That Old Black Magic: Louis Prima, Keely Smith, and the Golden Age of Las Vegas
such arch musicians and singers as The Ink Spots, Bunny Berigan, Red Norvo, Max Kaminsky, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Wingy Manone, Joe Marsala and dozens more…. Swing Street was in business.”
    But first among the first was Louis Prima. He and Russell—paid sixty and forty dollars a week, respectively—and their sidemen became a sensation. “When Prima plays there on Fifty-second Street, it starts this big breakthrough, this avalanche of interest in Fifty-second Street, and it really establishes that venue as the street of jazz as it became, and it also established Prima as kind of a trendy in thing at that point,” reported jazz historian Will Friedwald in the documentary
Louis Prima: The Wildest!
“That’s Prima’s first burst of fame.”
    Like a burst of fireworks, Prima and his act in New York City were colorful and thrilling—and just about as brief.

    Prima already rehearsed relentlessly when he was hit with sudden success. Throughout his career he drove himself and his band hard, dictating every arrangement and dance move, though later on, with the Las Vegas act, he allowed for improvisation onstage. He made sure that the people playing behind him received credit, but they had to keep earning it. One time Pee Wee Russell was late for a rehearsal, and for the next week onstage at the Famous Door, Prima introduced everyone in his band except him.
    Night after night, Louis Prima and His New Orleans Gang packed the club, helped by items in newspaper columns by Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, and others. For the Famous Door gig he had created a slogan, “Let’s have a jubilee!” He adapted a song for his band with that title, written by W. Alexander Hill and Irving Mills. It further enhanced his reputation as a flamboyant showman that, to close the club at 3:30 A.M., Prima had the band swing into “Let’s Have a Jubilee,” which had also opened the show, and in New Orleans style he led them off the stage, through the audience, and out the door to parade down Fifty-second Street.
    Eddie Davis across the street had plenty of time to regret his decision to reject Prima, but he was consoled by the cliché “A rising tide raises all boats.” With more people flocking to Fifty-second Street to check out the new nightlife sensation, there were plenty of patrons to go around. If you couldn’t get into the fifty-seat Famous Door, you could just step into Leon and Eddie’s.
    However, many women wouldn’t settle for another club. They adored Louis Prima. He adored them back for his entire life. “Apparently, according to all eyewitness testimony, Prima was a ladies’ man for his whole career,” said Friedwald. “He had five wives and Lord knows how many affiliations, as it were.”
    “Louis was the kind of guy who could engender a little romance with the ladies, you know?” Joe Segreto said in the Prima documentary. “He was a big, good-looking guy, and he was a star. Louis caused a lot of excitement with the audience, and I guess some of that spilled into the interest after the show.”
    According to Sam Weiss, a well-known club owner at the time, “When [Prima] shouted, ‘Let’s have a jubilee,’ a lot of those sex-starved dames would practically have an orgasm. I think they thought he was shouting, ‘Let’s have an orgy,’ in that hoarse, horny voice of his.”
    “I actually saw women pass out,” reported the guitar player Frank Federico, his New Orleans friend who rejoined Prima in New York. “Just blow their top in the Famous Door there in New York.”
    “What Louis was bringing was a kind of special verve that he had, not only as an instrumentalist but as a vocalist particularly,” says Bruce Raeburn. “He had his own style.”
    In addition to being in close proximity to women, success for Prima meant rubbing elbows with mobsters.
    “The reality of the situation, particularly as it affected jazz musicians between 1880–1940, requires that

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