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Music Critic Milo Miles

Music critic Milo Miles reviews the new documentary about Latin jazz, Calle 54.

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Other segments from the episode on May 11, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 11, 2001: Interview with Tim Meadows; Interview with Keely Smith; Review of the film "Calle 54."

Transcript

DATE May 11, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Tim Meadows talks about his career on "Saturday Night
Live" and his new movie, "The Ladies Man"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. TIM MEADOWS (As Leon Phelps): What's happenin'? And welcome to "The
Ladies Man," the love line with all the right responses to your romantic
queries. My name is Leon Phelps and to those of you that are uninitiated, I
am an expert in the ways of love. Now I'm doing good, if you are askin'. I
got my Courvoisier cognac right here. And I'm ready to take your calls. So
if you have a romantic query and you are under the age of 50 and you're not
freaky or disgusting, please give us a call.

GROSS: Leon Phelps back on the air, giving bad advice in the film "The Ladies
Man." It just came out on video. Tim Meadows co-wrote and starred in the
film. He originated the character of The Ladies Man on "Saturday Night Live."
He was a cast member of the show from 1992 till the end of last spring. Some
of the characters he became known for are the host of the radio program "The
Quiet Storm," the gangster-rapper G. Dog(ph), and Lionel Osborne, host of the
public service TV show "Perspectives." He also did impersonations of O.J.
Simpson, Johnnie Cochran, Ike Turner, Don King and Michael Jackson. Last fall
when Meadows' film was showing in theaters, I asked him about the origins of
his character The Ladies Man.

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, I kind of started doing it in Chicago. I used to call
radio stations and talk shows and I would disguise my voice because I didn't
want to be recognized because I was on "Saturday Night Live." And I would do
this for the entertainment of my wife in our living room. And so I would call
and, you know, if they were talking about, you know, the economy or something,
I would ask a question like--that made sense so that the person had to answer
it and they had to deal with this guy on the phone. And I would do, like, you
know, `Listen--hi. This is Brother Gurr(ph) from Chicago. And I was
wondering how is it possible that there could be, you know, poor people and
rich people living in the same neighborhood in this--you know, in this
country? It's--I find it very uncomfortable. I'm gonna hang up and let you
answer the question now.'

GROSS: So how did you come up with this voice before you had the character of
The Love Man?

Mr. MEADOWS: It sort of, like, evolved. It was--I don't know, it took--it
was years because I used to do a tough rapper who lisped on "Saturday Night
Live." And it was called G. Dog. And he basically talked straight, you
know, but he was tough. And then I sort of like started to just change it as
I started doing, you know, these phone calls. And I sort of like, you know,
based the characteristics that Leon has on guys that I'd met in Detroit when I
was growing up, when I was a teen-ager. I worked at a liquor store and there
were these guys that would come into the store and they would buy Courvoisier
on the weekends for their big date. And, yeah, I don't know. I couldn't--I
never--I didn't date. I didn't have a lot of women, you know, liking me. So
they amazed me because they were--they had a lot of girlfriends and they
were--had their own style and they were very independent and very cool. And,
you know, me and my friends sort of looked up to them.

GROSS: One of the great things about The Ladies Man is that the advice he
gives is so wrong most of the time.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah.

GROSS: Can you think of some great, wrong advice that Leon gives?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, he--you know, he says that, you know, if you're a lonely
lady and you're living in the city that, you know, `I would suggest that you
hang out at a bus station with no underpants on because that will attract men
to you. I know it would attract me to you.' And, you know, I think his
suggestions to women, you know, in general is like--is to be easy, you know,
which is not really good advice.

GROSS: So how did you come up with this advice? Is this advice that--is this
stuff you've heard guys talking about over the years?

Mr. MEADOWS: It's sort of just--I'm--I just...

GROSS: I'm a woman and I want to know.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah. Well, I think of the worst advice possible, and I think
that's what Leon sort of gives, you know. It doesn't work in the real world
'cause, you know, things have changed since the '70s.

