Gia Maione Prima, the widow of singer Louis Prima, who performed alongside him in the last decade of his life and then spent years protecting his musical legacy and introducing it to a new generation of fans, died Monday in Florida. She was 72.
Mrs. Prima was the mother of two of Prima’s children – his only son Louis Jr. and daughter Lena – both of whom are entertainers and perform musical tributes to their father in their acts. They are both scheduled to perform at Gretna Fest next month, for example.
Gia Maione was 21 years old and working as a waitress at a casino in her native New Jersey when she met Louis Prima. The superstar singer and performer, a New Orleans native, had just divorced Keely Smith, his wife and legendary co-star, and was conducting a nationwide search for a new singing partner.
Young Gia Maione got the job, and then two years later, Louis proposed, making her the fifth Mrs. Prima. After the two married in 1963, they continued to perform at casinos and clubs, with longtime Prima bandleader and saxophonist Sam Butera, and traveled the world, also making 1960s and 1970s television appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and alongside Bob Hope, Dean Martin and other stars of the day.
Mrs. Prima’s own interest in music began at an early age, her family said. At the age of 4 she began taking piano and voice lessons, which would continue for 17 years, until she met Prima and became a national star.
With Louis, she recorded 14 albums and numerous 45’s, many of which were re-released by Mrs. Prima some 15 years after her husband’s 1978 death , when she gained control of the Prima archives after years of legal struggles, and re-released many of his albums through her Prima Music, LLC and the website louisprima.com, which she oversaw. Those albums include many of Prima's Italian novelty songs, including the album "Angelina," made up entirely of Italian favorites.
In the last years of Louis Prima's life, he and Gia frequently visited the New Orleans area, including a large tract of land he owned in St. Tammany Parish. Prima died in New Orleans, at Touro Infirmary.
"Louis never left New Orleans -- he always came back, and always performed there, " Gia told The Times-Picayune's Keith Spera in 2010. "More importantly, he took New Orleans to the rest of the United States. Every show included his stories about home. He loved his home."
After his death, Gia Prima was a fierce protector of the music and of her husband’s image and likeness, which were licensed to companies like The Gap for TV commercials, as his popularity grew among a new generation of fans.
In addition to her two children, Mrs. Prima is also survived by two grandsons, a sister and longtime companion, Frank Savannah, according to her obituary in The Times-Picayune.
A private service will be held at Lake Lawn Funeral Home in New Orleans.