Keely Smith, the Grammy-winning singer whose musical partnership with her first husband, Louis Prima, ushered in a swinging era of Las Vegas entertainment and gained the pair international fame, died Saturday. She was 89.
Her publicist, Bob Merlis, told Variety she had been suffering from heart failure. Smith’s solo career as a jazz and standards singer continued well after her marriage to Prima ended in 1961. Her last local performance was in 2010 when she appeared at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The event that year was dedicated to Prima, the legendary New Orleans-born singer and bandleader who died in 1978.
Born Dorothy Jacqueline Keely in Norfolk, Va., Smith was of Cherokee and Irish parentage. With her exotic look and distinctive pixie haircut, she started out singing with a naval air station band and got her first paying job at age 15. Prima discovered her while on tour in Norfolk and hired her as “girl singer” for his band in 1948. The pair married in 1953. “I thought he was the most gorgeous thing that ever walked,” she said in a 1983 WYES interview. “He could look at me with his eyes and just melt me completely, no matter what he had done.”
Smith was a shy young woman when Prima first developed their stage persona, adding her natural singing ability to his raucous style of entertaining, making her the cool and often deadpan straightwoman to his comic antics, backed up by bandleader and fellow New Orleanian Sam Butera’s hot saxophone. It was on full display in their 1950s renditions of the standards “That Ol’ Black Magic” (which won the pair a 1959 Grammy and stayed on the charts for 18 weeks), “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” Music critics pointed out that Smith’s deadpan style would later be emulated by Cher when she began performing with Sonny Bono.
Prima, Smith, Butera and his band became top-billed entertainers in Las Vegas in the 1950s, first booked for a two-week gig at the Sahara casino hotel in 1954. The end of the big band era left Prima looking for a new direction for their act. He found it in Las Vegas, to the delight of music fans across the country. His and Smith’s blend of rock and roll, rhythm and blues and jazz, with a shuffle beat, would be featured on dozens of albums from Capitol Records. They also made appearances on film and many television programs including Ed Sullivan’s landmark variety show.
The couple had two children and visited Prima’s hometown of New Orleans often. "I love New Orleans," she told Keith Spera for a 2000 Times-Picayune article marking an appearance here. "New Orleans is my second home. I have great memories of New Orleans."
The couple’s relationship, on stage and off, ended in 1961 after Smith said she tired of Prima’s hard-charging lifestyle and they divorced. She later remarried twice and continued as a solo artist.
Her first big solo hit was "I Wish You Love" in 1957. She signed with Reprise Records and recorded a string of songs with musical director Nelson Riddle. She had Top 20 hits in the United Kingdom throughout the 1960s, including an album of Beatles compositions. She continued performing in nightclubs well past retirement age and in 2001 received a Grammy nomination for her album “Keely Sings Sinatra.”
Her recordings with Prima found a new audience in the 1980s and 90s with young people hearing their music for the first time. In 1985, ex-Van Halen vocalist David Lee Roth cut a version of Prima’s “Just A Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” Later, Prima and Smith’s bouncy version of “Jump, Jive An’ Wail” was used in a Gap commercial, which exposed the music to a new generation. "It was an excellent commercial," Smith told Keith Spera in 2000. "When you looked at it, you felt good, you felt happy, with those kids dancing. It's given me a whole new career."
Smith even performed "That Ol' Black Magic" with Kid Rock and Dave Koz at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards in 2007.
Though Smith had success a sultry solo artist, one of her more recent albums popularized on the popularity of her swing music. She told Spera that she listened to some of her old songs with Prima to prepare to sing without him. "Louis phrased differently than anybody in the whole world and his scatting is entirely different," Smith said. "I don't phrase anywhere near like Louis does. It took some work to do it. I started listening to the tapes, and I was able to do it. And I was just thrilled with myself when I found out I could.”
Survivors include two daughters, Toni Prima and Luanne Prima.