GROSS: There's a scene in "The Ladies Man" movie where--well, there's a group
of white men whose wives have cheated on them with Leon, The Ladies Man,
and...

Mr. MEADOWS: And black men.

GROSS: And black men. OK, yeah.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah.

GROSS: And this group is led by a character played by Will Ferrell of
"Saturday Night Live."

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah.

GROSS: And there's a scene where he's trying to incite them to take action.
And he says, `We can't let The Ladies Man take away our masculinity. We're
men.' And then they break out into a Broadway-style song-and-dance number,
singing `the time has come to kill The Ladies Man.' And it's a very funny
scene. Although you mock this kind of Broadway song-and-dance number, I'm
wondering if there's a period in your early performing career when you really
hoped to get on Broadway and be in musicals.

Mr. MEADOWS: Me, personally?

GROSS: Yeah, you personally.

Mr. MEADOWS: No.

GROSS: No.

Mr. MEADOWS: No, I've--you know, I can sort of sing and stuff, but, I mean,
I'm not a fan of, you know, Broadway musicals. I know a lot of people like
them and I understand. I can't watch them without laughing because, you know,
to see--to me, the funniest thing in the world is to see people breaking into
song 'cause it doesn't happen in real life. And it just seems so fake and
so--I don't know, I just--I've never been a fan of it. And I think that's one
of the reasons I really like that scene, too, is because it's sort of making
fun of that stuff.

GROSS: Affectionately, I thought.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah, I don't think it's affectionately.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. MEADOWS: I think it's pretty mean-spirited.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. MEADOWS: We're not nice guys. You have to understand that about us.

GROSS: It was funny. Billy Dee Williams has a part in this. He plays, I
think, the owner as well as the bartender at, like...

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you know, the neighborhood bar where Leon hangs out.

Mr. MEADOWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And it's a pretty cheapo kind of place.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah.

GROSS: But he's the suavest guy in the movie, for real. You've played a
character on "Saturday Night Live" that reminded me--I think it was supposed
to be like Billy Dee Williams. He's doing, like, a Colt 45-type commercial.

Mr. MEADOWS: Oh, yeah. It was for...

GROSS: Cold Cock beer.

Mr. MEADOWS: It was called Cold Cock, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MEADOWS: And it was a beer that if you take a sip of it--and it's so
strong that it would--you, literally, would get knocked out. And a big fist
comes out of the can and punches you.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a little bit of that?

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

MEADOWS: You know, when I entertain at home, occasionally, my friends and I
like to discuss just what is the best malt liquor.

Unidentified Actress #1: I say Bull.

Unidentified Actress #2: I say Cobra.

MEADOWS: And I say it's all just talk, unless it's the one they call Cold
Cock.

Unidentified Singers: (In unison) Cold Cock.

Unidentified Actor #1: There's only one malt liquor that'll get your head
hummin'.

MEADOWS: Cold Cock's the one you'll never see comin'.

Unidentified Singers: (In unison) Cold Cock.

(Soundbite of fist punch)

MEADOWS: Drop it.

Unidentified Singers: (In unison) Cold Cock.

MEADOWS: I have yet to meet the man that can finish a whole Cold Cock can.

Unidentified Actress #3: I ain't afraid of no can of beer. Gimme one.

Unidentified Singers: (In unison) Cold Cock.

Unidentified Actress #3: Mmm, Cold Cock.

(Soundbite of fist punch)

Unidentified Actress #3: Whew! You one more liquor picker.

Unidentified Singers: (In unison) Cold Cock.

MEADOWS: Like I said, it's all just talk unless it's the one they call Cold
Cock.

Unidentified Singers: (In unison) Cold Cock.

(Soundbite of fist punch)

MEADOWS: Fantastic.

Unidentified Announcer: Cold Cock, you never see it coming.

MEADOWS: Damn. That's one strong malt liquor.

Unidentified Singers: (In unison) Cold Cock.

