Night Train! ep 4
Resurrection and Death of Louis Prima
Billy Eye interviews trumpeter Tony Horowitz who was recruited for Louis Prima's newly assembled band in 1974, recording, arranging, and touring with Prima, Sam Butera, and Keely Smith.
Tony details how Prima created the Las Vegas lounge act in the 1950s and his odd travel habits. Adopting a new sound in '74, Prima died tragically just one year after Tony joined the troupe. ALSO: Did you know what John Denver's song 'Leaving On A Jet Plane' was all about?
Among a legion of career highlights, Tony Horowitz performed the horn solos heard on the TV show Cheers.
Tony Horowitz, trumpet player for Louis Prima’s band 1974-1975 on how Louis Prima invented the Las Vegas lounge act:
In the early-1950s Louis Prima had retired from the big band and all that, he and Keely Smith were living in New Orleans and they went out to Las Vegas on a vacation. Louis was looking the town over and he saw what the lounges were all about; basically a lounge at that time was where you sat, had a couple of drinks, bet your keno tickets and the entertainment usually consisted of an achordian, a clarinet, a bass player and that was it. And they were playing music that made elevator music sound like heavy metal.
So Louis had this idea. He called Sam Butera, who’s father had a butcher shop in New Orleans, and Amado "Motsey" Rodrigues and some other New Orleans boys. Keely was their singer and Louis payed them to rehearse five or six days a week until they got really tight.
He wanted go in there with a jump, jive and wail outfit—nobody was doing that. When Louis presented the idea to the powers that be at the Sahara they said, "You are stark, raving mad." So Louis told them, "I'll show you how mad I am, I'll four-wall the joint." That meant he leased the room and took the door and the drinks, everything that was spent in there went across Louis' hand. However, he had to pay rent on the lounge, he had to pay the cocktail waitresses, he had to pay the bartenders, and he had to pay for the booze. This was quite a gamble and it paid off in spades. Louis became an icon.
I first met Louis and Sam in 1963, this was after he divorced Keely and married Gia Maione (the band’s new lead singer that he met at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey). I was like 17 years old, I was with Jimmy Wakely’s band at the time and we swapped sets with The Witnesses at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe so I made friends with Sam Butera, the Italian Troubadour “Rolly Dee” DiIorio, and the rest of the guys in the band.
Now punch your clock ahead to 1974...
I got a call from Sam, apparently he remembered me. Trumpet player Morgan Thomas, drummer Jimmy Vincent, bass player Rolly Dee, and keyboard player Bruce Zarka had decided to leave The Witnesses and start an act called The New Goofers. They were an incredible comedy act as well as playing good music—but they would do the routine while swinging from a trapeze.
Sam asked me if I'd like to join the new Prima band. Having just finished playing lead trumpet and recording with Ray Charles I was looking to go either with Count Basie or I was going to take Steve Madeo’s place with The Rolling Stones.
But the opportunity to play with Louis Prima? He was a whole different animal. I knew he wasn't getting any younger, this was a one time shot.
Butera had already booked another drummer, he asked me about a bass player so I told him, "Yeah, I got a kid in L.A. who can fit the bill." He hired a Las Vegas keyboard player and a Vegas guitar player and away we went.
With every other band I was with we all travelled in airplanes. However, Louis would not fly. I told him that, I had been over in Europe with Ray Charles, "You're a big star over there, you gotta to go and cash in on this. You're an icon."
He said, "Oh no, Chief don't fly. If they build a bridge from New York to Europe, you know, Chief'll go."
I said, "You are nuts, you could have a half pint of scotch, knock yourself out on the airplane and go to sleep."
"Oh no, Chief don't do spirits anymore."
Louis always spoke of himself in the third person. Some people would call it ego, I called it an eccentricity. Frank Sinatra always spoke of himself in the first person; Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, every big star I worked with spoke of themselves in the first person except for Louis.
On the death of Louis Prima: A year or so later we were getting ready to open at the Playboy Club in L.A. and I'd called all my friends and contacted various jazz critics and said, "Hey, I'm going to comp you myself. You have to see Louis Prima." On the fourteenth of September, 1975 Louis' manager Carlton called me and said the Playboy gig was cancelled. I said, "You've got to be kidding. What the hell is happening short of The Chief going in the tank?" He said, "That’s it. Louis just went into a coma."
Gia Maione, vocalist & wife of
Louis Prima, Louis Prima: The Wildest:
The beat, the drive. There was a drive and with Louis a magnatism that only one other person that I know of, that I think had, and that was Frank Sinatra. He walked out on a stage and there was an immediate oeuvre, you were entranced. And that's what would happen with Louis. Even stuffed shirts that would think, "Oh, I'm not going to like his music, Louis Prima?!?" Before the opening number was over they're stamping their feet. You couldn't help it. He was magnetic.