Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 04, 2000
Head: Kelly Smith Discusses Her Career
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "I CAN'T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE," KEELY SMITH)
GROSS: Keely Smith was 16 years old when bandleader Louis Prima discovered her and hired her to sing with his band. A few years later, they married.
On today's FRESH AIR, we talk with Keely Smith about her years with Prima and their experiences as a popular lounge act in Vegas during the Rat Pack era.
Keely Smith has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing," on which she performs some of the songs that she and Prima did in the '50s. Their recordings of the '50s have become popular again with the help of the swing revival.
Keely Smith, coming up on FRESH AIR.
First, the news.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC," KEELY SMITH AND LOUIS PRIMA)
GROSS: That's Louis Prima and my guest, Keely Smith, with their 1958 hit, "That Old Black Magic." In the past few years, their records have become very popular again, partly because of the swing revival. The song "Jump, Jive, and Wail" that was used in the Gap's swing dance ad was written by Prima.
His recordings have been used in several recent movies, including "Casino" and "Big Night," and every Italian restaurant today seems to play his records. Prima discovered Keely Smith in 1948 when she was just a teenager. He hired her to sing with his band, then married her in 1953.
They took their act to Vegas and became one of the most popular lounge acts of the Rat Pack era. They divorced in 1961. Prima died in 1978. There's a new documentary about him called "Louis Prima: The Wildest."
And now the 68-year-old Keely Smith has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing," in which she sings several of the songs she and Prima were known for. The title track is her adaptation of Prima's song, "Sing, Sing, Sing."
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "SWING, SWING, SWING," KEELY SMITH)
GROSS: Keely Smith, welcome to FRESH AIR.
KEELY SMITH, "SWING, SWING, SWING": Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Now, how did you first hear Louis Prima?
SMITH: Oh, golly. In 1947, my stepfather took our family up from Norfolk, Virginia, where I was born, to New York, and it was very hot, and we were driving in a car. And so we drove down to Atlantic City, and out on the Steel Pier was a man named Louis Prima. My brother and I, being jitterbug nuts, wanted to go to see the big band. We had never heard of Louis.
And we went out there with my family. And we saw this man, and I was absolutely mesmerized with him. Half the people were standing around the bandstand watching what they were doing, and the other half was in the back of the ballroom dancing.
And I just couldn't believe the comedy that they did and how good the band was. And his singers were excellent. And I just stood there the whole night. I don't think I danced one dance. And when we went back home to Virginia, we went to Virginia Beach, which -- a man down there named Mr. Caine (ph) owned a place called the Surf Club. And in the summertime, he used to bring a different big band every week. They'd open on a Friday and close on a Thursday.
And we told Mr. Cain about Louis Prima. And he had never heard of Louis either. So we told him, If you bring him down here next summer, we guarantee you that we will pack the place on opening night, and from then on, Mr. Prima will pack the place.
And Mr. Caine took our word for it. And the following summer of '48, he brought Louis Prima to Virginia Beach. Louis at the time had a girl singer named Tangerine, who was extremely nervous, and he told the people, the public, that he was looking for a singer. And several girls went up and sang, but I didn't, because I was really very bashful.
And on that Sunday after...
GROSS: But did you want to, though? Did you want to go up and sing?
SMITH: No, not really. I just figured I was going to wind up getting married and having kids and being in Virginia.
GROSS: Because you didn't think you'd be a professional singer.
SMITH: No. I sang with a little local band around Norfolk, and I earned $5 a night. I sang with a Navy band during the war, and I didn't earn any money with that. And at that point, I was 14. My mother had to travel with me.
But I was content doing what I was doing. And it never dawned on me that I could possibly go with somebody like Louis or anybody, any big band.
But on the Sunday afternoon tea dance, Louis called me from the stage, and my real name is Dot, Dorothy Keely. And he said, "Dot Keely, come to the bandstand." And I went up thinking there might be something wrong with my parents, because they went with us everywhere.
And he said, "I understand you're a singer." And I said, "Yes, but not your kind, you know." And he said, "No, no, I understand, I want you to sing a couple of songs."
And I was really nervous, and I told him, no, I didn't want to. And I got up and I sang "Sleepytime Gal" and "Embraceable You," and he hired me on the spot.