GROSS: Well, you know, I'm wondering what Billy Dee Williams thought of
playing a part in your movie, knowing that you had done this satire of him on
"Saturday Night Live."

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, he didn't know that when he signed on to do the movie.
And he found out about it a couple of weeks in the shooting. And so he
didn't--he just said, `Well, my nephew told me that you do an impression of
me. I'd like to hear it.' And I was, like, `No, it's not you, Billy. It's
just a--you know, it's an amalgamation of a bunch of different dudes.' But I
never did it for him, so I hope he--you know, I hope he never sees it,
actually, because I want to stay friends with him.

GROSS: My guest is Tim Meadows. He's a former cast member of "Saturday Night
Live." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tim Meadows, a former cast member of "Saturday Night
Live." He spun off his character The Ladies Man into a movie that's just come
out on home video.

Let's talk about some of the other characters you've done on "Saturday Night
Live."

Mr. MEADOWS: OK.

GROSS: One of my favorites is Lionel Osborne. Maybe this is because I work
in broadcasting, but...

Mr. MEADOWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...why don't you describe Lionel Osborne?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, Lionel Osborne was created by Al Franken, the great
writer, and Dave Mandel, another great writer. And they just--they explained
to me what the joke of the scene was. And Lionel Osborne is--he has his own
daily--or weekly talk show. And it's sort of one of those shows that--where
the network is fulfilling their requirement--FCC requirement. And, you know,
you sort of have to give these shows to, like, minorities or whatever. And so
Lionel has had this show forever, and he doesn't really care about the show,
but he has a half an hour to fill every week. So he just sort of talks, and
he doesn't really listen to what the other person is saying. And
ever--he--and that's pretty much it. But he's pretty bored with his job.

GROSS: He's basically clueless.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah.

GROSS: There was--once when Damon Wayans played your guest on the show...

Mr. MEADOWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and he was organizing this kind of radical demonstration. And he
said, `There's gonna be blood running in the streets.'

Mr. MEADOWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And then your character says, `And what time is that demonstration
scheduled for?'

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah. `What time will the blood be running in the streets?'
`It'll be at about, you know, 4:00 in the afternoon.' `Fantastic, it's 4:30
in the AM and you're listening to "Perspectives." This is Lionel Osborne, and
I'm talking to so-and-so, and the blood will be running in the streets at
about 4:00 PM.' Yeah, and he's...

GROSS: I consider--I've seen this show. Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah. I mean, he would just--and he'd--the other thing he
would do is repeat the information that you just told him. So if you said,
`Yeah, you know, we're gonna have a rally at 5:00 and, you know, we hope
everybody can make it,' he would just go, `That's great. So there's gonna be
a rally at 5:00 and this guy hopes that everybody's gonna make it. Now I
understand that there's gonna be a rally.' `Yeah, it's gonna be...' `And
what time is that rally?' `5:00.' `Fantastic. Well, there's gonna be a
rally at 5:00.' You know, I mean, he just sort of repeated the answers over
and over.

And it was the most fun for me to do that character because it's--you know,
Franken used to tell me, like, it's reminiscent of Bob and Ray, you know. And
it's sort of slow comedy. It's sort of--it's very subtle. And the thing that
I really loved performing that sketch was because the audience had to sit
there and listen. And you have to sort of play the silences in the sketch.
And it's not a sketch that, you know, starts out of the box being really
funny, but it grows as you start to get the joke of it. And that was what I
really loved about Bob and Ray--was, you know, you sort of had to--you know,
you had to do some work with those sketches, you know.

GROSS: Now in one of your Lionel Osborne sketches, Chris Rock played the
guest.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah.

GROSS: And during the sketch you just started breaking up with laughter.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah.

GROSS: Let me play an excerpt of that.

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. MEADOWS (As Lionel Osborne): Now are you a father, Abdul?

Mr. CHRIS ROCK (As Abdul): Yes, I have three boys.

