Sax player and arranger Sam Butera was ‘Keith Richards to Louis Prima’s Mick Jagger’ once he joined the great trumpeter, singer and bandleader in Las Vegas in 1954. With vocalist Keely Smith, the group leaped into national consciousness on the wings of songs like ‘Just A Gigolo,’ ‘Jump Jive An’ Wail’ and ‘That Old Black Magic.’ Burt Kearns and Rafael Abramovitz sat down with Butera in 1991 and got the real story about the Mob’s connection to Vegas and the raunchy private lives of the musicians. The interviews were never published. Some are now shared here, on PKM.
Sam Butera was a red-hot, 27-year-old rhythm and blues tenor saxophone player from New Orleans when, on Christmas Eve 1954, he got the call to work with his musical hero, Louis Prima, in Las Vegas. The result — a joyful mix of Dixieland jazz, jump blues and rock ’n’ roll, combined with the impeccable vocals of a deadpan female singer — launched “Louis Prima & Keely Smith with Sam Butera and the Witnesses” into the biggest musical success the gambling city had yet to see. Butera’s wailing, honking sax and innovative arrangements provided the crucial spark, and recordings of songs including Just A Gigolo, When You’re Smiling, Jump Jive An’ Wail, and That Old Black Magic extended their fame far beyond the Vegas Strip.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune referred to Sam Butera as “Keith Richards to Prima’s Mick Jagger.” Butera was also known for his fierce loyalty to Prima and as a man who knew how to keep secrets. Like the mobsters who ran the casinos and clubs where he worked, and the goodfellas who made up a significant portion of his fanbase, Butera lived by the code of omertà, and when he died in 2009, it was assumed he’d taken his secrets with him. No one knew that in February 1991, he told all. Over days in the living room of his home on Chapman Drive in Las Vegas, Butera revealed to journalists and screenwriters Burt Kearns and Rafael Abramovitz the story behind the rise and fall of “The Wildest Show in Vegas.”
The interviews were never published. What follows are highlights from the lost testament of Sam Butera.
Louis Prima – Sam Butera plays Night Train -with Keely Smith, Sam Butera and the Witnesses.
I worked for Louis Prima’s brother, Leon, for four years at the 500 Club on Bourbon Street [in New Orleans]. I always loved Louis Prima. And my mother and father loved the way he sang and loved the things that he did. They always talked about him.
I was always interested in meeting him one day, maybe getting a chance to work with him. ’Course, this was wishful thinking at that time. It was 1954. I had formed my own group and I was doing the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at a place called Perez’s Oasis, which is on the Airline Highway, and I had a hell of a following. And Louis Prima was working there. This is when Louis and Keely were… “on their last leg,” you might say. They were there with a twelve-piece band, playing stock band arrangements, and things were not going well for Louis or Keely.
And so, Mr. Perez told Louis, he said, “I got this kid.” I was twenty-seven. He says, “I’ve got this young man who plays the Sunday afternoon jam session. Would you mind if he did it with you? ’Cause he has a wonderful following here.” And Louis said, “Of course not. It would be a pleasure.” So I went out there, and then I got an arrangement, walked on stage, told the guys the key and just played with the rhythm section. Never sang. Just did all instrumentals. And Louis and Keely were very impressed with my performance, the way I handled myself and such onstage. And after we got through, Louis called me on the side and said, “Well, we’ll be leaving here. I don’t know where we’re headed for, but –” he said, “if ever something happens, I’d love to have you with me,” and so on. I didn’t– you know, you hear one thing, in one ear and out the other. I said, “Well, whatever.” You know, fine.
Lounge performers were on a lower rung of the show business hierarchy. All that was about to change when Sam Butera pulled into Las Vegas on December 26, 1954.
So I was doing a couple of nights at the Monteleone Hotel [in the French Quarter], all of a sudden I get a call. It’s from Louis Prima. He said, “Sam, it’s happening!” I said, “What?” And he said, “Las Vegas is happening for us!” I said, “Boy, that’s great, Louis.” He said, “When can you come up?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” I said. “When would you want me?” He said, “Come tomorrow!” I said, “Tomorrow’s Christmas!” He said, “What’s the matter? What difference it make?” I said, “No, I got to spend Christmas home.” I said, “I’ll be up on the twenty-sixth.” He said, “Well, bring a drummer and a piano player with you.”