What he didn't know is that I knew all of his arrangements. After we saw him in Atlantic City, I had gone home and bought every Louis Prima record I could find, and I knew all of his vocals. I knew the -- how to come in, how to -- what the endings were. I knew the boy vocals, the girl vocals. And he was amazed when he found that out, which meant I didn't have to have any rehearsals with the band.
And the only gown I had was my high school prom dress.
GROSS: (laughs) What did it look like?
SMITH: It was white, (laughs) naturally. And I had bleached the top of my hair and the two sides, because that was a style in those days. He did not like that at all. And that was a Sunday, and I left with him on Thursday night. I went to work with him Sunday night, I left with him on Thursday.
GROSS: What was it like to go on the road with Louis Prima when you were 16?
SMITH: Well, when I left home, my mother had one condition, and that was that I had to travel with Louis and his wife. And Louis had three conditions, and they were, You can't smoke or drink or date the musicians, which I wasn't interested in any of that.
So it worked out fine. After a few weeks, though, they moved me over to traveling with the musicians, and I must say, they took care of me. They looked out for me, and they were perfect gentlemen. Not one of them hit on me. And it was just -- it was a great friendship and camaraderie in that band. He had some really nice men.
GROSS: Now, did Louis Prima give you any suggestions about your singing?
SMITH: No. For years, he never said a word to me. And then when we went to Vegas, someone said to him, Are you going to send her to a vocal coach? And he said no. He said, "She'll find whatever she needs on stage." And that's -- and I sing, actually, Terry, like I talk.
GROSS: So what about in phrasing and in rhythm? Did you feel like you could just naturally fit into the kind of swing rhythms that Louis Prima was using?
SMITH: Well, no, I have to be very honest about that. I've always been known as a ballad singer, and I prefer singing ballads. But when this situation came up, my husband, Bobby Milano, who's also my producer of the record, he said, "I think you should go back, we should listen to the old Louis songs and some Louis Jordan things, and really pick out some good swing things that haven't been done."
And he played "Sunny Side of the Street," and he said to me, "Can you do... " Louis's version. And he said to me, "Can you do that?" I said, "Sure, I can do that."
Well, Terry, I didn't have the faintest idea if I could do it or not. And with a lot of studying and slowing the tape down, I was able to do it. And you know something? I loved it. I loved copying him. I loved the feeling that I got singing it. And it just -- I was very happy making the CD.
GROSS: You're talking about the new CD.
GROSS: Why don't we hear "On the Sunny Side of the Street" from the new CD?
GROSS: Do you want to say anything more about learning to sing in Prima's rhythms?
SMITH: Not really. It's not hard if you slow the tape down on his scatting. His -- he just phrases completely different than anybody else, and you have to listen to it and pay attention. But no, it's not hard if you really study it.
GROSS: This is Keely Smith from her new CD, which is called "Swing, Swing, Swing."
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET," KEELY SMITH)
GROSS: That's Keely Smith from her new CD, "Swing, Swing, Swing."
When you were singing on stage with Louis Prima, the act evolved in such a way so that, you know, he would be clowning around on stage and scat singing, and you'd stand there perfectly still, and, you know, occasionally come out and sing a ballad. But you'd even look bored and, you know, you -- scratching your face. And -- I mean, that was part of the act.
How did that part of the act evolve? And I should mention too, sometimes he'd go over to you on stage and try to, like, provoke you into a reaction, and you would just be reactionless, just totally straight-faced.
SMITH: Well, actually, I scratched because I itched. It was not part of the act. We had very hard water in Las Vegas, and I remember one time we did the Sinatra TV show, and the director came over to Louis and he said, "I want her to scratch her nose at this point." And Louis looked at me, he said, "Man, she scratches when she itches."
And that's the truth. I never scratched unless I itched.
As far as the deadpan thing was concerned, that was very accidental. We worked from midnight till 6 in the morning in Las Vegas, and we did five shows a night. And the shows were 45 minutes long. For the first half hour, I had nothing to do but stand there. I was not a hand-clapper, I wasn't a finger-snapper, I was not a moving type of a person.
So we had a little tiny upright piano, because we were working behind the bar, up on a little tiny stage that just barely held all of us. And I just crossed my arms, because I didn't know what to do with my hands, and stood there.
And when we first started, the lounge was wide open. There were no curtains, no windows, no nothing. I could see the people that came in the front door. I could see the people that came in the side door. I could see the people coming out of the big showroom. And I paid attention to what was going on in the casino. I could tell you who came in, who they were with, what they were wearing, almost what time they left.
