Keely Smith, Torch Singer With a Deadpan Role, Is Dead at 89
Posted December 18, 2017 10:09 p.m. EST
Keely Smith, a smoky-voiced singer with a pageboy bob who emerged in the early 1950s as the deadpan half of a Grammy Award-winning lounge act with Louis Prima, the ebullient, frenzied bandleader who became her husband, died Saturday in Palm Springs, California. She was 89.
Her publicist, Bob Merlis, said the cause was probably heart failure.
Smith began singing with Prima in 1948. But it was not until a few years later, when they were appearing at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, that they began to perfect their chemistry: Smith played the straight woman, offering little reaction except for rolling her eyes at Prima’s exuberant singing, dancing and gesticulations.
Her coolness amid Prima’s chaos cemented them as one of Las Vegas’ premier attractions and foreshadowed the style of Sonny and Cher in the 1960s.
“Their act,” Will Friedwald wrote in The New York Sun in 2005, “was a brilliant juxtaposition of maximalism and minimalism.”
Smith explained that her stoicism came naturally; when she was not singing, she said, she had nothing to do but watch the gravel-voiced Prima’s antics or the people entering and leaving the room.
There was some sassiness to her onstage persona. During a 1958 television appearance with Prima on the short-lived “The Frank Sinatra Show,” Sinatra asked her what they were going to sing.
“We?” Smith responded, having already jokingly told Sinatra that she did not need Prima.
“You and me,” Sinatra said.
“Oh, please,” she said, “I work alone.”
She would work alone after her divorce from Prima in 1961. But during their partnership, they recorded three singles that reached the Billboard Hot 100: “That Old Black Magic,” which rose to No. 18 in 1958 and won a Grammy Award for best performance by a pop vocal group or chorus; and, in 1959, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon,” which peaked at No. 69, and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which reached No. 95.
Dorothy Jacqueline Keely was born on March 9, 1928, in Norfolk, Virginia, to Howard Keely and the former Fannie Stevens. Her parents were divorced when she was young, and her mother married Jesse Smith, a carpenter. (She became Keely Smith when she changed her name professionally — not, as Prima had suggested, Dottie Mae Smith.)
She began singing at age 11 on a children’s radio show in Norfolk, and as a teenager she was singing with big bands for servicemen at local military bases. In summer 1947, on a trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, with her stepfather and her brother, Norman, she saw a sign advertising an appearance by Prima and his orchestra.
She was mesmerized by his energy, his humor and his almost primitive charm. The next year, Prima and his orchestra performed at the Surf Club in Virginia Beach, where he announced that he was looking for a new female singer.
When it was Smith’s turn to audition — as Dot Keely — she was barefoot and wearing a borrowed skirt.
“I started shaking,” she said on the website of the Concord Music Group, for whom she recorded in her later years. “I said, ‘No, no — I can’t do this.’ But he talked me into doing it. I sang ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘Sleepy-Time Gal,’ and he hired me on the spot.”
Smith wed Prima five years later, in 1953. He was nearly 20 years her senior and had been married three times.
They came to Las Vegas in its early years as an entertainment mecca. Big bands were fading. Smith and Prima were playing small clubs, barely making money, when the entertainment director of the Sahara Hotel offered them a two-week engagement.
They opened in November 1954 (Smith was pregnant with their first child at the time), along with Sam Butera, a high-energy tenor saxophonist, who arranged many of the band’s songs.
They became a long-running Las Vegas success and made regular appearances on television and in nightclubs.
“Their remarkable book of material, including a series of intricate melodies — most famously the combination of ‘Just a Gigolo’ and ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’ — were developed collectively, with Prima taking the lead role,” Friedwald wrote.
When they played Chicago in 1959, the critic Will Leonard wrote in The Chicago Tribune: “Louis Prima and Keely Smith may not put on the most aesthetic show in town. But, man, they put on the swingingest.”
Smith had begun a solo career during their marriage when she recorded the album “I Wish You Love” (1957), arranged by Nelson Riddle. It began in earnest after their divorce, although it was interrupted for an extended period to raise her daughters. Sinatra signed her to his label, Reprise Records, and they recorded the duet “So in Love” in 1963, also arranged by Riddle.
Smith told the Southern California newspaper The Desert Sun that Sinatra had asked her to marry him when her marriage to Prima was nearly over, but she rejected him, believing their union would not have worked.
“I didn’t drink,” she told The Associated Press. “I didn’t smoke. I truly believe in my heart that if we had gotten married, we would have divorced.”
She married again, to the record producer Jimmy Bowen, but that marriage ended in divorce. She later had a long-term relationship with the singer Bobby Milano, who died in 2006.
Smith became a regular at Manhattan cabarets in the 1980s, singing selections from her years with Prima and from the songbooks of Sinatra, Count Basie, James Taylor and the songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Reviewing a Manhattan performance in The New York Times in 2003, the critic Stephen Holden wrote: “Her voice still conveys a lush sensuality tinged with sadness, especially when she sings out. Most important, she balances the roles of zany, deadpan cutup and torch singer.”
A musical show about Smith and Prima, “Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara,” opened in 2008 at the Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles. It has since played at the Geffen Playhouse there and the Royal George Theater in Chicago.
In addition to her brother, Smith is survived by her daughters, Toni and LuAnne Prima, and a stepbrother, Stephen Smith. She reprised “That Old Black Magic” when she performed at the Grammy Awards in 2008, 50 years after she and Prima had released the song. This time, her partner was an unlikely choice: Kid Rock.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Kid Rock said at the end of their duet, “the still great, still sexy Keely Smith.”
Rolling Stone labeled it one of its 20 “weird and wild Grammy collaborations.”