin). Nomen est omen, it just happened that the same year Prima met Keely Smith, his next future wife. Even though they did not marry until 1953, they were probably involved romantically before Prima’s divorce with Barrett. But this time as much as being his wife, Smith, who was half of Prima’s age, became also his partner on stage. “Keely Smith turned out to be exactly what Louis Prima needed to put him back on top in show business. He was smart enough to recognize her potential. First, there was her large, natural voice. Keely could sing high and low, fast and slow, and her smooth phrasing was enticing, especially in contrast to his braying bellow. …During her peak years, some critics would say that if you looked up sultry in the dictionary, there would be a photo of Keely Smith. It wouldn’t matter that she couldn’t read music; she was a natural with a strong memory. Her appealing Irish-Cherokee looks kept audiences’ eyes on her.” (Clavin). It was in fact Keely Smith who stood behind the great success of Prima’s album with Capitol records, The Wildest!, released in September 1956. Some of his most popular songs, such as Just a Gigolo and I Ain’t Got Nobody come from this album. The couple was very successful together as well as individually. Keely received a Grammy in 1958 for the album I Wish You Love. And in 1959 she was also awarded a Playboy Jazz Award. Very successful on stage, the private life of the couple did not look as rosy – all to do with Prima’s never tempered hunger for romance. As much of a character she was, Keely Smith could no longer turn a blind eye on her husband’s infidelities and in 1961 she filed for divorce.
Shortly after splitting with Smith, Prima met Gia Maione: “I was working as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s restaurant at the time,” Maione recalled. “He called me up during the show, and I think because I was so young, and naive, and innocent-looking with the full crinoline skirts, and the poodle haircut, he thought he was just going to get a kick calling me up onstage. During the show he asked me if I knew ‘I’m in the Mood for Love,’ and I said yes. So he started the intro for it, and of course, I knew every arrangement, I knew everything, so I just did it. And he would look at me and then he would look at Sam. Then he said, well, do you know this song, and I said yes, and so we did the next song. Then he kept me up there and went into ‘Just a Gigolo’ and ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’, and I did all of the backgrounds with the boys. I just knew exactly what to do.” (Calvin)
Maione became Prima’s fifth and last wife. She also accompanied her husband on stage but was not as successful as Keely Smith. Nevertheless, she stayed with Prima until his death in 1978, and only died recently on the 23rd of September 2013.