And I was so busy doing what I call being nosy that when Louis would come over and pull on my skirt, and I'd turn and I'd look at him, it was, like, Don't bother me, you're interrupting my thought here.
And that's how it happened.
GROSS: So was there a point where you and Louis Prima decided, Well, let's actually make this a part of the act, let's work with it?
SMITH: No. I must say that Louis gave everybody in the group freedom onstage. We were allowed to say or do whatever we wanted to. And he never, ever -- he didn't believe in planned things, except an arrangement.
GROSS: Now, let me ask you, how would it feel when you were singing, you know, a beautiful ballad on stage, and then in the middle or toward the end of the ballad, Prima would come over and start clowning?
SMITH: It didn't bother me. The people loved it. And you know what? It's really crazy to say this, but when we were very big, I never knew we were very big. I didn't know how big we were until after we broke up, which is kind of crazy, because it shows that I lived in my own little world. But when Louis would do all of his things, I just thought it was wonderful, and it didn't bother me at all.
GROSS: How could you not know how big you were?
SMITH: I don't know. I guess just dumb. I don't know. (laughs)
GROSS: Or isolated.
SMITH: Well, I was very protected. I never had to make a decision. Louis never made me wear a gown I didn't like or sing a song I didn't like. And that was all I cared about. All the decisions he made pertaining to music, business, whatever, and all I had to do was get up and do my shows and sing. And in the daytime, I spent with my children, so I was very happy.
GROSS: Maybe all of that was a function of starting with him so young, when you were too young to make big decisions.
SMITH: Well, I was -- I was going to say something, but I'm not going to say that. (laughs) When we broke up, I didn't know how to talk to people. We were broke -- I was broke, I don't know about him, but it was a little tough, you know. And thank God for people like Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. You know, Dinah's the one that got me out of the house after Louis and I divorced. He had convinced me that I'd be nothing without him.
And he told me that he'd hire a girl and call her Kelly Smith and that I should just forget about a career, because I was nothing without him. And I believed him. And then Dinah called one day, (inaudible) -- oh, golly, about five or six months after we broke up, and she said, "I want you to come do my TV show." And I told her, I said, "Dinah, I can't do that." And she said, "Yes, you can, you've got to get out of that house."
And then Frank was calling, and I was very close with Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy. And they were all wonderful to me, and they got me out of the house. And I went back to work.
GROSS: My guest is Keely Smith. She has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is singer Keely Smith. She has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing," on which she does several of the songs that she and Louis Prima recorded.
Let me play a record that demonstrates what I was just talking about, with you singing a beautiful ballad and Louis Prima coming line (ph) interrupting it while clowning around. And this is your recording of "This Love of Mine." Sandy Terra (ph) is leading the band. And this is recorded at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "THIS LOVE OF MINE," KEELY SMITH AND LOUIS PRIMA)
GROSS: So Keely Smith, that's not distracting, (inaudible) doing that while you sing?
SMITH: No, you know something, Terry, I don't even remember that song. But that's nice, I like that. (laughs)
GROSS: Well, I like it too. That's why I wanted to play it.
SMITH: No, actually, I loved when Louis did stuff, I really did. I just thought he was great, and he was funny. And the pe -- and he did it with such a little-boy, hound-dog attitude. It's like, you know, Here I am, honey, help me, that kind of a thing I got from -- that sad little face he had.
GROSS: How did you end up being a Vegas band? How did you first start playing there?
SMITH: Well, we were in New York, actually, which is -- we had a farm in Covington, Louisiana, but we spent most of our time in New York working out of here. And we were broke. I was pregnant, we didn't have a job. And Louis called Bill Miller. I don't know if you remember him or not, he owned the Bill Miller's Riviera in New Jersey years ago, very big nightclub...
GROSS: And wasn't he Sinatra's rehearsal pianist, or is this a different Bill Miller?
SMITH: No, no, same -- different man.
SMITH: Different man.
GROSS: All right.
SMITH: And Louis called Bill, who was the entertainment director of the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas at that time, and he told him, he said, "Bill," he said, "we're broke, my wife's pregnant, and we need a job." I mean, just that plain, that blunt.