Mr. MEADOWS (As Lionel Osborne): And are they involved in the brotherhood?

Mr. ROCK (As Abdul): No, my son, Kareem Jr., currently lives in another
state, I believe. And my other boy--Andre's mother won't talk to me, so I've
lost track of him. And my other son, Trey, is dead.

Mr. MEADOWS (As Lionel Osborne): That's terrific. If you're just joining
us, it's 4:51 in the AM and you're watching "Perspectives." I'm Lionel
Osborne, and with me is community activist Abdul Kareem Gage(ph), founder of
the Brotherhood for Responsible Brothers Who Are Fathers. They're celebrating
their first anniversary this week, and all are welcome. And his son is dead.
Now--don't make me laugh anymore, all right? Now you were--now you said you
were at the Million Man March.

Mr. ROCK (As Abdul): Yes, Lionel.

Mr. MEADOWS (As Lionel Osborne): And how many--how many people were there?

Mr. ROCK (As Abdul): A million, you dumb (censored).

GROSS: Tim Meadows, what went through your mind when you started laughing
live on "Saturday Night Live" during this sketch?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, I could see in Rock's eyes that he was understanding the
humor of the sketch and that he was--he understood the fact that he was one of
these new guys who--he was becoming involved in the Million Man March, but yet
all of his kids hated him. And I could see in Rock's eyes that he was getting
the joke 'cause the audience started laughing. And then he realized that he
had to say that his other son--one of his sons were--was dead. And I could
just--we were looking at each other, and then I saw a tear coming down
his--out of his eye and then that made me laugh. And we could hear the
band--the "Saturday Night Live" band laughing behind us because, like I said,
Lionel Osborne is one of those sketches where the audience might not laugh in
the beginning, so it's quiet. And the band--SNL band was cracking up at
everything we were doing. And Chris and I could hear it. And we just started
laughing and it was so funny. It was so funny.

GROSS: Did you try to stop from laughing?

Mr. MEADOWS: Yes, which is a big mistake 'cause it's just like being in
church or at a funeral or something, you know, when you're not supposed to
laugh is when it's just multiplied, how funny it is. And I was trying not to
laugh. And I was trying to go on with it, and then I knew I had another
stupid joke or a stupid question coming up.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MEADOWS: You know, and we just lost it. It was so much fun.

GROSS: You grew up in Detroit.

Mr. MEADOWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about the neighborhood you grew up in; what your
family was like when you were young.

Mr. MEADOWS: Mm-hmm. Well, we moved a few times. My parents split up when
I was about six or seven. And when they were together, we lived in a pretty
nice, middle-class neighborhood in Highland Park, Michigan. And then after
they separated, you know, it--my mother was raising us on her own, so it got a
little harder. And, you know, we were on welfare and we sort of--the
neighborhood was still a nice neighborhood that we moved into, but we were,
like, the poor family in a nice neighborhood. So it came with its own
problems.

GROSS: What were some of those problems?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, you know, not feeling as though I fit in. You know, sort
of having to prove myself in school and sports and, you know, socially. And,
you know, it just always--it just always felt like there was, like, this
struggle to sort of fit in with people and be accepted.

GROSS: When you were, say, in high school, did you think that you would
actually go into comedy?

Mr. MEADOWS: No, I thought that I was going to be a musician at first, when
I was in high school, because I played the sax and so I could play different
woodwind instruments. But I heard Charlie Parker one time on an album and I
sort of slowly packed away my saxophone and never picked it up again.

GROSS: Yeah, I think that happened to a lot of saxophonists.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah, they should warn you to never listen to Charlie Parker if
you just--if you really want to become a professional because you will never
be that good and I knew it. As soon as I heard it, I was just like, `Oh, my
God, this is somebody--I can never be this good and I don't have the patience
to even practice scales, you know. So there's no way I'm gonna get any
further than, you know, playing for some third-level, funk band in Detroit.'

GROSS: So when the idea of being a musician got put aside, what happened
next?

