In his youth, Prima played trumpet with Irving Fazola, his brother's band, and the pit band of the Saenger Theater. In 1933 he began his busy recording career, as one-third of The Hotcha Trio (with David Rose on piano and Norman Gast on violin). In 1934 Prima moved to New York, iworking regularly on 52nd Street with old New Orleans friends like Eddie Miller (tenor sax and clarinet) and George Brunies (trombone), and also new acquaintances like Pee Wee Russell (clarinet). Prima's informal hot-jazz group was known as Louis Prima and His New Orleans Gang, and this band recorded prolifically for Brunswick through 1936, and then for Vocalion and Decca.
Prima's 1936 composition "Sing Sing Sing" became one of his biggest hits and one of the most covered standards of the swing era; Benny Goodman's performance of the song at Carnegie Hall with a featured performance by Gene Krupa on drums has become iconic.
Big bands were big business then, and Prima apparently bowed to pressure from booking agents and formed a conventional big band in 1940. He exploited a distinctive, shuffling beat (which he called "Gleeby Rhythm"); this trademark Prima shuffle remained part of his repertoire for two decades. Prima sang most of the band vocals, with Lily Ann Carol as the "girl singer." Prima's high-powered drummer at this time was Jimmy Vincent, an energetic teenager who remained with the Prima band for many years.
In 1947 he added singer Cathy Ricciardi, who recorded under the name Cathy Allen. She was succeeded in 1949 by Keely Smith (who was to become his fourth wife), and the band concentrated on novelty songs like "Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)" and "All Right, Louis, Drop the Gun." Prima's big band continued into the early 1950s, with a series of novelty recordings supervised (sometimes heavy-handedly) by record producer Mitch Miller.
Prima acknowledged his new musicians for the opening-night crowd, and spontaneously asked Butera what the name of the band was. Butera ad-libbed, "The Witnesses!" From then on, Sam Butera and the Witnesses backed Prima and Smith on stage and records.
Prima and Smith worked hard throughout the 1950s, performing multiple shows a night, finishing at 6 a.m. Their efforts were rewarded with a resurgence in their popularity, and they were at least partly responsible for making the lounge at The Sahara a hotspot. On stage, Prima insisted that Smith would adopt a humorless, poker-faced character that would play straight to Prima's zany ad libs. Smith actually had a fine sense of comedy that is often audible on the team's recordings; no matter how much the incorrigible Prima tried to disrupt her vocals, Smith would often come back with a funny remark of her own.
Louis Prima and Keely Smith were very much the model for Sonny & Cher: the exuberant Italian musician and the serious, exotic female singer, Smith and Cher both being of Cherokee descent (although Cher's heritage is primarily Armenian). Similarly, echoes of the stage banter between Prima and Butera would be heard years later in the early performances of the E Street Band and the interplay between Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons.
In 1956 the Prima ensemble performed at the Sahara Hotel and Casino to record tracks for the album The Wildest!. It was an attempt by Capitol Records to capture the essence of the Vegas act. Over the next nine years, Prima and Smith raised two children, while he made scores of records, owned racehorses, appeared on television, and even opened a golf course. They outgrew the lounge and were promoted to the big room. They appeared in a few quickie musical films, including Senior Prom and Hey Boy! Hey Girl! Prima co-produced the feature Twist All Night, in which his band also appeared,
During this whirlwind of activity, according to Smith, the couple drifted farther and farther apart. One night, he refused to conduct for one of Smith's performances, delegating to Butera instead. A few days later they were in court, petitioning for divorce.
In 1967 Prima's distinctive voice and jazzy delivery landed him a role in Walt Disney's animated feature The Jungle Book, as the raucous orangutan King Louie. He performed the hit song "I Wanna Be Like You" on the soundtrack, leading to the recording of two albums with Phil Harris: The Jungle Book and More Jungle Book, on Disneyland Records. He can also be heard on the soundtrack of another cartoon feature, The Man Called Flintstone.
In 1975, following headaches and episodes of memory loss, Louis Prima sought medical attention, and found out he had a brain tumor. He went into a coma following surgery to remove the tumor. He never recovered, and died three years later, having been moved back to New Orleans. He was buried in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans; his gray marble crypt is topped by a figure of Gabriel, the trumpeter-angel. The inscription on the crypt's door quote the lyrics from one of his hits: "When the end comes, I know, they'll all say 'just a gigolo' as life goes on without me. Lovingly, your little family..."
Prima's original recordings have also featured in many films, including Mad Dog and Glory, Big Night, Anger Management, Mickey Blue Eyes, Casino, 'Swingers, Kicking and Screaming, Elf, Swing Kids, and Analyze This''.
Sam Butera and the Witnesses also continue to tour.
In 2008, Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder recited dialogue and performed songs from the album, Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara, in their smash hit new musical, Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara. Read LA Times or Variety reviews for more info.