And Bill told him, he said, "Louis, the only thing I've got is two weeks in the lounge here." And Louis said, "I'll take it." He said, "I told you lounge, Lou." He said, "I know you're used to playing headline in the big rooms." And Louis said, "No, Bill, we'll take the lounge, we'll be there. What date?" He gave us a date, and we had a small group at that point.
And in five cars we drove across country, and we got to the Sahara, and we went to see that night, before we opened, Cab Calloway was working there, who was a friend of Louis's. And we went to see Cab. And when the show was over, he came over to the table to say hello to Louis, and Louis asked him to sit down and have a drink.
And Cab told him, he said, "Well, we're not allowed to sit." And he said, "What do you mean by that?" He said, "Blacks are not allowed in here." And Louis said, "You mean even though you're entertaining here, you're not allowed to sit down and have a drink in this lounge?" And he said, "No."
Louis tried to find, if you can believe this, Louis tried to find Bill Miller, who, thank God, was on the road driving to Mexico with his wife, Mary, and in those days there were no phones, and we couldn't get Bill Miller, because Louis was going to quit the job because they didn't allow the blacks to -- in the lounge.
And Louis was very upset over that. We also were the first ones to have blacks come into the lounge to see our show, and it was Pearl Bailey. We had to get permission for that. We were also the first ones to have a black vocal group on the stage of the big room of the Desert Inn Hotel.
And so Louis was really a crusader in certain things.
GROSS: Keely Smith. She'll be back in the second half of the show. Her new CD is called "Swing, Swing, Swing." A new documentary called "Louis Prima: The Wildest" will be shown on American Movie Classics on May 9 and will soon be available on VHS and DVD.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, SONG, KEELY SMITH AND LOUIS PRIMA)
GROSS: Coming up, playing the lounges of Vegas during the Rat Pack era. We continue our conversation with Keely Smith about her years with Louis Prima. She has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing," which includes this version of "Jump, Jive, and Wail," a song written by Louis Prima.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "JUMP, JIVE, AND WAIL," KEELY SMITH)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Keely Smith.
She has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing," in which she performs some of the songs that she and Louis Prima recorded in the '50s.
Prima discovered her in 1948 when she was only 16 and hired her to sing with his band. They married in 1953 and divorced in '61. From 1954 to '61, they had a very popular lounge act in Vegas.
What was the difference between playing the lounge and playing the main room?
SMITH: The lounge is much warmer, much more friendly. In our lounge, people could come in and, for a bottle of beer or a Coca-Cola, see our show. And then at 4:00 in the morning they opened what they called a chuck wagon, which was $1.50, and you could eat as much food as you wanted. And the food was excellent.
So I would say friendliness, warmth. The big room, you put on a show. Like Louis -- we did a thing about Louis and Keely for President. But, I mean, everything was staged from the time the curtain went up until the curtain came down at the end of the show, it was all staged. You were locked into what you were doing. Except we did do a segment in the big room of our little lounge act.
GROSS: What kind of place was Vegas for a woman? In some ways, it always seems like such the male place, you know, lots of men gambling, probably more men than women, more men than women were the entertainers, the hotels are, of course, run by men. It just seemed like a real male place.
SMITH: Well, I don't think I found it that way. The hotel owners all had wives, and a lot of the wives participated. Our boss was named Milton Prell (ph), and his wife, Debbie Prell, was very involved. We had -- they had fashion shows, they had teas, afternoon teas, and things for the women.
I think the original lounge was set up so that a man could bring his wife, he could go to the dice table or the roulette table or whichever and play. And the wife could sit in the lounge and hear some nice music and have a drink. And he didn't have to worry about her.
I really believe Vegas in those days was much better than it is now, because you had individual owners, you had people that cared, people -- when you walked into a hotel, they knew who you were. I'm talking now about the people that came to stay in the hotel. They had flowers in your room, they had fruit in your room. I mean, it was really nice. You could call somebody and say, Gee, I'd like to see the show over at the El Rancho, and they'd say, OK.
Now, I'm not talking about just me, I'm talking about average Joe Blow. And they say, OK, which show would you like to see? And somebody would take care of it. Now, you're kind of herded in there like cattle, and there's no personal touch any more.
GROSS: You say that the lounges seemed to be created so that women would have a place to hear good music while their husbands were at the gambling table. Were there usually more women than men in the lounge when you were playing?
