Beginning her career as the female singer in Louis Prima’s band, and later
becoming famous as one half of their hugely successful Las Vegas lounge act,
Keely Smith's early achievements were tied to someone or something else.
Now in her 70s, she has found the renewed interest and acknowledgment of
her own talent to be immensely gratifying. "I’m thrilled that the resurgence is
of my career by myself because for many years everything I did was with Louis,
and now all of a sudden I’m being recognized on my own and that really is the
ultimate for me," she recounted to the Los Angeles Times.
Throughout the 1950s, Louis Prima and Keely Smith were the undisputed King & Queen of Las
Vegas and have been credited with essentially inventing the modern lounge act.
Performing five shows a night at the Sahara’s Casbar Lounge, they became a huge
draw for both the average blue-collar tourists as well as some of the biggest
celebrities at that time. On any given night, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy
Davis, Jr., Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Howard
Hughes, and the young Senator John F. Kennedy could be found in the audience.
Many of the show business elite would add to the audience’s enjoyment of the
show by affably heckling the duo and sometimes even getting up on stage to join
During this period, Capitol Records issued a series of chart-topping albums that
consisted of abridged versions of Louis Prima and Keely Smith’s beloved nightclub act. In
addition, Keely released I Wish You Love, a solo debut that confirmed her own
star power by receiving a GRAMMY nomination and selling over a million copies.
Keely’s appeal and renown is just as strong today, having survived several
decades, various musical trends and the fickle nature of the entertainment
industry. Actor Robert DeNiro and director Martin Scorcese have been long-time
fans of Keely’s and over the years have placed her music in numerous films,
including “The Deerhunter,” “Raging Bull,” “Analyze This,” “That Old Feeling,”
“Big Night” and “Mad Dog and Glory.”
The revival of the swing movement in the late ‘90s inspired The Gap retail chain
to use Louis Prima’s signature tune, "Jump, Jive and Wail" in one of its popular ad
campaigns. This renewed interest in swing and big band music also led to an
invitation for Keely to perform at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, where she
sang to a jam-packed crowd of admirers, both young and old. Most recently, Keely
has performed to SRO audiences across the country, including a five-night stop
in Atlantic City and a stint at Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York City.
Talks are currently underway to book Keely into Caesar’s in Las Vegas, bringing
her back full circle to where it all began.
Keely Smith is currently writing her autobiography, which has been a work in
progress for several years. "I started it about four years ago and then put it
aside," she explains. "When I read it, I wasn’t sure if I liked what I had
written, but now I’ve started on it again. I want to do it with complete
honesty, or not at all." And there are certainly plenty of lifetime experiences
to chronicle: winning one of the first-ever Grammy Awards in 1959, performing at
President Kennedy’s inauguration, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
and friendships with everyone from The Rat Pack to Elvis Presley.
"I have been very blessed in my life," says Keely Smith reflecting back. And as she
looks towards the future, there are even more accolades to receive and sold-out
shows still to come. In October of 2000 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, The Cherokee
Honor Society will bestow Keely with its prestigious Cherokee Medal of Honor.
"It’s the highest recognition that can be bestowed to a woman in the Cherokee
nation," she states proudly. The Medal of Honor is given out annually to
recipients whose achievements bring pride and honor to the Cherokee nation and
The incomparable Tony Bennett has gone on record naming Keely Smith "one of the
greatest jazz-pop singers of all time." What better candidate then to honor
Count Basie, one of the greatest bandleaders of all time. Further expanding her
audience and repertoire, Keely Smith once again pays tribute to an important
figure in her life with class, respect, and above all, an immense display of
pure talent. Merv Griffin says it best—“Keely is awesome!”