Tag Archives: Louis Prima

Nighttime in the switching yard

It has been hot and steamy in our corner of Wisconsin for much longer than usual this summer. It is, in reality, a typical Wisconsin summer. But not one we’ve had for several years.

On nights like these, muggy nights that follow muggy days that feel like you have to swim through the air, it takes me back to Grandma’s house.

Grandma and Grandpa rented an old house that backed onto the railroad tracks in their small town in south-central Wisconsin. An old wood frame house with cheap asphalt siding that mimicked bricks.

To me, it was just Grandma’s house. One of my junior high friends came along once. He took one look at the place and was mortified.

Grandma and Grandpa were poor. Grandpa was disabled, forced from work in his 50s by a heart condition and then emphysema. They lived on a pension and Social Security. They’d been poor for a long time by the time my friend saw them in the early ’70s.

When we came to visit, my brother and I would share the smallest of three small upstairs bedrooms. There was no air conditioning, only a small sliding screen wedged into the window. On sultry nights, we’d plop into the old twin beds and hope for a breeze.

What I remember most vividly about those nights, aside from the heat that enveloped you, were the sounds of the rail yard. It was out our window, across the small back yard, not even 100 yards to the east.

We’d hear the diesel locomotives rev up, reach a sustained pitch and then throttle back down and they shuffled in and out of the rail yard. Later at night, or early in the morning, we’d hear them idling.

The heat made it hard enough to sleep. The sounds of the rail yard only compounded the problem. You eventually faded, though.

Now if you came all this way and thought you were getting a Warren Zevon song, well, sorry. That tune doesn’t have the right vibe.

Rather, it’s this, which drags along like all parties are being forced to play on a hot, steamy night in a ramshackle old place hard by the tracks.

“Night Train,” Louis Prima, from “The Wildest!” 1957.

That’s Sam Butera blowing that lonely sax.

(Still hacked off about no Zevon? Come on. If I’d headlined this post “Hot August Night,” you’d have passed without reading a word.)

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Filed under August 2010, Sounds

That new adventure

You may know Ernie Harwell. He was the radio voice of the Detroit Tigers for almost 40 years, retiring in 2002. Ernie is 91.

Ernie is dying. He learned this summer that he has cancer of the bile duct.

Ernie is so beloved in Detroit that he had to use his newspaper column to thank everyone who reached out to him after learning of his diagnosis. He’d received 10,000 cards and letters.

On Christmas Day, on the front page of the Detroit Free Press, Ernie wrote:

“This year, I’m not sending [Christmas] cards. Last July, doctors gave me only six months (more or less) to live. That was five months ago. I am still hanging around. But, while getting ready for my new adventure, I’m not dying to send out cards.”

Beautiful.

It wasn’t the first time Ernie had put it that way. When he announced his diagnosis in September, he said:

“Whatever’s in store, I’m ready for a new adventure.”

Beautiful.

For those of us of a certain age, some sports broadcasters — particularly baseball announcers — are part of the family. We’ve spent that much time together.

I’ve been listening to Bob Uecker call the Milwaukee Brewers since I was 13. Bob is still calling the Brewers. He’ll be 75 next month. Nothing lasts forever, so last summer, I listened to more Brewers baseball on the radio than I had in some time, if only to savor Bob’s home-run calls.

When Bob started calling the Brewers in 1971, he worked with another guy who was part of the family. We lost that guy this year.

The smooth Merle Harmon is on his new adventure. So are these folks:

Patrick McGoohan, 80, Jan. 13. I was 11 when they aired “The Prisoner” in the U.S. in 1968. I had no idea what was going on. I still may not.

Ricardo Montalban, 88, Jan. 14. The best “Star Trek” villain ever. That bug-in-the-ear thing still creeps me out.

Billy Powell, 59, Jan. 28. Without the piano player, I think Lynyrd Skynyrd is really gone now.

Martin Lange, 82, Feb. 17. One day in 1958, he took the boss’ idea and ran with it. In just a half-hour, he threw together a couple of 3½-inch radio speakers, some cardboard backing and an old headband and created the prototype for the first Koss Stereophone. I’ve used Koss headphones from Milwaukee forever. I recently wrecked the cord on my old pair, and I found a new, improved pair under the tree on Christmas Day.

Eddie Bo, 79, March 18. A giant in New Orleans R&B. I learned everything I know about Eddie Bo from the music blogs. Thanks, Dan. Thanks, Larry.

Irving R. Levine, 86, March 27. The NBC economics reporter who wore a bow tie. Nice.

Merle Harmon, 82, April 15. Merle read my name on the air during a Brewers broadcast one summer night. I think it was 1974. I’d sent him a fan letter and had forgotten about it until he finally got around to reading it. I was listening on the front porch at my grandparents’ house. A big thrill, even for a high school kid.

