Move over, Barbara Cook. Here comes another lady in her 70s
with a voice that sounds decades younger. This is Keely Smith, who is appearing
in cabaret at Feinstein's on Park Avenue in Manhattan in May 2003. If her dreams come
true, she'll someday appear a few blocks from there on Broadway in her own
show.

Smith hopes to emulate Cook and do a one-woman theater piece. Or -- an even
better plan she tells us about -- she'd like to follow the lead of Elaine
Stritch and do an evening that mixes autobiography with singing. "When I
was younger, I was very shy," she says. "I couldn't get up in front
of people and talk about myself, but now I can. Also, there were personal
stories about my romances that I wouldn't tell. I even started writing an
autobiography but stopped it because I didn't want to write about being
unfaithful to Louis while he still was alive. Now I don't feel it would hurt
anyone if I tell the story. Hell, lots of people in the business write about
drugs and drinking and a lot of things that are much worse than what I
did."

The most scandalous thing Smith did, according to her own reckoning, was to
have an affair with Frank Sinatra while she was married to Louis Prima. More
about that in a moment.

Keely Smith's recent recordings for Concord Jazz honor the great loves of
her life. "Keely Smith: Swing, Swing, Swing," recorded in 2000, is a
tribute to Prima. It features songs the bandleader made popular, such as
"When You're Smiling," "The Sheik of Araby" and "Oh
Marie" (re-worked into "Oh Louie"). Prima made an indelible
impression when he sang those tunes with his gravelly voice. Smith, in those
days, sang slow ballads, straight. On this CD she adopts the scat-singing
flavor of Prima. Her artistry, and the richness of her voice, are remarkable.

Smith was born Dorothy Keely in Norfolk,
Virginia, on March 9, 1932, the
daughter of Fannie and Jesse Smith. She was an innocent 16 when Prima came into
her life in 1948. "His band was playing Virginia Beach," she relates, "and
my brother and I went to see him. He was looking to replace his girl singer,
and my brother told him I sang. He put me in front of his band and had me sing
a couple of songs, and hired me, so I left home. Louis and all the boys in the
band were protective of me. I respected Louis as a musician, but I didn't see
anything romantic in him. He was older, and short and not conventionally
handsome. [Prima was 38 and married.] One day, my mother came to see us play,
and she saw the way I looked adoringly at Louis while he was singing and
playing, and she told me that she could tell I was in love with him. She knew
before I did."

After getting a divorce, Louis married Keely on July 13, 1953. It was his
fourth marriage, her first. They later had two daughters, Toni and Luanne.

Smith was not the first pop singer to come from the South. Kate Smith and Dinah Shore,
for example, were from Virginia and Tennessee. But Keely was
the first to sing with such a distinct regional accent. She said "Ah"
for I, "mah" for my and "abote" for about. Thus Smith was a
trailblazer for a new generation of singers who affected southern accents --
even when they weren't from there. Add to this Keely's expressionless face and
long, straight black hair, and you have the prototype of Cher.

In the 1950s, Keely Smith provided a dead-pan, glamorous contrast to Louis
Prima's extroverted and joyful personality as his band reached its greatest
popularity. It was a small band that featured the honking sax of Louis' old
friend, Sam Butera. Prima delighted fans by mugging and sometimes even talking
while Smith was singing her ballads. When she crooned "I Got It Bad and
That Ain't Good," Prima in the background commented, "I got it good
and it ain't bad."

"Louis' band was the hottest lounge act in Vegas during the time that
Sinatra was a headliner," says Smith. "We played five shows a night
at the Sahara Hotel, from midnight to 6 a.m. Sinatra would come to see us after
his own shows, and he'd bring a gang of his friends with him." Sinatra
joked around with Prima, but clearly he had his eyes on the sultry Mrs. Prima,
with her long raven hair.
"He had a pet name for me, the Injun," because she is part Cherokee
Indian. "One day, Frank invited Louis and me to fly to his home in California for a few
days, but Louis said he had other plans. He told me to go ahead without him,
and I did, and I kind of knew I was heading for trouble."

As she expected, a passionate affair began. "But it was more than
that," she adds. "Frank and I really were in love. He asked me to
marry him, but I said no. I was feeling very guilty about betraying Louis. When
Frank sang a love song, he seemed to be the saddest man in the world." On
the rebound from Smith's rejection, Sinatra asked Juliet Prowse to marry him.
After she broke off their engagement, Sinatra married the young Mia Farrow.

"Keely Sings Sinatra" on the Concord Jazz label features romantic
ballads made popular by Ol' Blue Eyes, such as "This Love of Mine"
and "Dream." In addition, Smith swings the songs where Sinatra used a
finger-snapping style, like "Night and Day" and "I've Got You
Under My Skin." Smith recorded these in 2001 with a roaring big band and
lush strings behind her. In "The Music Stopped," she copies the
breathless, sighing quality that Sinatra used when the song was new in 1943,
but also brings fresh insights. And in the slow Gershwin ballad, "I've Got
a Crush on You," she uses jazz modulations that even go beyond what
Sinatra found in the song. Throughout the record, Smith reveals an individual
style and warm voice.

Many singers have paid tribute to Sinatra, and talk about how they love
Frank. But few of them can say it with the literal meaning that Keely Smith has
when she talks of their love. More importantly, there is no other tribute
that's musically as good as this one.

A third Concord CD, "Keely Swings Basie-style," was recorded in
2002. She loved the Count's music, and it suits her voice wonderfully well, but
there's no romantic story behind this one.

After the end of the Sinatra-Smith affair, the marriage of Keely and Louis
broke up anyway. In 1961, right after signing a multi-million dollar contract
with the Desert Inn in Las Vegas,
the couple were divorced. He then married another girl singer, Gia Maione, and
continued to work in Vegas through 1967. Prima had a reputation of being a
womanizer. According to people in the business, Prima used to instruct his girl
singers to go down onto the dance floor and start conversations with good-looking
women whom the leader spotted from the bandstand. When these women left their
dates to go to the bathroom, he'd have his singer follow them and say that
Louis would like to meet them after the show.

Louis and Keely remained friends. Prima died in 1978 at age 67 of pneumonia
following a brain tumor. The love in Smith's life now is Bobby Milano, who
produced her three recent albums.

Did Smith and Sinatra have a special song that served as a signature for
their romance? "All the Way," she answers. It's on the record.

[END]

 

Key Subjects: 
Keely Smith, Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima, Feinstein's, Cabaret, Count Basie, Concord Jazz
Writer: 
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
Date: 
May 2003