Mr. MEADOWS: I started college and I was thinking about--I was sort of
reading--I was sort of studying mass communications and journalism and
philosophy a little bit. And then I thought I would, maybe, become a lawyer
and maybe try to go to law school or something. And then I found out about
this improv group in Detroit that were--they were teaching classes--this
teacher. And so I took classes and just really--it was like somebody opened
this new door to myself and just--I learned that I could do these things that
I had never really done before.

GROSS: You moved to Chicago and worked with Second City for a while.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yes, yeah.

GROSS: Was it hard to get in?

Mr. MEADOWS: Again, I was lucky and I think that's something that I just had
going for me my whole life, is that I've had these--I had lucky breaks. But I
auditioned for Second City one time and I got hired for it, which doesn't
happen a lot. And I was immediately bumped up to the main-stage cast after a
year of touring, which also doesn't happen a lot.

GROSS: How did you end up getting on "Saturday Night Live?"

Mr. MEADOWS: Lorne Michaels and Jim Downey, the producers of the show--they
were coming out to Second City to see Chris Farley, who was also in my cast.
And Chris and I were really good friends and we also performed a lot of
sketches together. And so they just--they happened to notice that there was
another guy on stage with Chris and that guy was me. And they--you know,
thought that I had some talent and they hired me about, you know, three or
four months after they hired Chris.

GROSS: Do you miss "Saturday Night Live?" You know, the season has started
without you this year.

Mr. MEADOWS: That's right. Yes, I do miss it. And I did the first
show--did a weekend update piece as Leon Phelps. And the audience was--they
were very nice and they gave me a big round of applause when I came out and it
almost felt like they knew that I wasn't coming back anymore and they were
saying goodbye. And I almost got choked up. I got choked up. And I almost
cried because I could sense they were saying goodbye and it was a really cool
connection that night.

GROSS: Well, Tim Meadows, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MEADOWS: It's a pleasure to be here. I enjoy your show.

GROSS: Tim Meadows recorded last fall after the release of his film "The
Ladies Man." It's just come out on home video.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, "Calle 54." Milo Miles reviews the new documentary about
Latin jazz, featuring Paquito D'Rivera, Tito Puente and Chucho Valdes. Also,
Keely Smith talks about performing with Louis Prima in Vegas during the Rat
Pack era. She pays tribute to Frank Sinatra on her new CD.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Keely Smith discusses her life as a singer
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite from "Old Black Magic")

Mr. LOUIS PRIMA (Singer): Old black magic has weaved a spell.

Ms. KEELY SMITH (Singer): Old black magic that you weave so well.

Mr. PRIMA: Those icy fingers up and down my spine.

Ms. SMITH: The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.

Mr. PRIMA: Same old tingle that I feel inside.

Ms. SMITH: And then that elevator starts its rise.

Mr. PRIMA: Down and down I go.

Ms. SMITH: Around and around I go.

Mr. PRIMA: Like a leaf caught in a tide.

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. Prima discovered Keely Smith in 1948 when she
was just a teen-ager. 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 '78.

Now Keely Smith has a new CD of songs associated with Frank Sinatra. We'll
hear something from it a little later. I spoke with her last year, after the
release of her CD "Swing, Swing, Swing," on which she sings several of the
songs she and Prima were known for.

What was it like to go on the road with Louis Prima when you were 16?

Ms. 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 a great friendship and comradery in
that band. He had some really nice men.

GROSS: Now did Louis Prima give you any suggestions about your singing?

Ms. 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 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 in to the kind of swing rhythms that Louis Prima was using?

Ms. 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(ph), 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,"
Louis' 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 I was very happy making this CD.

