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Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas

by Tom Clavin

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-55652-821-7
Publisher: Chicago Review

Lazy, hackneyed biography of the lounge act to end them all.

Former New York Times contributing reporter Clavin (Sir Walter: Walter Hagen and the Invention of Professional Golf, 2005, etc.) provides a gee-whiz look at singer-trumpeter Louis Prima’s Las Vegas heyday with spouse and musical partner Keely Smith. Enthralled by fellow New Orleans native Louis Armstrong, Italian-American Prima began his musical career in the 1920s and became a popular fixture at New York’s during the ’30s. Forced to break up his big band by changing tastes, Prima was down on his heels in 1954 when, out of desperation, he took a gig at the Sahara Hotel’s Casbar Lounge, doing five sets a night from midnight to 6 a.m. Rambunctious Prima, deadpan Smith and their high-voltage band quickly became the toast of Vegas, and they were recording stars pulling down a million-dollar salary by the time divorce broke up their act in 1961. Clavin appears utterly unqualified to parse Prima’s musical style, which combined the sound of the small black R&B combos, who rose during the ’40s as the big-band era waned, with his own Italianate repertoire and extroverted showmanship. The author also provides very few primary sources and offers no explanation of why Smith failed to sit down for an interview. Most of the material is dredged up from past tomes about Vegas’ showbiz and mob history, yellowing press clippings and previous film biographies of Prima. Extreme padding is evident in passages that catalog contemporaneous movie-house attractions and TV broadcasts for no apparent reason. The main narrative is larded further with threadbare recaps of Vegas’ history as a playground for Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and gangsters like Sam Giancana. Clavin’s fondness for cliché, idolatrous tone and unwillingness to supply even a glimmering of intelligent analysis make for torturous reading.

There’s no magic, black or otherwise, in this cut-and-paste bio.