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Twilight Prima 

Sadly, New Orleans native and swing innovator Louis Prima wasn't alive to enjoy the swing revival of the '90s. But Prima's music lives on in numerous CD reissues, inclusion in films and television, and the still-vital work of his longtime bandleader and fellow New Orleanian Sam Butera. Now eight Prima recordings dating from 1963 to 1975 on his own label, Prima Magnagrove Records, have been reissued for the first time on CD (complete with original artwork and liner notes), with the blessing of Prima's bandmate and widow, Gia.

The New Sounds of the Louis Prima Show is a gem, featuring crisp recording and a Latin beat-version of "I've Got You Under My Skin" with a terrific duet vocal from Gia. Prima's balladry shines with his rich vocal on "Margie," while Butera scorches a powerful and lyrical solo on the instrumental "Exodus." Prima's comedy leanings are on full display on "Story 'Bout the Dog," a variation on "How Come My Dog Don't Bark When You Come Around" that features a humorous dialogue with Butera with choice lines "this dog had a rash he couldn't reach." The album also includes Prima's version of "I Wan'na Be Like You," originally recorded for Disney's The Jungle Book.

Prima was (and still is) a hero to New Orleans' large Italian-American community for embracing his heritage in song, and Angelina is a full CD of what Prima calls his "Italian novelties." The title track was inspired by Prima's mother Angelina, and Prima's love for family, tradition and laughs infuses every song. On "Felicia No Capicia," Prima sings of courting Felicia, who eats a "fortune in macaroni," but when Prima says, "I want to kiss you," the song's title then becomes an irresistible chorus. The CD also shows that Prima's occasional musical slapstick routines were just one side of his genius; it's hard to think of a more beautiful and genuine ballad sung from son to mother than Prima's version of "Mama," with its combined English and Italian lyrics.

Two of the gems of these eight CDs are two live recordings of Prima. King of Clubs documents Prima's legendary stage prowess during a performance at Harrah's Club on Lake Tahoe. The crackerjack band, led by Butera, rolls full-steam ahead on "Old Man River," while Butera shines again with his cool choruses on "Blues in the Night." The ambience is priceless; before and during the band's sail through its New Orleans roots on "Rampart St. Parade," you can hear the tinkling of silverware and glasses. It closes with Prima bursting at the seams on a raucous "Che La Luna." A second live set, Prima Show in the Casbar, was recorded at the midnight show at the Sahara Hotel's Casbar Theater. Throughout, Prima's vocals are a dynamite textbook of phrasing and dynamics; at his best, Prima sang jump numbers and standards like a blue-collar Frank Sinatra.

The Prima Generation '72 contains the truly bizarre "Symphony [sic] for the Devil," with writing credits given to M. Jagger and K. Richards, though the organ-fueled shuffle bears little resemblance to the dark Rolling Stones anthem.

The Wildest '75 was Prima's final recording. It shows Prima gamely keeping up with modern trends, and using a band of new young Witnesses on numbers like the Average White Band classic "Pick up the Pieces," where keyboardist Terry Ryan does some spacey Billy Preston-like clavinet fills. Guitarist Greg Moore cranks up a hard-edged version of "Ode to Billy Joe," and as the original LP liner notes attest, "This cat is very very heavy." The Wildest '75 also boast a James Bond-like version of "Sing, Sing, Sing" and a risque version of "Sheik of Araby." The whole album sports a warm and groovy '70s analog vibe, albeit with a touch of recording buzz. Prima's classic '50s and '60s recordings might have been the hit with the lounge crowd, but it's impossible to listen to Wildest '75 without thinking of lava lamps and black-light posters.

The CD closes with "Leaving You," a beautiful ballad that was eerily prescient, as Prima slipped into a coma later that year, and never recovered before his death in 1978. That track alone is worth the price of the CD, and while the rest of the material on Wildest '75 isn't essential Prima, it's a reminder of his bandleading acumen. At the time he recorded the album at the age of 63, Prima was still trying new sounds, recruiting only the finest musicians, and schooling them on the virtues of musicianship and entertaining. Those qualities are evident on all these reissues from Prima's Magnatone label -- showing that Prima was still a roaring lion in winter.

click to enlarge Eight new CD reissues, including this 1972 CD, show Louis Prima still making vital music late in his career.
  • Eight new CD reissues, including this 1972 CD, show Louis Prima still making vital music late in his career.
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