SMITH: Not when we played, no. Well, let me rephrase that. That's incorrect. We used to get all the showgirls, we used to get all the hookers in town, we got the cab drivers, the waitresses. These were the people that supported us. When Frank would come in, naturally he would bring all of his group, R.J. Wagner, Natalie Wood, all those kind of people.
GROSS: Frank Sinatra, right, OK.
SMITH: Right, right. Howard Hughes was a regular with us. Elvis was. Actually, when we opened there, the lounge was strictly what I said to you originally, a place for people to come sit while their husband is gambling, or just kill time. Louis changed that within the first two-week period. We were, as I said before, we were onstage behind the bar, and the service station was directly in front of us.
And we'd be singing a song, and the waitress would come up and yell, "Three beers, four Coca-Colas," or whatever. So Louis called Mr. Prell, and he said, "Could we please move the service bar down to the end of the room?"
And Mr. Prell said, "OK." So within two weeks' time, we had the room set up the way Louis wanted it. And it was due, because, I think, of the shows that we put on. We weren't a background group, we were a show. And Louis would not absolutely accept anything else. People had to pay attention, or he wasn't going to be there.
GROSS: Keely Smith is my guest, and she has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing."
How did the saxophonist Sam Butera (ph) become part of the act?
SMITH: We had heard him in New Orleans. He was working at a place on Military Highway, and Louis's brother had told us about him, and we went out to listen to him. And he was excellent. And when we came from New York to Las Vegas, we had all New York and New Jersey musicians. They did not want to stay in Las Vegas. And we went for two weeks, and we wound up staying, what, seven years in the one hotel.
And these guys had their families back in New York and New Jersey, and they didn't want to stay. So the piano player wanted to go home, the trumpet player wanted to go home, trombone player wanted to go home. So Louis called Sam Butera up, who was in New Orleans, and told him, he said, "You know, I need you to come, and could you bring your rhythm section with you? Because my guys all have to go back to New York right away."
GROSS: And Sam said, "Sure," and he came, I think, the day after Christmas he opened with us. And then little by little, Louis brought in Little Red, who was Jimmy Blunt (ph), who I'm still very close with. He lives in Georgia. And then Lou Sinah (ph), who was a wonderful trombone player, came in after Little Red left.
And we had a great group. Roly D (ph), God love him, who just passed away not too long ago, he was excellent, the bass player. And Louis always had musicians, Terry, that could do comedy as opposed to being the greatest players in the world. Now, I'm not including Sam in that, because Sam was excellent, fantastic saxophone player, and a good performer.
And -- but sometimes he would have, like Roly D was wonderful, everybody loved him, he was adorable in the comedy stuff. But he wasn't the greatest bass player in the world. So Louis would forsake sometimes a little bit of the actual playing to have comedy.
GROSS: I think, you know, you were friends with Sinatra and the other members of the, you know, Rat Pack...
GROSS: ... what was it like to hang out with them then when they were the stars of Vegas? You were a star of Vegas too. I mean, you guys kind of, you know, owned the city, in a way, in terms of entertainment. What -- can you, like, tell a story that would bring to life those days and that crowd?
SMITH: Well, I think I mentioned before that when they would come in our lounge, they would get up on stage with us. Frank did every time, Sammy did almost every time, Dean did a few times. But we were -- I was closer to Frank. And when we would go to his show, I would get up and sing with him. Now, Louis and I didn't, but I would.
And then on Monday nights, which was our off-night, Frank would call, and he'd say to Louis, he said, "Hey, chief," they called Louis the chief, "Hey, chief, why don't you and the Injun (ph) come on in? I'm going to have a little cookout tonight," or whatever, "show a movie."
And Louis didn't fly. So Louis would say to me, "Babe," he said, "you go ahead and have a good time," because Louis knew I was really thrilled with meeting all those people. And I'd get on a plane, and I'd go into L.A., and Frank would pick me up, and we would go to his house. And there I'd be sitting with Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and Kim Novak and all these kind of people, Billy Wilder and Rosalind Russell.
And, you know, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. So I did that almost every Monday night for quite a while, and it was a thrill. And then, of course, Frank and Peter -- Peter and Pat Lawford were my good, good friends, and they kind of looked out for me when I was in there. And they took me all over, and then the next thing I know, Frank asked me to record with him, and I did a couple of duets with him.