(Soundbite from "Sunny Side of the Street")

Ms. SMITH: Grab your coat, your tie, your hat. Leave your worries on the
doorstep and just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street. I can
hear the pitter-pattin'. The happy tune is your step. And life can be so
sweet on the sunny side. I used to walk in the shade with my blues on parade,
but I'm not afraid 'cause rubba-bub-ba-ba-biddley-bub-doy-day. I ain't got a
cent. I feel rich as Rockyfellow(ph), and gold dust 'round my feet, oh
ba-biddley-ba-ba. So grab your coat, your tie, your hat, your pants, your
shoes, your bop-doodley-bop-a-doodle baby. Just direct your feet, sunny,
honey bun-doo-bunny ba-da'n-boot'n baby. I can hear the pitter-pat,
pitter-pat, pitter-pat...

GROSS: When you were singing on stage with Louis Prima, the act evolved in
such a way so that, you know, he'd be clowning around on stage and scat
singing, and you'd stand there perfectly still and, you know, casually 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'd just be
reactionless, just totally straight-faced.

Ms. SMITH: Well, actually I scratched because I itched. It was that part of
the act. We had very hard water in Las Vegas. And I remember one time, went
to 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 him and 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 6:00 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 'cause 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 nosey 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: 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, Primo would come over and start clowning?

Ms. 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 'cause 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?

Ms. SMITH: I don't know. I guess just dumb. I don't know.

GROSS: Or isolated.

Ms. 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 then the daytime I spent with my children. So I was very happy.

GROSS: Maybe all that was a function of starting with him so young, when you
were too young to make big decisions.

Ms. SMITH: Well, I was going to say something, but I'm not going to say that.

GROSS: OK.

Ms. SMITH: When we broke up, I didn't know how to talk to people. 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, about 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 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: I think, you know, you were friends with Sinatra and the other members
of the, you know, Rat Pack.

Ms. SMITH: Right.

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. Could you, like, tell a
story that would bring to life those days and that crowd?

Ms. 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 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, `Hey, Chief,'--they called Louis the
Chief--`Hey, Chief, why don't you and the engine come on in. I'm gonna 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,'
'cause Louis knew I was really thrilled with meeting all those people. And
I'd get on a plane and I'd go into LA. Frank would pick me up and we'd go to
his house. And there I'd be sitting with Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and
Kim Novak and all these kinds 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 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 Theatre. And one of the acts on the show was this
young kid, the Will Mastin 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 call the Rat Pack, and I loved it. It was just wonderful.

GROSS: Were you the shy one in the group?

Ms. SMITH: Mm-hmm. Always. I've just come out of my shell recently. 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 singer Keely Smith. She has a new CD of songs associated
with Frank Sinatra. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SMITH: Why do I love you?

Mr. PRIMA: And why do you love me? Why should there be two...

Ms. SMITH: Ooh, happy as we? Can you see the why or wherefore...

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with singer Keely Smith.

When you started singing with Louis Prima when you were 16, did you think,
`One day I'm gonna marry this man?'

Ms. SMITH: Oh, I didn't even like him. No. Goodness no. Mercy, mercy. No.
When we would do tea dances in the summer, he'd wear short sleeves, and he'd
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.

Ms. SMITH: I know. It's gonna be a movie.

GROSS: What did she tell you when she told you that you really loved him?

Ms. SMITH: I remember exactly where it was. We were standing backstage at
the Paramount Theatre 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, you know, from the
sidelines.' She said, `No, 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.

Ms. SMITH: No, it wasn't because our friendship kind of deteriorated prior to
that. I don't know.

GROSS: Your friendship with his wife?

Ms. SMITH: Terry, do you have children?

GROSS: No, I don't.

Ms. SMITH: No? Well, 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 it kind of got 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'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?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I think it's wonderful, as long as you have some free time
by yourself. 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. Then we'd come home at 6:00 in the morning. We'd take a nap, or
got 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 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.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. SMITH: And it really got very bad.

GROSS: And you were still singing on stage after it got bad.

Ms. SMITH: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: That must have been hard.

Ms. 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? I don't
know...

Ms. SMITH: No. No. As a matter of fact, she wasn't the first singer. He
had about three singers before her.

GROSS: I see.

