Louis was born in New Orleans, the son of Italian immigrants. Both his parents were musical and they insisted that all their children learned an instrument. He began on violin but when his older brother went away, Louis got hold of his cornet and taught himself to play.
He made a name for himself in the 1930s playing in clubs in New York and California with his band “Then New Orleans Gang”. In 1936 he wrote the most iconic piece of music of the swing era “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing)”. When WWII began, Louis couldn’t join the army due to a knee injury, so he was able to continue performing. He was invited to play for President Roosevelt’s birthday party. It was around this time that he became extremely popular. He developed the Italian-American vocal style that was part spoken and part sung, evoking the sound of a Neapolitan street vendor. Great examples are “Angelina” (apparently about his mum) and “Please No Squeeza Da Banana”
In the mid 1940s he led the Louis Prima Orchestra with songs like “My Dreams Are Getting Better All The Time” and “Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)” and “Mean To Me” However by the end of the decade he had to cut his band down.
The new lineup were known as “The Witnesses” and resembled Rock ‘n’ Roll bands of the 50s with drums, bass, piano, guitar and a small horn section. Louis out the front singing, and in most of the 1950s videos- a female singer Keely Smith (who possibly had the worst stage presence in the existence of live performance). Keely seems to scowl and roll her eyes at Prima for most of the set while the rest of the band mess around, putting in very few words of her own. Their new style was a combination of swing, jazz and rock n roll, now known as jive. The band was offered millions to play the lounges of Las Vegas casinos “The Sahara” and “Desert Inn”
In 1967 Prima was approached to play the orangutan King Louie in Disney’s “The Jungle Book” and the song “I wanna be like you” was a massive hit. You may not know that he also recorded the original (and slightly sinister) theme song for “Winnie the Pooh”.
Listen Out For:
Jungle drum sounds on the tom tom drums
Walking bassline (one note per beat, eg, beginning of Just a Gigolo)
Louis’ gravelly voice
Syncopated lyrics. He barely ever sings on the beat.
Spoken/ sung lyrics (from 1:50 of the megamix above)
Band backing vocals
Call and Response! (it’s everywhere!) Prima plays around with musical “conversations” during improvisation, and he also uses backing vocals to copy his own lines
Keely Smith (she’s there somewhere…)
When You Dance:
Don’t listen to the rhythm of the vocals, it will lead you astray. Stay focused on the bass
Dance down into the floor for the jungle drums, don’t stomp about or kick up into the air.
Be prepared to speed up or slow down for dramatic effect
Play around with the call and response between yourself and your partner.
Every Dancer Should Know
Sing Sing Sing
Just a Gigolo/ I ain’t got nobody (a combination of two pop songs from the late 20s)
I wanna be like you
Banana Split for my Baby
Jump Jive an Wail
Also listen to:
Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)
One Mint Julep
Mean To Me
*sigh* apologies about spacing issues. Again. Need to find out why wordpress doesn’t like paragraphs.