And then Sammy is an interesting story, because when Louis had the big band in the late '40s, early '50s, we worked the Apollo Theater, and one of the acts on the show was this young kid, the Will Maston (ph) Trio, and that's all it was called in those days. It wasn't even Sammy Davis, Jr. And I became friendly with Sammy from then on, and he became, like, a member of my family.
And so I was very involved in what you called the Rat Pack, and I loved it. It was just wonderful.
GROSS: Were you the shy one in the group?
SMITH: Mm-hm, always. (laughs) I've just come out of my shell recently.
SMITH: My husband, Bobby, says that when I was with Louis, Louis never let me talk. Now he can't shut me up.
GROSS: My guest is Keely Smith. She has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is singer Keely Smith. She has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing," on which she does several of the songs that she and Louis Prima recorded.
Do you have a favorite recording of the years that you recorded with Louis Prima?
SMITH: You mean with Louis, actually, or recording, period?
GROSS: Recording, period. Choose whatever you want.
SMITH: "I Wish You Love."
GROSS: Great, OK. Tell us how you started singing this song. This was originally a French song, yes.
SMITH: Well, when Capitol -- Yes, it is. When Capitol came along, when we were at the Sahara, they wanted to record the group, and Louis told them that, "You have to give Keely her separate contract." And they didn't want to do that. And Louis said, "Well, I'm sorry, then you can't have the group."
So they finally -- they wanted the group so bad that they came along, said, "Well, OK, we'll give her her contract." And when we went in to sit down to pick out the songs, our producer was a man named Royal Gilmore (ph). And he played a bunch of standards, and he played this song. He said, "Well, I'm going to play a pretty song for you. It won't mean anything, but it is pretty." And he played "I Wish You Love."
And in those days, I didn't talk to anybody, I did all my talking through Louis. I would tell Louis what I wanted, and he would go tell whoever. And I turned to Louis, and I told him, I said, "Babe, I'll sing any 11 songs you all want me to, but you got to let me sing `I Wish You Love.'"
And Royal stood up and said, he said, "That song's never going to amount to anything. That's just a pretty French song that they put English lyrics to." And I looked at him and I said, "Babe," and he looked at Royal, and he said, "Royal, she will sing `I Wish You Love.'"
SMITH: And that's how we got it.
GROSS: And how did it do for you?
SMITH: Oh, it was a smash hit. My very first album was a hit album.
GROSS: What (inaudible)...
SMITH: And today it's my theme song, and I have a gold record on it, you know, it's wonderful.
GROSS: OK, this is Keely Smith singing "I Wish You Love."
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "I WISH YOU LOVE," KEELY SMITH)
GROSS: That's Keely Smith. And now she has a new CD, which is called "Swing, Swing, Swing."
When you started singing with Louis Prima when you were 16, did you think, One day I'm going to marry this man?
SMITH: Oh, I didn't even like him, no. (laughs) Goodness, no! Mercy, mercy! No. When we would do tea dances in the summer, he'd wear short sleeves, and he put his arm around me, and he was so hairy, I couldn't stand it. And it used to just drive me crazy when he'd touch me. And also, I happened to be very close with his wife. I was crazy about his wife, Tracy (ph). And we became the best of friends.
And, no, I had no inkling whatsoever. As a matter of fact, my mother told me that I was in love with Louis. I didn't even know it.
GROSS: God, that sounds like a movie.
SMITH: I know. It's going to be a movie.
GROSS: (laughs) What did she tell you when she told you that you really loved him?
SMITH: I remember exactly where it was. We were standing backstage at the Paramount Theater, and we did, like, five stage shows a day. And at the beginning of each show, I was dressed in my gown, in the high heels, standing in the wings, watching everything he did on stage. And she pulled me aside one day and she said, "You know that you're in love with him." I said, "No, Mom, no, no, I'm not." And she said, "Yes, you are." I said, "No, I appreciate him as a performer, and I love watching him from the -- you know, from the sidelines."
She said, "No," she said, "you listen to me, you're in love with this man." And she was right. I didn't know it, though.
GROSS: Well, it must have been really hard when you did become lovers, because he was married, and you were really close to his wife.
SMITH: No, it wasn't, because our friendship kind of deteriorated prior to that. I don't know...
GROSS: Your friendship with his wife?
SMITH: ... Terry, do you have children?
GROSS: No, I don't.
SMITH: No? Well, when I had my -- when I was pregnant with my girls, I was the happiest person in the world. I thought there was nothing in the world more beautiful than having a baby, and it showed. It showed in the way I dressed and the way I looked and so forth. And I -- you kind of get a glow when you really want your baby.