Dom DeLuise, 75, May 4. Pals with Dean Martin, then Burt Reynolds. That guy must have had a lot of fun. Great cameo in “Blazing Saddles,” one of my favorite movies.

The Rev. Robert Cornell, 89, May 10. Priest, politician, professor … and rock promoter in our corner of Wisconsin.

Wayman Tisdale, 44, May 15. Good basketball player, good jazz musician. Gone too soon. A tough year for old-school NBA guys. Johnny “Red” Kerr, Norm Van Lier, Chuck Daly and Randy Smith also started new adventures.

Sam Butera, 81, June 3. Can I get some Witnesses? He was the wild sax player behind Louis Prima.

Ed McMahon, 86, June 23 … Farrah Fawcett, 62, June 25 … Michael Jackson, 50, June 25. Man, that was some week. Ed McMahon was another member of the family. Some fathers and sons play catch. My dad and I watched Johnny and Ed. … Do you remember where you were when you heard the news on June 25? … When you remember Michael Jackson, remember the Nicholas Brothers, too.

Walter Cronkite, 92, July 17. To a kid who was 7 when he decided he wanted to go into journalism, it was like going to reporting class every night at 5:30 p.m.

John Hughes, 59, Aug. 6. There are several guilty pleasures among his ’80s films.

Dominick Dunne, 83, Aug. 26. What a second act. Having crashed and burned after one career as a TV and film producer, he became a great crime reporter.

Patrick Swayze, 57, Sept. 14. If only as Bodhi in “Point Break.”

Henry Gibson, 73, Sept. 14. You really had to be there for “Laugh-In.” I wish I would have bought his comic poetry LP — “The Grass Menagerie” — when I came across it while crate digging last year.

Mary Travers, 72, Sept. 16. My dad had a Peter, Paul and Mary record. We listened to it endlessly as kids. Of course, it was the one with “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

Marvin Fishman, 84, Oct. 9, and Wesley Pavalon, 76, Dec. 12. They founded the Milwaukee Bucks in 1968 and presided over their great teams of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Al Martino, 82, Oct. 13. You know him from “The Godfather.” We know him a little differently over at Ray’s Corner.

Vic Mizzy, 93, Oct. 17. If only for the theme from “The Addams Family.”

Michelle Triola Marvin, 76, Oct. 30. I hear this, and I think immediately of Roger Ebert’s great story about a memorable 1970 interview with Lee Marvin. Not mentioned in that Esquire piece, but told later by Ebert: Lee’s dog walks into the room with a pair of panties in its mouth. Michelle says they’re not hers. “Bad dog!” Lee says.

Carl Ballantine, 92, Nov. 3. He was part of the crew on “McHale’s Navy.” His daughter — who was named for a horse tracktells a great story about his last day. “I gotta get out of here,” he said.

Ken Ober, 52, Nov. 15. Much like those old MTV Christmas videos posted here earlier this month, “Remote Control” seems quaint and innocent now.

Brittany Murphy, 32, Dec. 20. She really could sing, too.

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Filed under December 2009, Sounds

They still go in threes

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.

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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.

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“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.)

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“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.

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Filed under June 2009, Sounds

Another day at Ray’s Corner

Longtime readers know we occasionally stop by Ray’s Corner to listen to tunes spirited from my dad’s music collection.

So we’re back there on this Father’s Day, which this year follows Dad’s birthday by exactly one day. Dad turned 83 yesterday. He doesn’t get around too well anymore, but he’s still sharp.

Here, then, are a couple of tunes you might hear at Ray’s Corner. It’s the apartment with the loud music, and the place where the martinis are made of gin with the vermouth bottle held about a foot away.

They’re kind of laid back. Perfect for a lazy summer Sunday.

“Night Train,” Louis Prima, from “The Wildest,” 1957.

Dad was 31, and he and Mom had probably just learned I was on the way when this album was released in January 1957. It really is the wildest! It’s mostly swing, jazz and blues, but you can see rock and roll in the distance.

“Blue Light Boogie,” 1950, Louis Jordan and Trio, from “The Best of Louis Jordan,” released on vinyl in 1977 and on CD in 1989.

Dad was 25, still a single guy, when this tune hit the charts in August 1950. He was working as the agent at the Railway Express Agency office in the depot in his hometown of Elroy, Wisconsin. He was living at home, but you can be sure he got out and heard this tune on the jukeboxes of the day.

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Filed under June 2008, Sounds

Late to our own party

AM, Then FM quietly turned a year old earlier this week.

Quietly, as I told our friend Scholar over at Souled On the other night, because I was so busy earlier this week with other things that I hadn’t had time to do a one-year anniversary post.

