In my book of poems Keeping the Tigers Behind Us, there is a villanelle that imagines my death. The poem repeats the line “Play Louis Prima in memory of me.” How sad, then, that the Street Parade failed to commemorate Louis Prima’s 100th birthday a few days ago. I knew it was his birthday but just didn’t get around to posting anything, and for this I hang my head in shame. Prima’s music has been a constant on the Street Parade playlist and never fails to bring a smile and liven up the room.
Prima, born Dec. 7, 1910 in New Orleans. Over the course of his career, he mixed Dixieland Jazz, Swing, Big Band, and mixed all with an Italian gumbo driven by his bigger-than-life personality. He cut his chops in New Orleans, following in the same lineage as Louis Armstrong, for many years before moving on to NYC, where his jumpin’ and jivin’ music created the ambience that made 52nd street known as “Swing Street.” His composition “Swing, Swing, Swing,” was his biggest hit, and is perhaps the most covered tune of the swing era–Benny Goodman may have been better known for the tune, but it was that crazy cat Prima who first made it sing. He spent many years as a Vegas act with Keely Smith, and most importantly to the Street Parade’s ears, backed by the great honkin’ tenorman, Sam Butera and his band the Witnesses. The combination of musical personalities was unbeatable and has given us some of our most enduring swing music.
There were many who followed in his footsteps, but there was only one Prima. Here’s to Louis and I’d still say it: Play Lous Prima in memory of me.