By Bruce Lewis
The world of jazz, jive, and swing just got dealt a flush hand — a queen and six aces! Keely Smith, the “Queen of Las Vegas” and one of the living legends of Rat Pack swing, has joined her voice with Britain’s number one jive and swing band The Jive Aces for a summer tour of the UK and Europe. Also on board for the tour is special guest Toni Elizabeth Prima, daughter of Keely and legendary bandleader Louis Prima and a rising belter in her own right. Together, Keely, Toni and the Aces form an eightsome of greatsome that’s guaranteed to put an extra olive in your dry Martini!
Of all the stage stars of Rat Pack-era Vegas, Keely Smith has remained perhaps the most constant. Although she is possibly best known for her partnership with Louis Prima — with whom she helped turn Las Vegas from a desert outpost into as oasis of ’60s swank — Smith’s 50-year career in the variety biz has included team-ups with the biggest names in song, including Frank Sinatra, conductor/arranger Nelson Riddle and jazz giant Count Basie.
Swingin’ Since Childhood
It all started for Keely Smith in Norfolk, Virginia, and her appearances on a locally-produced Saturday morning children’s radio show called “Joe Brown’s Radio Gang.” Although only 11 years old at the time, her clear ear and mature singing style caught the attention of local producers; by the time she turned 16, Smith was on stage singing and swinging with the local big bands for the entertainment of the mobs of soldiers, sailors, and Marines that had crowded into the city during the war.
A chance opportunity to audition for swing star Louis Prima in Virginia Beach in 1948 led to Smith touring (under chaperone, of course!) with Prima’s big band. Five years later, a now-adult Keely Smith and Prima were married with a baby on the way — leading the two to take their act to Las Vegas, then a mere seedling of a city.
It was a gutsy move. Las Vegas in 1953 had only one paved street (the Strip, of course). Nevertheless, Prima and Smith fired up the swing and took the town by storm, and an initial two- week gig at Sahara’s Casbar Lounge soon turned into a Vegas institution. The duo snagged a Billboard hit (#18) and a Grammy in ’58 with their cover of Arlen/Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic”, and by 1959, they were the hottest show in town, filling the seats at the Sahara with a celebrity audience every night.
Tackling TV and Film
TV was next. Hailed as the “King and Queen of Las Vegas” by the variety press, the pair were introduced to television audiences as “the greatest nightclub act in the country” by songstress Dinah Shore on her popular show.
Then, Keely Smith and Louis Prima hit the big screen: Smith sang “Whippoorwill” in 1958s Robert Mitchum vehicle Thunder Road, and in ’59’s wild musical romp Hey Boy! Hey Girl! she appeared singing “Fever”.
Her fame now boosted by being a screen star, Capitol Records signed Keely to a solo contract. She then went on to sing a string of solo hits in the late 1950s.
The fairytale ended in 1961, when Smith divorced Prima and left Capitol, as well. After moving to Sinatra’s pet, Reprise Records, Smith joined up with the Chairman’s best-down conducting and arranging partner, Nelson Riddle, to bust the UK Top 20 in 1965 with an album of Beatles songs arranged just for her.
A Revival in the ’90s
By then, however, Keely Smith was ready for a change. With the domination of the pop charts by the rock sound, Smith decided to settle down. A romance with producer Jimmy Bowen led to marriage, and by the late ’60s Smith had retired from music to concentrate on raising her children. Aside from a few television guest spots, Smith was out of show business by the end of the ’60s.
Her comeback came in 1980, when director Martin Scorsese featured Keely singing “I Ain’t Got Nobody” in his hit film Raging Bull. This led to singing spots in 1993’s Mad Dog and Glory, 1994’s baseball biopic Cobb, and 1995’s Destiny Turns on the Radio and Casino. Her career really began to take off with the release of Staley Tucci’s 1996 gem Big Night, a ’50s period piece, the plot of which centered on an appearance of Prima and Smith (Keely sang “Love of My Life/O Sole Mio” and “Don’t Take Your Love from Me” on the soundtrack). Since then, Keely has regularly appeared on stage and screen, including a memorable performance of “Mood Indigo” in a 2007 episode of HBO’s The Sopranos.
And the Beat Goes On
Keely Smith is still belting them out today: her latest album, Vegas ’58 – Today, is a compilation of her best known songs, recorded live as her homage to the late Louis Prima. Now a best-selling Concord Records artist, the 70-something Keely Smith continues her reign as the undisputed queen of the Las Vegas-style swing scene.
And now, a new chapter in the Keely Smith saga has begun with her collaboration with the Jive Aces. Famous as the UK’s top jive and swing band, the Jive Aces are hard-put to keep up with global demand for their unique song stylings -– the sextet racks up more than 300 shows in 25 countries annually, plus hundreds of appearances on TV and radio shows.
Drawn together by their love for hot jive and big band swing, these non-moptopped lads from London — Ian Clarkson (vocals and trumpet), Ken Smith (double bass), Vince Hurley (piano), Peter Howell (drums), John Fordham (saxophone), and Alex Douglas (trombone) -– cite influences as diverse as Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and (of course) Louis Prima as the basis for their beat. Famous on the late-’80s London local scene as swing dancers, the Aces soon found it difficult to find enough hot bands to keep their fingers snappin’ and toes tappin’, so they decided to go into the music biz themselves.
Their live premiere in Paris in January, 1989 was a blowout, and soon word of the Jive Aces’ foot-stomping, Fifties-style floorshow spread across Europe and thence around the world. The Aces hit America in 1996 with their gig at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, and they continue to tour and record in the States today.
Catch the Jive Aces and Keely Smith — the hottest hand in swing today — performing live on Valentine’s Day 2009 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA. And, be sure to check the Jive Aces’ gig guide for more information on upcoming shows with Keely Smith throughout summer 2009.
SPECIAL UPDATE: Keely Smith made a surprise cameo during an appearance by The Jive Aces on BBC’s The Evening Show!
Bruce Lewis is an American voice actor, writer, artist, and author. He has worked in the U.S. manga and anime industry since 1993, and his book Draw Manga: How To Draw Manga In Your Own Unique Style, is an Amazon.com Bestseller.