Before we snap the caps on the bevvies …

Thanks to all the music fans who stop by regularly. Hope you’re finding tunes you dig. Thanks to all the music bloggers who have made us welcome and provided wise counsel.

Now, as Sports Illustrated’s Peter King says, some facts about AM, Then FM’s first year that may interest only me:

We did 212 posts. The “Three under the tree” series of Christmas tunes was by far the most popular thing we did all year.

Otherwise, our three most-read posts were on the 30th anniversary of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash, a novelty piece of Chicago house music from the ’80s and my favorite cut from the soundtrack to the Disney film”The Jungle Book.”

The No. 4 most-read post was from baseball’s opening day, but I suspect that has more to do with aging horndogs curious about a certain ballgirl once employed by the Cubs. She was mentioned and pictured in that post, and her name turns up almost every day in the search statistics.

So, what to expect in AM, Then FM’s second year? We’ll just keep on keepin’ on.

We have a lot of vintage vinyl (and a fair number of CDs) waiting to be ripped. Sleepy Sundays have ended, but we’re working up a year’s worth of posts on another of my faves. The Christmas tunes will return in November. Remember also that we take requests, so don’t be shy. Finally, I promise to try to write shorter than longer. Easier on everyone that way.

Today’s tune? A greatest hit of sorts. You liked it in September. Enjoy it again.

“I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song),” Louis Prima and Phil Harris, from “The Jungle Book” soundtrack, 1967, with dialogue featuring some of the other voice actors from the film. I don’t recall where I found this version, nor do I know its source.

And again.

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“I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song),” Louis Prima, Gia Maione and Sam Butera and the Witnesses, from “The New Sounds of the Louis Prima Show,” 1969. Dig the Hammond organ on this one. (The album is out of print, but it’s available as a download at Amazon and eMusic.)

After we posted this in September, our friend Larry from the wonderful Funky 16 Corners added this note: “I’d be willing to bet that the Hammond on that record is Richie Varola (Varhola), a young organ virtuoso that played/recorded with the Witnesses in the late 60’s/early 70’s. He did an LP for Verve as ‘Little Richie Varola’, which has some blistering cuts on it.”

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Filed under February 2008, Sounds

Midnight Tracker sampler, Vol. 3

Before David Lee Roth gone solo in 1985, there was Louis Prima.

Before Kid Rock at the Grammys, there was Prima at Keely Smith’s side.

Tonight on The Midnight Tracker, we have proof.

Check out Side 1 of “The Wildest!” That’s the classic 1957 album by Prima, Smith and their incendiary backing band, Sam Butera and the Witnesses.

Here’s a medley that helped set the tone for rock ‘n’ roll … even if the tunes that make up the medley were already 30 to 40 years old when Prima put them together.

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“Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” Louis Prima, from “The Wildest!” 1957.

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Filed under February 2008, Sounds

Three under the tree, Vol. 22

Tonight, we swing! Our three under the tree really have it going on.

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“What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’?),” Louis Prima and His New Orleans Gang, 1936, from “Santa Claus Blues,” a 1988 compilation on Jass Records. It’s out of print.

This is the oldest tune in my collection, but you can get a sense of the great Louis Prima as a hipster even in this early piece.

Prima was just 25 when he cut this tune, having just hit it big in the New York nightclubs. Not long afterward, he headed west to Los Angeles, where he worked until becoming a Las Vegas institution in the ’50s.

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“Jingle Bells,” Duke Ellington, 1962, from “Jingle Bell Jazz,” a 1985 compilation that combines two Columbia albums, “Jingle Bell Jazz” and “God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen.” This tune is from the former.

This starts a little slowly, then picks up the pace when the 12-piece horn section jumps in. That, of course, is Billy Strayhorn on the piano. Recorded in New York City on June 21, 1962. (I turned 5 years old that day.)

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“Winter Wonderland,” Alexander O’Neal, from “My Gift to You,” 1988.

No ’80s funk on this one. Rather, it’s an energetic big-band arrangement right out of the ’60s, with O’Neal’s smooth tenor rising and dropping to keep pace with the horns. Lee Blaskey — who also worked with Janet Jackson — produced, arranged and conducted this swinging backing track.

Enjoy. More to come. Time grows short for requests, so get ’em in.

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One more thing: Today was a most excellent day at the record store. Sitting at the front of a stack on the floor was “Snoopy and His Friends,” the 1967 album by the Royal Guardsmen. My friendly used vinyl merchant agreed to part with it for a most reasonable price.

If you picked up “Snoopy’s Christmas” earlier, circle back to Vol. 1 and get it again. This rip is better, with a richer sound.

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Filed under Christmas music, December 2007, Sounds