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Remembering the King of Swing 

On the 25th anniversary of Louis Prima's death, his widow Gia Prima talks about his life and her ongoing efforts to trumpet his legacy.

"It doesn't feel like it's been that long," says Gia Prima. "I have to look at my children to realize the years have flown by."

The years have indeed flown by. Sunday, Aug. 24, marked the 25th anniversary of the death of New Orleans native Louis Prima, the clowning, irrepressible vocalist and bandleader who introduced one generation to "That Old Black Magic" and "Just A Gigolo" and then taught another how to "Jump, Jive an' Wail."

The circumstances of Prima's death make the anniversary that much more poignant: In October 1975, Prima lapsed into a coma at Los Angeles' Mount Sinai Hospital while undergoing surgery to remove a benign tumor from the stem of his brain. He never regained full consciousness. For almost three years, the vivacious, hyperkinetic showman lay in a hospital bed, first in Los Angeles and then at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. All through that period, Gia Maione Prima, 30 years his junior and the mother of two of his children, sat by his bedside.

"He would be 93 this year," says Gia, who auditioned to be Prima's female vocalist in 1962 and soon found herself with both a job and a husband. "I know that if he had not had that tumor, or if they would have had the lasers and techniques they have today, he'd still be going strong."

At 62, Gia Prima is herself going very strong. She sang with Prima from 1962 through 1975, taking a break from the rigorous performance schedule only long enough to raise their two children, Louis Jr. and Lena. At the time of her husband's death, Gia had moved to the family's home in Covington and was managing their golf course property, Happy Acres. She returned to Las Vegas to protect her assets in 1979 but returned to Louisiana four years later. She lived in Covington from 1983 until 1993, when she returned to her native New Jersey.

After a long period maintaining a relatively low profile, Gia has emerged in the last year with a score of projects aimed at keeping the Prima legacy alive. First and foremost among them was the October 2002 release of eight Prima records previously unavailable on CD. Recorded between 1964 and 1975 for Prima's own Prima One label, the records document an unjustly neglected chapter in Prima's life. "For me, it was not a monetary thing because there's not going to be any top 10 hits with today's music as it is," Gia says. "The main thing for me was his legacy needed to be completed."

Completing Prima's legacy would have been accomplished much sooner were it not for the entertainer's inveterate romantic streak. Prima was married five times, and in the wake of his death, lawsuits by Keely Smith, Prima's ex-wife and partner, and others tied up the estate for 15 years. It wasn't until 1994 that the estate was finally settled and Gia assumed control of Prima's archives. It took her several years after that, she says, to locate and organize the tapes and to digitally remaster them for release. "We had offers from other record companies, but they were going to cut them up," Gia says. "I wanted to keep the integrity of each album as he put them out with the artwork and covers."

Promoting this legacy has become a full-time job for Gia. As the manager of Prima's estate, she is responsible for licensing his music for use in films, television and advertising. While his music may not be as omnipresent as it was at the height of the retro swing craze, when the Gap turned Prima's "Jump, Jive an' Wail" into a memorable advertisement for khakis, it remains a very marketable commodity. Prima recordings are currently featured on commercials for GMC and Commerce Bank, and a Prima song was featured in the recent Adam Sandler movie Anger Management.

Since first achieving national success in the 1930s, Prima's music has remained popular in each subsequent era. Gia recalls hearing David Lee Roth's reverent cover of "Just A Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody" while shopping with her mother at a department store in the 1980s. "I thought to myself, 'Yes, it's wonderful, he's here,'" she recalls. "No matter where you went, you heard Louis' song."

Gia Prima has not been shy about protecting her assets. She sued Disney over royalties from the home video and DVD sales of The Jungle Book, which featured Prima's voice in the role of King Louie the Orangutan, and she has sued both the Olive Garden restaurant chain and Campbell's soup for the unauthorized use of Prima's music or likeness. "I don't know what their motivation was, but it's a shame when you have to do things like that," she says. "But this is our livelihood, our bread and butter. For entertainers and musicians, this is what their 401K is -- royalties. You hate to have to do that; it would be so nice if everybody would just be good and do the right thing."

Gia is also not shy about challenging swipes at her husband's reputation. In the liner notes to a box set of Prima's Capitol recordings, a writer suggested that Prima, in the years following his break-up with vocalist Keely Smith, was reduced to playing bowling alleys; Gia was not amused. "The Copacabana, the Sahara Hotel, the Sands Hotel, Harrah's Reno in Tahoe, Ben Maksik's Town and Country, the Palmer House in Chicago," she says. "They're bowling alleys? He never played a room that wasn't standing room only. From the time I went with him in 1962 until the end, it was always standing room only."