And Tracy wanted her child, I'm positive of that, but she changed. She changed so drastically that she kind of alienated me. She tried to get me fired from the job. And she didn't succeed in that, but she almost did. And she changed as a wife with Louis. And I guess that is what kind of threw Louis and I together a short time afterwards, you know, it just...
It's hard to really put into words exactly when it happened, but that's what happened.
GROSS: Right. What are some of the good and bad things about being in an act with a man who's also your husband?
SMITH: Well, I think it's great, actually. As a matter of fact, I intend to record a duet album with Bobby. My husband is an excellent singer. And he has a new CD that we hope is going to be coming out on Concord called "Bobby Milano in Concert." We're together all the time, either preparing for a CD, or he will go with me on the road. He's here in New York with me.
So I think it's wonderful, as long as you have some free time by yourself. I have free time at home, he has free time, where he'll go into his music room and stay for hours. I do crossword puzzles. I like to read. I have my daughters that I spend a lot of time with at home.
And with Louis, in the daytime Louis would play golf, and I'd spend all day with the kids. And then at night we'd all have dinner together. The kids would go to bed. We'd take a nap, and we'd go to work at midnight, and we'd come home at 6 in the morning, we'd take a nap, or get about four or five hours' sleep, and we'd get up, and that was the routine of our day.
It was wonderful, Terry. The problem was, when we kept getting bigger and bigger, I don't know what happened to Louis. I call it male menopause. And he just went through a complete change. He never smoked, he didn't drink, he didn't -- he was smoking cigars, which I can't stand cigars.
And he just changed completely, and he started running around, and that's what broke us up. And it really got very bad.
GROSS: And you were still singing on stage after it got bad.
SMITH: Yes, yes.
GROSS: That must have been hard.
SMITH: It was very hard, it really was, it was tough.
GROSS: When you divorced in 1961, he married a woman who also became the female singer in his act. Did you find it strange that you seemed to be replaced by a person, you know, in his personal life and in his act? (inaudible) -- I don't know, it...
SMITH: No, no. As a matter of fact, she wasn't the first singer. He had about three singers before her.
GROSS: I see.
SMITH: And he didn't marry her right away. But a very quick story, one of his singers that he hired, the one he hired right after me, I don't even remember her name, she was as nice girl, and she came up to me one night in a club, and she introduced herself, and she said, "I'm the new singer." She said, "I just wanted to tell you that I've always admired you." And I thanked her. And she was very sweet.
Louis heard about it and fired her. So in those days, I was taboo, nobody was allowed to talk to me, none of the musicians. You know, just like -- I mean, a complete erasing somebody from your life.
GROSS: Did you become friends again, did you become friends again with Louis Prima before his death?
SMITH: Yes, yes. As a matter of fact, he asked me to remarry him, and I told him, I said, "I love you very much, but I'm not in love with you." And I said, "I could work with you if you want, but as far as marriage, that's out of the question."
And he had a mild heart attack, and that's when we became really good friends again and stayed in contact up until he died.
GROSS: My guest is Keely Smith. She has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing."
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Keely Smith. She has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing" that features some of the songs that she and Louis Prima recorded in the '50s.
Keely Smith, let me ask you about your early life. Now, I know you're part Cherokee, part Irish. Can you tell us a little bit about your -- the Cherokee part of your heritage?
SMITH: Well, my Grandma Keely was full-blooded Cherokee. Her name was Lea Flowers (ph). And my granddaddy was three-quarters Cherokee and one-quarter Irish. And my father -- I don't know what that makes him, but that makes me quite a bit Cherokee. (laughs) And my mother, I don't know what she was, to tell you the truth. My mother was not Indian. And that's where I get the blood from.
GROSS: Was Cherokee heritage much part of your life? Did you learn any Cherokee history or (inaudible)?
SMITH: No. As a matter of fact, when I went to New York with Louis and the first interview I did, they asked me what nationality, what my heritage was, and I said Cherokee and Irish. And my mother was furious with me. And she said, you know -- I guess at home in Virginia in those days, you did not acknowledge the fact that you had Indian blood, that was a no-no.
So I never was taught much of anything. My Uncle Willy, before he passed away, came along and told us that our name was -- Keely was Kiowah (ph), and I've done a little research on it, Terry, but not a lot.
