Koko Taylor. Sam Butera. David Carradine. All gone in the last day.
Yep, they still go in threes.
I’ll leave Miss Taylor to the blues enthusiasts and Mr. Carradine to the film enthusiasts.
Sam Butera, who was 81 when he died Wednesday in Las Vegas, almost certainly is the least known of the three. He was the frenzied yet disciplined sax player who helped forge Louis Prima’s wild, swinging jazz sound in the ’50s and ’60s. It wasn’t rock, but you could see it in the distance.
Butera and his band, the Witnesses, helped make Prima one of the top draws in Vegas. That’s Butera above at right, on stage with Prima and singer Keely Smith at the Sahara in 1957. Prima and Butera, native sons of New Orleans, played together from 1954 to 1975.
Here’s what Prima’s widow, singer Gia Maione, told the Las Vegas Sun:
“Louis Prima’s true ace in the hole for 21 years was Sam Butera. I don’t care what vocalists were with Louis, his true ace in the hole was Sam Butera. Side by side, Louis and Sam kicked Las Vegas’ butt for 21 years. …
“I really do not believe over all of these years that Sam Butera got the accolades he deserved as a tenor saxophone player. I defy anyone to name someone that played better tenor sax that Sam Butera.”
Even if you can’t place Butera, you know his sound.
David Lee Roth’s cover of “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody?” That’s Butera’s arrangement and sax solo. Butera never got paid for it.
That Gap ad featuring “Jump, Jive an’ Wail?” That’s Butera’s arrangement and sax solo. Butera was paid $371 and received three pairs of pants that didn’t quite fit. He had to pay to have them tailored.
Here, then, the real sound of Sam Butera.
“Night Train” and “Oh Marie,” both featuring Sam Butera on sax, from “The Wildest,” Louis Prima, 1957. As the liner notes say, the former is a “slow, bluesy” instrumental. The latter, an “Italian evergreen,” swings. (The album link is to a remastered 2002 CD release.)
“St. Louis Blues,” featuring Sam Butera on sax, from “Louis Prima: Collector’s Series,” a 1991 CD compilation. Ain’t nothing bluesy about this rave-up from 1962. Butera’s scorching sax sets up Prima’s wild scatting.
Want to learn more about Sam Butera? That story in the Las Vegas paper is highly recommended, as is a 2000 interview by the Sun and an appreciation done by his hometown paper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune.