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Louis Prima Biography


Home > Music > P > Prima, Louis > Biography


Birth Name: Louis Prima
Born: 1910/12/07
Birth Place: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
Died: 1978/08/24
Years Active: 1936-1975
Genres: Jazz, Swing, Traditional Pop


Louis Prima was born on December 7, 1910 in New Orleans and was a singer, actor, songwriter, and trumpeter. Prima rose to fame with his seven-piece New Orleans style jazz band in the 1920s, which led to his successful fusion of jazz and swing music in the 1930s, and the big band sound of the 1940s. Prima was a versatile and talented musician who was progressive with his music and moved within the musical trends modifying his style as time moved forward. The 1950s saw Prima working the Vegas circuit as a lounge act, and the 1960s saw him head a pop-rock band.

Prima was born into a musical family, with both of his parents being musical. Prima's mother insisted that all of her children played an instrument, with Prima taking on the violin as a child. By the time he was teenager jazz music had taken a hold of Prima when he heard it crawling out of the night clubs on the New Orleans streets. Influenced by artists such as Louis Armstrong, Prima wanted to play music that sounded just like that. Despite racial segregation at the time, Italians and African Americans were often seen playing music together in the all-black clubs.

Prima formed his first band in 1924 with his childhood friends Irving Fazola on clarinet and Johnny Viviano on drums. Prima was desperate to play music and make a name for himself, so he dropped out of high school in pursuit of his musical dream. Prima joined the Ellis Stratako Orchestra in 1929 for a short time before joining the Joseph Cherniavsky's Orchestra later that same year.

Prima headed to New York City next to further his music career. While there he met Guy Lombardo who was a positive influence on his career. In 1934, Prima was offered a deal with Brunswick label and recorded the songs: “That’s Where the South Begins,” “Long About Midnight,” “Jamaica Shout,” and “Star Dust.”

Prima generated positive responses from growing fans and critics alike with his records and formed his New Orleans Gang, which consisted of Frank Pinero on piano, Jack Ryan on bass, Garrett McAdams on guitar, and Pee Wee Russell on clarinet. The band began to play gigs in and around New York and Prima's stage presence became an attraction to the band's live shows.

Prima's style began to fuse Dixieland and swing by the late 1930s. By 1935 Prima relocated to Los Angeles, where he found moderate success. When WW II hit, Prima, due to a knee injury was not drafted and continued to perform and build up a following. By the mid-1940s, Prima's music was a huge success with the general public. When the war was finally over, the music industry had been affected and big bands were becoming a thing of the past as the 1950s emerged.

1947 offered Prima a record deal with RCA Victor, where he recorded the songs: “Civilization,” “You Can’t Tell the Depth of the Well,” “Say it with a Slap,” “Valencia,” and “My Flame Went Out Last Night.” 1954 saw Prima embark on the Vegas circuit with singer Keely Smith. The duo enlisted the legendary saxophonist, Sam Butera to perform with them. The trio was signed to Capitol Records in 1955 and released their first album, “The Wildest!” in 1956. The album produced the hits, “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” The duo also recorded “Old Black Magic,” which earned them a Grammy Award. 1959 saw Prima sign with Dot Records and release eight albums. 1961 saw Prima perform at the Inaugural Gala for President John F. Kennedy at the request of Frank Sinatra, and 1962 saw Prima form his own recording company, “Prima One Records.”

Prima saw himself back in the spotlight in 1967 when his distinctive voice and jazzy delivery earned him the role of King Louie in Walt Disney's animated feature “The Jungle Book.” The movie, as were the two soundtracks, was a huge commercial success. Of note was the hit Prima sang, “I Wanna Be Like You.” In 1973, Prima suffered a mild heart attack, which led to the discovery of a brain stem tumor in 1975. Prima suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and went into a coma following surgery to remove the tumor. He died three years later in New Orleans.