Fire at the Casbar
Louis Prima, at 44, was a renowned trumpeter, big band leader, singer, composer of the jazz classic “Sing, Sing, Sing” and entertainer known as “the Italian Louis Armstrong.” With a career dating back to the 1920s, and a sound rooted in New Orleans jazz and swing music, Prima was always open to the latest trend, and had downsized to a small combo. The new act, featuring his comic mugging and the smoky jazz vocals of his 26-year-old (fourth) wife, Keely Smith, had opened an engagement at the Sahara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. Despite Prima’s past success, his group was not booked into the main showroom, but in a casino lounge, an open-area bar where gamblers slipped in to drink away their blues between losses and performers and dealers gathered after their shows and shifts. Lounge entertainment was usually unobtrusive. Lounge performers were on a lower rung of the show business hierarchy. All that was about to change when Sam Butera pulled into Las Vegas on December 26, 1954.
I came in that evening. And my horn wasn’t there. It was left in Houston. And I had no clothing except the clothes I wore on my back. I called Louis, I said, “Louis, I can’t go on tonight.” He said, “What do you mean you can’t go on? I told you, I been tellin’ all these people that you’re gonna be here tonight.” I said, “I have no horn or clothes.” He said, “We’ll get you a horn. And we’ll get you clothes.”
We went into the Sahara Hotel and there was a lounge they called the Casbar, which was a nice lounge, man.
It was so wild! It was unheard of to come on a group without a rehearsal, just walk onstage and say, “Here, play the music,” you know? That was a muthafucka, man. But we were sharp enough, our ears were big enough to hear and surmise what he wanted.
Louis Prima – When You’re Smiling / C’è La Luna / Zooma Zooma / Oh, Marie
And they were hysterical, he and Keely. Keely, oh I loved it when she sang. I thought she was absolutely a wonderful singer. Her intonation was just fantastic, her phrasing was great and her performance — well, you know their whole thing was Keely not showing emotion and making fun of Louis whenever she had the opportunity to. People would laugh at that. And she’d just stand up there with a blank face and listen. Look at her! And here we are groovin’, knocking our asses off, and she’s just there like she don’t give a fuck.
We got offstage and Louis looked at me and he says, “I told you!” And that was it. When I got there, fire happened.
‘I’ll tell you, he was an incredible entertainer…. He knew show business inside out. I ain’t never seen a performer in my whole life, nobody, but nobody can get on the same stage with him.’ – Sam Butera on Louis Prima
April 19-20, 1956: Making a record
Louis had always wanted to record with Capitol Records. And boy, when they came around, man, when he got that contract from Capitol Records, he was in seventh heaven!
“Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”- Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and Sam Butera & the Witnesses:
We had to drive to L.A. Couple new cars, so we drove down there. I was amazed. This round building. Hollywood and Vine.
We did everything, the whole album, in one night. Took us about five hours. The whole album. Oh, they were jumping up and down in the sound booth, you know, digging what we’re doing. And the sound there was like, hot. And they were excited.
They sent Louis a proof record. Louis told me to come by the house and he played it for me. He said, “Sam, this is us. They finally got us on tape. The sound. The energy. It’s us.” And he was right. They caught it.
The album, The Wildest!, credited to Louis Prima and “featuring Keely Smith, with Sam Butera & the Witnesses,” was released in November 1956.
Immediately the goddamn thing started selling albums like crazy. Oh, everybody’s thrilled for us. ’
Actually, we were the hottest attraction in Vegas. We didn’t get to work till eleven, so we worked until four, five o’clock in the morning. Louis used to have the people in the audience going hysterical, then all of a sudden all your performers started coming in. And all the showgirls used to hang in there with us. You know what I mean? Chicks. We had more fucking broads then. Oh, my God. Man, oh man. Two, three broads a night, man. That was, that was, that was — oh, it was unbelievable.
