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Keely Smith obituary

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    Posted: 17 Dec 2017 at 11:35am
American singer who, with her husband Louis Prima, was part of the most successful Las Vegas lounge act of the 1950s 

Standing to one side, her impassive basilisk stare part of the act, the singer Keely Smith, who has died aged 89, excelled as the onstage foil to her extrovert husband, the trumpeter-vocalist Louis Prima. Where Prima was manic, cavorting around the stage, singing with gusto and playing hot jazz trumpet, Smith was the epitome of cool, her vocals like a balm amid all the mayhem. Prima and Smithwere the most successful Las Vegas lounge act of the 1950s, playing season after season at the famed Sahara hotel with their supporting band, the Witnesses. Tourists loved them, as did the Rat Pack crowd and other celebrities. Barely a night passed, it seems, without Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr bounding on stage to join the party.

Born Dorothy Keely in Norfolk, Virginia, she came from mixed Cherokee and Irish stock. Her parents’ marriage foundered when she was nine, and her mother remarried Jesse Smith, from whom Keely later took her stage name. She first sang on a children’s radio show before performing with Saxie Dowell’s band at the local naval air station. At 15, she got her first paid job with the Earl Bennett band.

She had seen Prima perform when on a family holiday in Atlantic City in 1947. The following year, she heard that he was playing nearby Virginia Beach, and that he was looking for a new vocalist, and so she auditioned. Prima hired her on the spot, and in 1953 she also became his fourth wife.

The New Orleans-born Prima had graduated from his home town to New York’s 52nd Street in 1934, where his bandstand vitality made him a star. Reinventing himself as a comedic showman and simplifying his musical approach to take account of the burgeoning postwar interest in rhythm and blues, Prima needed a partner to offset his wild stage presence. Smith provided the show’s calm counterpoint, singing solo or in duet with Prima in a way that underlined her cool-jazz credentials. The musician and writer Leonard Feather described her as a “popular jazz-influenced comedienne-vocalist”.

Regularly playing five shows a night, starting at midnight and finishing at 6am, with the ebullient tenor-saxophonist Sam Butera at their side, Smith and Prima ruled the Las Vegas roost as the perfect blend; the one controlled, the other agitated and raucous. Their fame spread across the US, fuelled by appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, their starring role in the 1959 film Hey Boy! Hey Girl! and a slew of successful albums on the Capitol label, their version of That Old Black Magic receiving an inaugural Grammy in 1958. For all the “bizarre but funny” nature of their relationship, it seemed to work. That is, until Smith tired of Prima’s constant philandering and sued for divorce in 1961.

Although she continued to perform with Butera for a few years, Smith preferred to concentrate on raising her and Prima’s daughters, Toni and Luanne. Prima had insisted that she be awarded a solo contract by Capitol and this paid off for her. Her album with Nelson Riddle’s orchestrations, I Wish You Love, sold over a million copies and the single was nominated for a Grammy. Her songs also featured on the soundtracks of films by Martin Scorsese or starring Robert De Niro – notably Raging Bull and Casino – both of whom had been long-time fans.

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Her career under way again, Smith played sellout shows in cities across the US, her recordings including a well-received 1963 session with Count Basie’s orchestra. The following year, The Intimate Keely Smith (reissued last year) teamed her with a small jazz group, as did Keely Smith Sings the John Lennon and Paul McCartney Songbook, an album devoted to Beatles’ love songs, with arrangements by Benny Carter, and the later I’m In Love Again with jazzmen Bud Shank and Bill Perkins (1985).

The general revival of interest in swing and big band music in the 90s – typified by Gap’s use of the Prima-Smith classic Jump, Jive an’ Wail for a 1998 TV ad campaign – marked an intensification of interest in Smith, which she relished, and in 2001 she was again nominated for a Grammy, this time for the album Keely Sings Sinatra. In 2005 she was invited to appear at the House of Blues in LA, followed by a successful stint at Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York.

Later triumphs included a month at Café Carlyle in New York in 2007, a five-album deal with Concord records and an appearance at the 50th anniversary Grammy awards concert, where she sang That Old Black Magic with Kid Rock. She was also a popular presence on nostalgia-based package shows, including a rare UK appearance as guest of honour at Summertime Swing in East Grinstead, West Sussex, in August 2010.

Her career included performing for President John F Kennedy’s inauguration, the placement of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the award of the Cherokee medal of honour in 2000.

Hailed by Tony Bennett as “one of the greatest jazz-pop singers of all time”, Smith is survived by Toni and Luanne. Her third husband, the singer Bobby Milano, whom she married in 1975, died in 2006. An earlier marriage to the record producer Jimmy Bowen ended in divorce.

 Keely Smith (Dorothy Jacqueline Keely), jazz vocalist, born 9 March 1928; died 16 December 2017

from www.theguardian.com



Edited by snobb - 17 Dec 2017 at 11:35am
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