Another mischaracterization of Prima, Gia says, is that offstage he was a brooding loner prone to tantrums. "If you watch the DVD of (the Prima documentary) The Wildest, our children are interviewed," Gia says. "They say over and over again it was so much fun. I can tell you there was never a cross word between Louis and myself, or Louis and anybody else. He would never use curse words or vulgarity. He had no temper. None. We had a golf course in Vegas, and he'd come in the back door of the house and slam the door and -- he called me Ange, short for Angel -- and he'd holler, 'Oh, Ange! Where are you!?' So immediately, the minute he walked in the door, it was heaven-like."

Another source of disappointment to Gia is the treatment Prima has received from his beloved New Orleans. While the city has recently gone to great lengths to celebrate the life and legacy of Louis Armstrong, Prima -- a friend of Armstrong's who maintained close ties to the city throughout his life -- remains largely unacknowledged.

"Louis isn't recognized at all," Gia says. "In fact, I had an email from one of the fans that went to New Orleans and couldn't believe that there was nothing. Not anywhere."

The affront begins, Gia says, the moment one arrives in New Orleans. A colorful triptych by artist Richard Thomas in the Delta terminal of Louis Armstrong International Airport depicts a cavalcade of New Orleans music legends, including Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and Harry Connick Jr. Prima is nowhere to be found.

More recently, a private nonprofit organization, New Orleans Musical Legends Inc., with partial funding from the New Orleans City Council, erected statues honoring Pete Fountain and Al Hirt in a new park on Bourbon Street dedicated to the city's musical heritage. Louis Armstrong has a park, a statue and a festival in his honor. Other than a street in eastern New Orleans, Louis Prima has nothing, which breaks Gia's heart. "Louis loved New Orleans," she says. "There wasn't a night that went by in performances that he didn't do 'Basin Street' or his New Orleans medley. He'd tell people about Mardi Gras and second line."

In the meantime, while she has faith the city will one day designate a fitting tribute to Prima, Gia isn't waiting around. She formed a company, Prima Music LLC, to coordinate the release of Prima CDs, and she recently launched an official Web site,, to promote his life and recordings. In the offing are books, CDs and DVDs.

To begin with, she hopes to release on DVD Prima's 1961 film Twist All Night, which she owns the rights to. She also has two additional Prima One CDs slated for release next year, Blast Off! and a collection of singles that weren't included on any of his albums.

Gia plans to publish two books about Louis, a coffee-table book of photographs and memorabilia ("We're calling it a 'cocktail-table' book," she notes) and an authorized biography, which she hopes will set the record straight once and for all.

During his lifetime, Prima was reportedly reluctant to reveal stories about his life to journalists because he hoped to save them for a proposed film project. Prima didn't live to see his life captured on the silver screen, but Gia hopes to commission a screenplay. "We've been contacted by several entities regarding the movie of his life," Gia says. "In my opinion, there's only one person I believe could play Louis today."

And that is ...?

"John Travolta. He has the rhythm, he's an Italian, and he has that devilish twinkle in his eye. The only thing he has to learn is the New Orleans flavor, and I know he could do that."

click to enlarge Louis and Gia Prima in one of their final - performances, onstage at the Monteleone Hotel's - Skylite Room in 1975. - THE LOUIS PRIMA ARCHIVES/GIA M. PRIMA
click to enlarge Louis and Gia Prima at the train station, circa - 1960s. - THE LOUIS PRIMA ARCHIVES/GIA M. PRIMA
click to enlarge Louis Prima celebrates his birthday on Dec. 7, - 1974, with actor Paul Burke in New Orleans. It was - his last birthday before lapsing into a coma in - October 1975. - THE LOUIS PRIMA ARCHIVES/GIA M. PRIMA
  • The Louis Prima Archives/Gia M. Prima
  • Louis Prima celebrates his birthday on Dec. 7, 1974, with actor Paul Burke in New Orleans. It was his last birthday before lapsing into a coma in October 1975.
click to enlarge Louis Prima strikes a pose at the Monteleone Hotel - before his 1975 performance. - THE LOUIS PRIMA ARCHIVES/GIA M. PRIMA


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