I never got any money from the records. Louis and Keely made all the money. It was Louis Prima and Keely Smith, you know. But they’d pay me for the record date, and that was it. I didn’t make any royalties. Just for the session. But they were making a lot of bread.
Hitting the Road
Louis, Keely and Sam’s popularity soared once again with the release of the single, That Old Black Magic, which reached #18 on the Billboard chart in December 1958, and won Louis & Keely a Grammy at the first annual awards show on May 4, 1959.
Louis very rarely talked business around us, you know? I guess he figured the less we knew, the better off we were — meaning the less we knew about the business, how much money he and Keely were making, we wouldn’t cause no fuckin’ waves, you know? Asking him for this and ask him for that. Anyway [with ‘That Old Black Magic’] he told me, “Sam, we got ten more years, baby. Because of this fuckin’ hit, this is gonna last us ten years.” I said, “It’s a big record for us.” And he said, “We got some calls.” He said, “We got a call over at the Chez Paree in Chicago, we got a call to work the Copa in New York. And then we come back, we’re gonna go to the Moulin Rouge in L.A.
My man, we went to Chicago in the fuckin’ dead of winter. Snowstormed! There were people in line around the fuckin’ block. It was so fuckin’ cold. Packed the Chez Paree! Mo [Chicago crime boss Sam “Momo” Giancana, who controlled many Vegas casinos] was there. Every fuckin’ hood in Chicago was there — with their families, not alone! You wouldn’t fuckin’ believe it. Never had that much business in the history of the Chez Paree. No fuckin’ entertainer. And, well, anyway, that was history, boy.
Right from there we drove to New York, played the Copa. Standing room only. No act in the history of Copacabana drew that kind of people. And The Ed Sullivan Show. That was like the show at the time. When you got on The Ed Sullivan Show, you were classified as a superstar.
Chicks. We had more fucking broads then. Oh, my God. Man, oh man. Two, three broads a night, man. That was, that was, that was — oh, it was unbelievable.
And that was 1959. Louis was making a lot of bread. Lotta bread. I still wasn’t a financial part of the act. I was, by that time, making about seventeen-fifty a week, which is good money. That was the most I ever made, was seventeen five.
Louis, Keely and Sam reached the pinnacle of their success on December 29, 1959 when, after six years as the city’s top lounge act, they opened as headliners in the Painted Room, the main showroom of the Desert Inn on the Las Vegas Strip. Prima had negotiated a three-million-dollar deal to star at the D.I. for a minimum of twelve weeks a year for five years. Unfortunately, just as Louis & Keely had achieved their dream, their marriage was unraveling. Louis’ philandering had been an open secret for years. Now Keely was carrying on affairs, and neither was attempting to hide them.
I don’t want to say that Keely started going out on him, and he started going out on Keely.
I was never there when it happened. It was just told to me. To each his own.
See, the way I surmised it, Louis was a swinger all of his life. That didn’t just start there at the Sahara. That’s bullshit. He had five wives, you know, and he liked, liked, liked ladies. He loved ladies, man, and I guess Keely must’ve not been blind. But he was at least a little discreet. She wasn’t.
The final blow
Between engagements at the Desert Inn, Louis, Keely and Sam continued to play top venues across the country. On May 16, 1961, they opened a two-week engagement at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
We were working at the Latin Casino when she caught him. From what I understand, I wasn’t there, she caught him in the parking lot getting head from this Indian broad who was in the line in the show.
I think it was in between shows. She left the fuckin’ stage, never came back.
Nobody knew whether they would stay together and work or she’d go her way he went his, but when it came down to it, when she left and we started working alone the next engagement, I knew right away that he didn’t want to work with her and she don’t want to work with him.
Out the window
Word spread quickly that “the hottest husband-and-wife team in show business” was headed toward divorce. The final D.I. engagement opened on August 4, 1961.
She came back for the last engagement. That was cold, man. You could feel the ice in the fuckin’ air. She’d laugh and he’d be a buffoon, you know, clownin’ and smilin’, and you could feel ice. That was like, doing it down the line, you know. We did two shows, you know. But it was just like a throwaway. There was nothing felt. But the one that they looked like they really enjoyed, was That Ol’ Black Magic. They really enjoyed doing that fuckin’ tune.