Ms. SMITH: And he didn't marry her right away. But a very quick story. One
of the singers that he hired, the one he hired right after me, I don't even
remember her name, she was a 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, it--just like, I mean, a complete erasing somebody from your life.

GROSS: Did you become friends again with Louis Prima before his death?

Ms. SMITH: Yes. Yes. As a matter of fact, he asked me to remarry him. And
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...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SMITH: ...and stayed in contact up until he died.

GROSS: Keely Smith recorded last year. Her new CD is called "Keely Sings
Sinatra." Here's a song from it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SMITH: I've got a crush on you, sweetie pie. Oh, the day and nighttime,
hear me sigh. I never had the least notion that I could fall with so much
emotion. Could you--could you care for a garden cottage we could share? The
world will ...(unintelligible). 'Cause I have got a crush, my baby, on you.

GROSS: Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new documentary about Latin jazz.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of Latin jazz)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New film "Calle 54" a tribute to Latin jazz
TERRY GROSS, host:

In 1992, Spanish film director Fernando Trueba's "Belle Epoque" won an Oscar
for best foreign film. His new film, "Calle 54," combines his passion for
history and good times in a tribute to Latin jazz. We sent music critic Milo
Miles to the movies. Here's his review.

(Soundbite of music)

MILO MILES (Music Critic): Right at the start of "Calle 54," director
Fernando Trueba tells us what inspired him to make the documentary. He had
filmed a live Latin jazz performance as the finale of his movie "Two Much."
When he explains that he had captured the miracle of music, you think `Uh-oh.'
But it's all right he's a little gushy, because a few minutes into "Calle 54,"
you realize Trueba is miraculous at capturing music performance on film.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: Saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, who is almost the golden mean of Latin
jazz stylists, begins the performances with a piece that includes a little bit
of everything, from Cuban song to a hint of tango. And that's Trueba's
strategy as well. He wants to captivate the audience with the cumulative
fecundity of Latin music, as many types of sound and generations of players as
he can pile up. This is basically a performance film, shot in Sony Studios on
New York's 54th Street, the "Calle 54" of the title. Trueba coordinates the
costumes and the lighting and it all seems a bit much, except we end up
captivated. Trueba has an eye for personality and flair in his performers,
not just an ear for their music skills.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: The tone of "Calle 54" ranges from the slithering barrio funk of Jerry
Gonzalez in the Fort Apache Band, which we just heard, to the high-technique
flourishes of Chucho Valdes' solo piano. Trueba edits around the beats of his
performers, without favoring head shots or flashing fingers or dynamic
whole-band composition. He includes a few local color scenes of Havana, Spain
and Puerto Rico, and some brief interviews that function as between-set
patter. You get Tito Puente in a reflective mood in his nightclub, talking
about Latin jazz forefathers in the murals on the walls. And then you're
bowled over by Puente's last film performance. As ever, his wild,
tongue-wagging showmanship announces that if he's enjoying the music this
much, how can you not?

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: Bassist Andy Gonzales is the secret star of "Calle 54." He performs
with three different bands, including the percussion ensemble Nueva
Hendavacion(ph), who deliver a show-stopping rumba with a sexy pair of
dancers. Trueba finishes with an impromptu piano duet between Chucho Valdes
and his father, Bebo, a veteran band leader who left Cuba for Europe in 1963.
The performance is pleasant, not a landmark, but the film has built such
sensitivity to the heritage of Latin music that the encounter feels epic.

The "Calle 54" soundtrack comes in two versions, single CD and double. The
double adds three excellent, but not essential, numbers that did not make the
final cut and the closing credits music. Which one to get is really just a
budget decision, but Trueba's movie is mandatory. It's one film that cries
out for a sequel to cover the younger generation of performers, especially
more women. If you feel the "Buena Vista Craze"(ph) leaves a lot out, if you
sensed a howling hole in Ken Burns' jazz history, you should take a stroll
down "Calle 54" right away.

GROSS: Milo Miles is a music writer living in Cambridge.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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