GROSS: You had an album that was called "Cherokeely Swings with Billy May."
GROSS: There's a picture of you on the cover wearing an Indian beaded headband with a feather sticking up in the back. How did you feel about that?
SMITH: I loved it. I had gowns made for the stage that were very much Indian, with beads and Indian designs all over it. I'm very proud of it. And I just had -- heard or read that they're trying to make the Washington Redskins football team change their name, because of Redskins. I think that's terrible. I think to have a football team named Redskins or Kansas City Chiefs, I think that's wonderful, and I think the Indians should be proud of it instead of picking -- well, I have to clean this up. Instead of picking everything apart. (laughs)
I think this -- you know, a lot of people see it as a demeaning language.
SMITH: But I don't see it that way, and I'm part Indian. You know, the Stanford Indians, they made them change that name. I tried years ago to get a license plate with "SQUAW" on it. They refused me.
SMITH: Now, I saw nothing wrong with it.
GROSS: Tell us about the neighborhood you grew up in.
SMITH: Oh, I grew up in the worst neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia. It was called Atlantic City, and every bad person that you can think of, or way of life that you can think of, came out of there. And the neighborhood was so bad that if I had a date, the boys -- I had to tell my brother, who would tell the neighborhood guys to leave this kid alone when he came into the area.
GROSS: Your early singing experiences were on a radio show that was called "Joe Brown's Children's Radio Gang," and this was in Norfolk. I think you started when you were 11.
GROSS: What was the show like, and what kind of material did you sing?
SMITH: Whatever the hit song was at the time. Actually, what this show was, Mr. Brown had a radio program from Norfolk one week and Richmond, Virginia, the following week. And he had kids, though, from age maybe 3 to 18, and you would pay $1 a week, and they would teach you a song. They didn't teach you to sing, they just taught you a song.
And I remember the lady that played the piano, her name was Anne Cathel (ph), and they were wonderful. And I really found a home with these people. But what Mr. Brown did is, he took us on the weekends, like on Friday and Saturday nights, to all the service camps around Norfolk. We had Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard. And we put on shows for the servicemen. And, I mean, kids were twirling batons, they were tap dancing, they were toe dancing.
It was a combination of everything. And he taught us how to use a microphone, how not to be afraid of an audience. And I think that experience was invaluable to all of us, especially to me.
GROSS: Before I let you go, you know, I should explain, you're in a studio in New York right now, and I'm in Philadelphia, so I'm not looking at you. What's your hair like? I mean, when you had your (inaudible)...
GROSS: ... in the '50s, your hair -- your very -- you had, anyway, it was very dark black hair with bangs and a kind of chin-length, straight, very straight kind of pageboy, or -- and...
SMITH: Well, right now my hair is still black, I still have the bangs. But recently I cut it really, really short in the back. My hair looks quite a bit like yours except longer.
GROSS: OK. And (inaudible) for our listeners, I have very short hair, if that's (inaudible).
SMITH: But I am letting it grow back to the haircut I used to have.
SMITH: Because people associate me with it. I worked not too long -- I've done this twice now, cut my hair really short, and the last time I did it was about two years ago. And I worked in Florida. And I asked the audience, I said, "Do you like my new haircut?" And they didn't like it.
SMITH: So I said, "OK, fine." So now I'm getting the same reaction. I like it. It's easier. But what the heck I'll go back to the other one.
GROSS: Keely Smith. She has a new CD called "Swing, Swing, Swing." There's a new documentary called "Louis Prima: The Wildest" that will be shown on American Movie Classics May 9 and will soon be released on VHS and DVD.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.
I'm Terry Gross.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU'RE IN LOVE WITH ME," KEELY SMITH)
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Kelly Smith
High: Singer Keely Smith has been called "The Queen of Swing" and "The First Lady of Las Vegas." Smith is perhaps best known as the duet partner and wife of Louis Prima. Smith and Prima drew crowds to the lounges of Las Vegas in the 1950s. Their hits include "Jump, Jive, an' Wail," "Just a Gigolo," "I've Got You Under My Skin," and "That Old Black Magic." Smith talks about her marriage to Prima, the music they made together, and her career. Smith has just released a new CD called "Swing Swing Swing."
Spec: Music Industry; Entertainment; Art
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End-Story: Kelly Smith Discusses Her Career
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