Louis Prima and the season of Italian American musicians

Tu vuo’ fa ’l’americano” sang Renato Carosone in the late 1950’s referring to the fascination that America exercised over Italy – and he was telling the truth. But that was only part of the story. The Americans also tried to be more “italian”: it was the era in which the music of the Rat Pack (the group of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin) was raging and the Italian cinema of De Sica and Fellini brought home the golden statuettes of Hollywood. The Italian-American culture had finally been cleared of and became a national heritage thanks to the genius of its interpreters; in particular, there was a musician who had indicated the direction: Louis Prima.

Louis Prima: birth, decline and rebirth

In Las Vegas, Rat Pack’s nights have become legendary. Shows by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr filled the largest concert hall of the Sands Hotel; it was almost impossible to find a ticket. But for those who knew them well it would not have been difficult to meet them. In fact, every night, after the show was over, the Rat Pack would move to a much smaller concert hall to to crack up with Louis Prima, an artist apparently already out of fashion. He had reached the top of the music scene in the 1930s composing “Sing sing sing“, a standard of Swing music and in the 1940s he had signed popular hits such as “Angelina” and “Civilization“.

In the 1950s he had had to give way to the new generation of crooners – the so-called confidential singers, with deep voices and slow, emotionally charged pieces – and it cost him a lot to find a concert hall to play in Las Vegas. But together with Sam Butera (his saxophonist and arranger) and Keely Smith (his wife and solo singer) he managed to completely reverse the situation.

The concert-show, a bridge between Italy and America

His show was simply on another level. The quality of the music was excellent; to the rhythmic parts were added the brass: trumpet, sax and trombone with a marked New Orleans style. The voices of Louis Prima, Keely Smith and Sam Butera, while being profoundly different, joined together to form perfect, exciting, Gospel like choirs. But it didn’t end there. Their show was a succession of jokes, distortions, false errors that thrilled the audience and that closely resembles the ironic atmospheres of Renato Carosone’s sextet.

This fortunate encounter between music and laughter had in the background the Italian-American culture of the time. In the live version of Angelina, for example, the choir should sing “E’ na passione” (It’s a passion) and instead becomes “Pasta ’e’ fasuoli” (Pasta with beans). The same song then becomes “C’e la luna mmiez ‘o mare” sung in Sicilian dialect.

Louis Prima and Los Carosones

We at Los Carosones have played many of Louis Prima’s songs working on his arrangements, even the most ambitious. During his career, in fact, Prima recorded several times the song that is considered by many to be the progenitor of the Swing genre, “Bei Mir Bistu Shein”. To honor him, we have chosen his most explosive version, a manifesto of the vitality of an era. “Buonasera Signorina” is another Louis Prima song that cannot be missing in one of our concerts and of which we discovered an interesting detail; it is Prima himself who tells it on the Ed Sullivan Show. This song had gone completely unnoticed in America, but not to audiences in Europe; Fred Buscaglione’s version (what today we would call a cover) gets so much following that it makes the American market change its mind. Another success had thus added to Prima’s long career.
One last curiosity about Italian American music: there is a song that links the repertoire of Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. It is called “Torna a Surriento“, a classic of Neapolitan music also present in our repertoire.
While for Louis Prima it is natural to sing it in Neapolitan, for Frank Sinatra it is a real exception to the rule that sees him singing only in English. Elvis instead decides to translate it into English with “Surrender” in a crackling version with a Latin flavor; he will try his hand at singing in Neapolitan shortly after recording “Santa Lucia“.