Louis Prima this weekend. In the days before Call Of The Wildest and his legendary stints in Vegas, Louis Prima was a staple of the Big-Band era, writing a string of classic songs and, as legend has it, coined the word Swing to describe the flavor of Jazz becoming popular in the mid-1930s.
During World War II, Prima was deemed unfit for military service because of a knee injury, so he continued performing. In 1939 he was under contract to appear in black theatres in New York, Baltimore, Boston and Washington D.C. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended his performance in Washington D.C., and formally invited him to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthday celebration. He appeared in photographs with the President, which ultimately boosted his publicity.
By the mid-1940s, Prima was experiencing great success. People were purchasing tickets early in the morning for shows later on that evening. Despite the anti-Italian sentiment during the war, Prima continued to record Italian songs, the most famous being “Angelina”, named after his mother. Others included “Please No Squeeza Da Banana”, “Baciagaloop (Makes Love on the Stoop)”, and “Felicia No Capicia.”
He performed the Italian songs at the Strand Theatre in New York. He brought in $440,000 in six weeks.In Detroit he could bring in about $38,000 for an afternoon performance. With all of this success, he decided to go back to Chicago to prove himself; he sold out the “Panther Room” in that city.
Prima had several big hits in the summer of 1945 including, “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time” and “Bell-Bottom Trousers”.= As his career grew, however, his marriage with Alma Ross simultaneously failed. They got a divorce when she discovered he had been cheating on her with another actress. Alma was supposed to receive $15,000 a year or 7.5% of his earnings. Prima ignored the payments until they piled up to about $60,000, which forced him to write a settlement check of $45,000 plus $250 per week. Later he married his secretary, Tracelene Barrett.
By the end of the war years, the popularity of big band music was diminishing, and by 1947 Prima was playing more jazzy versions of his music. Under a new contract with RCA Victor, he recorded “Civilization”; “You Can’t Tell the Depth of the Well”; “Say it with a Slap”; “Valencia”; “My Flame Went Out Last Night”; “Thousand Islands”; “Mean To Me”; and “Tutti Tutti Pizzicato”.
In 1948 Prima and Barrett had a baby girl. He continued to work in the northeast, but cut down the size of his orchestra.
This broadcast, part of the weekly series Coca-Cola Spotlight Bands featured Prima several times during the war years. This one was recorded on January 15, 1945.
The legendary era with Keely Smith and Sam Butera would be a few years off – but here’s a reminder Louis Prima was a huge influence for a very long time starting long before.