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Monday, December 12, 2005

Louis Prima and The Loss Of New Orleans

Trumpeter, composer, singer, and bandleader Louis Prima (1910-1978) was for decades one of America's most popular musicians. You may not know his name, but you know his sound. My generation is probably most familiar with him as the voice of the fire-coveting orangutan in Disney's 1967 adaptation of The Jungle Book, singing the film's hit song "I Wanna Be Like You" (audio clip available via Amazon). He also wrote the tune that has come to represent the whole of the big band jazz era for many, "Sing, Sing, Sing" (audio clip available via Amazon), as made famous by Benny Goodman. Other points of reference for those not up on their swing history include Brian Setzer's relatively recent cover of Prima's "Jump, Jive, and Wail", or David Lee Roth's (no link for you, David) 1980s version of Prima's "Just a Gigolo"/"I Ain't Got Nobody".

Louis Prima's music, from the big band era to his later, smaller ensemble, "jump" period, combined elements of dixieland, swing, and Italian song to great effect. In recordings made throughout his long career his style is instantly recognizable, especially his classic duets with vocalist Keely Smith. When swing briefly made a comeback in the US during the 1990s, to my ear it was Louis Prima more than any other bandleader that cast his shadow over the scene.

There are many more complete biographies available online, but this piece on a recent Louis Prima documentary at The Unrepentant Marxist is succinct, and considers Prima in the cultural context of his (recently demolished) hometown, New Orleans.
Although the name Louis Prima will draw a blank nowadays, he was one of America's most popular musicians from the 1930s through the early 1960s. Last night I watched a fine documentary on his life titled "The Wildest" that demonstrates the way that popular music can meld together different styles of different nationalities. Like Bob Wills who blended country music and swing, Prima fused various jazz styles throughout his career with the Italian songs that he heard as a child growing up in New Orleans.


Like Elvis Presley, who sopped up Black gospel and blues influences in Memphis, the young Louis Prima would stick his head through the doors of Black churches on sundays, to be knocked out by what he heard. When his mother wasn't singing Italian songs around the dinner table, she was performing at local minstrel shows. Among the eye-opening segments of the film is a huge crowd, including many whites, paying homage to the King of the Zulus, an honorary figurehead of the Mardi Gras. New Orleans, like Memphis, was a city made for cultural cross-fertilization.


...I could not help feeling remorse about what has happened to New Orleans. The sort of racial gumbo that made a Louis Prima possible is probably gone forever.
This last point has been kicking around my head for weeks. There are plenty of other places in the world that are hotbeds of cultural crossfertilization. But New Orleans was a particularly powerful one, and it, as it was, will be missed with a special kind of sadness by musicians and music lovers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aww, c'mon, Diamond Dave deserves a link!

Yeah, when I think about how New Orleans (at least, as it was, obviously) is pretty much gone, and I never got a chance to see it, experience it...it makes me ineffably sad.

10:01 AM  

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