Louis Prima and Keely Smith “Black Magic”
Keely Smith was granted a divorce, on the grounds of cruelty, on October 3, 1961.
We had our new home and we knew Louis was going to get the divorce that day, so we invited Louis and his mother over to the house to have dinner with us. He got in the house and he cried like a baby. Cried like a fuckin’ baby, man. He says, “It was something we wanted all of our lives, finally had it in the palm of our hands, just threw it out the window. Why? Why?” He says, “I’ll never understand. All my life, this is what I wanted. And what she wanted, too. Now, we threw it out the window. Now, we got nothing.”
His mother said, “Louis, you did it before without her, you can do it again without her.” You know how mothers are. She was a very strong woman, his mother.
Back to the lounge
After they had split up, we were working at the Moulin Rouge in L.A., and that’s when Louis negotiated the contract to go back to the Sahara. Louis went to Stan Irwin, who was the entertainment director, and Stan told him that he had to have a girl singer. That was in the contract.
So Louis looked for a girl singer. He found Gia. Nobody knew Gia Maione. So we were working at the Sahara, and when she joined the group, I said to the guys, “Man,” I said, “if this chick gets billing over me, I’m cutting out. I’m through.” And sure enough, that night on the marquee, her name was equal size of Louis’s, top billing over me.
And it pissed me off. I said, “Louis, I’m coming by the house tomorrow. I want to talk with you.” And I went out to the house up on Warm Springs Road, and I told him. I said, “Man, this is like a slap in the face. You don’t do this.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “The fuckin” marquee.” I said, “I worked too hard all these years, like to accomplish something, and I think I’ve accomplished it, because you’ve helped me, naturally. Then, all of a sudden, Keely is gone and you bring somebody, who nobody knows who she is, and she has no credentials, and you bring her here and give her billing over me? Not equal billing, but top billing over me. What am I to do?” I mean, you know? So I said, “Best thing for me to do is to leave.”
And Louis ordinarily, I know he would’ve said, “Leave,” but I guess I was too important to the organization, to this group, for him to, I guess, say what he would ordinarily have said. He started talking to me. And talking to me. Things like, “Because of the contract saying that I have to have a girl singer, and I thought it wouldn’t look nice if you were on here and she was on the bottom. It wouldn’t look like it was an act between the girl and I.” I said, “What? To begin with, we don’t need another girl.” He said, “But that’s in the contract. I have no alternative. I have to use a girl.”
Sam Butera & The Witnesses – You’re Nobody ‘Till Somebody Loves You 1964 with Louis Prima & Gia Maione
I said, “The least you could’ve done, before you put her up on the goddamn marquee, would be to come to me and explain to me what you’re gonna do. Don’t make me look like a fuckin’ idiot!” And he started telling me, “Look, Sam, be patient.” You know. “One of these days, you’re going to be a star. You’re a gem. You’re very val–” All this bullshit. I said, “Bullshit, Louis. You’d have taken time if I was that important to you.” And he kept talking and talking. He had a way, you know.
Sam Butera stayed with Louis Prima and Gia Maione. He stayed after Prima married Gia; after Gia left the act to raise their two children; and into the 1970s, when he and Louis added Sympathy for the Devil to their set. Louis Prima underwent surgery for a brain tumor in 1975, fell into a coma and died in 1978. Sam Butera renamed his band The Wildest (he said that Keely owned the name “The Witnesses”) and carried on with the act in casino lounges and nightclubs for another 25 years. He paid tribute to Louis Prima every night, opening each set with When You’re Smiling and closing with When the Saints Go Marching In,leading the horn section on a stroll through the audience, slapping palms, shaking hands, and somehow continuing to blow that saxophone, as always, with a smile on his face. Sam Butera died on June 3, 2009. He was 81.
Before I even joined him, he was always a hero in my eyes. I loved him. I’ll tell you, he was an incredible entertainer. I ain’t never seen a performer in my whole life, nobody, but nobody can get on the same stage with him.