Born: March 9, 1932 Primary Instrument: Vocal
The “Queen of Las Vegas” swing, Keely Smith, is one of the last living legends of the great Rat Pack era of the 1950s and ‘60s. For nearly half a century, the Cherokee-Irish singer has thrilled audiences around the world, entertaining music fans with unequaled charm. Keely is perhaps best known for her partnership with Louis Prima, with whom she helped turn Las Vegas into an entertainment mecca for the rich, the famous and everyone in between.
Keely’s royal ascent began in Norfalk, Virginia, where she, aged just 11-years old, became a regular on a popular, Saturday morning children’s radio program, “Joe Brown’s Radio Gang.” By 16, she was singing professionally alongside local big bands, entertaining servicemen at local Army, Navy and Marine bases and, more importantly, getting a chance to experience the swing movement first-hand. However, a chance to audition for Louis Prima, one of the hottest musicians on the scene in a vibrant post-war America, changed everything.
Prima’s forte was his animated, trumpet-carrying swagger that mixed his music with humor and an unforgettable gravel voice. On his visit to Virginia Beach in 1948, he would discover that Keely’s sizzling vocal delivery perfectly suited his established swing orchestra. They went on to tour the country, her with older brother Piggy as her chaperone. The pair soon fell in love, marrying in 1953. Only a few years later, they, Keely pregnant with their first child, brought their unbeatable act to Las Vegas and opened wider horizons for both. What was initially a two week gig at Sahara’s Casbar Lounge went on to help change the face of Las Vegas entertainment.
Louis Prima and Keely Smith gave their audiences a study in contrasts, both musically and physically. She was half his age, and much prettier to look at than the gregarious male Sicilian with broad features and a coarse attitude. But it was her contrasting deadpan humor and clarion vocal tone that brought out the best in their act. Together, Louis and Keely gave Las Vegas a fun-filled musical show that melted the icicles off those neon light fixtures and plastic geraniums.
By 1959, they were the hottest show in town, filling the Sahara Hotel and Casino with a veritable who’s who, from Frank Sinatra, Spencer Tracy and Howard Hughes, to Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy and Humphrey Bogart. They were “King and Queen of Las Vegas.” “That Old Black Magic” won them a Grammy Award, and Dinah Shore introduced them on her television show as, “the greatest nightclub act in the country.”
In 1961, Smith divorced Prima, she then signed to Reprise Records, where her musical director was Nelson Riddle. In 1965, she had Top 20 hits in the UK with an album of Beatles compositions and a version of You're Breaking My Heart.
Keely made a well-received comeback in ’85 with I'm In Love Again. Her recent albums for Concord; “Swing, Swing, Swing” (2002), “Keely sings Sinatra,” (2001 - for which she was Grammy nominated), and “Keely Swings Count Basie Style with Strings” (2002) have garnered much critical and fan acclaim.
Most recently, Smith released “Vegas '58 � Today,”(Concord) a compilation album of her best known songs, all recorded live at Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York City, Keely’s golden pipes are heard in top form, revealing a fascinating and unparalleled combination of clarity, power, expression, and swing. This record is superbly reviewed here at ‘all about jazz.’
“Keely Smith is still an icon of swing, one of the most beloved female crooners of her generation, since Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee died, maybe the high priestess of the cult. She’s in the best voice she’s enjoyed in years.” � Rex Reed