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DVD Review: Louis Prima: In Person

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The closest Louis Prima came to being a household name after he stopped performing was with David Lee Roth’s medley “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” an homage to one of Prima’s signature hits. As entertaining as the Van Halen star was/is, his wild days couldn’t hold a candle to the musical exuberance of Prima at his wildest. A new collection from S’More Entertainment just hints at the excitement of the man at his peak.

The slim-case packaging of Louis Prima in Person suggests dollar-store quality and the bad public-domain transfers I associate with it, but I am happy to report that these are good quality transfers, with one caveat. If the pre-television era fares better than some of the later transfers, that says less about the technical shortcomings than about the state of television preservation. Producer Joe Lauro’s notes explain that the obsolescent bulk of  two-inch video format in use in 1970s television means that many of Prima’s talk-show appearances during that decade are mouldering or worse in network archives.

Prima was born in New Orleans, and began his musical studies on the violin before giving that up for the trumpet and forming the musical personality showcased here. His early jazz recordings from the 1930s are enjoyable but his persona grew larger as he did, into a veritable Fred Flintstone of jazz. His most celebrated recordings are the duets he made with Keely Smith for Capitol Records in the 1950s – she played straight man to Prima’s clown. Smith and Prima broke up in 1960, and her replacement, Gia Maione, is the mother of Louis Prima, Jr., the host of this program. Prima continued to perform through the 1970s. His fashions and hair changed with the times, but he always maintained dignity and his signature charm, both of which are in full evidence in a 1971 version of “As Time Goes By,” complete with a frenzied electric piano solo.

Producer Joe Laura worked with director Don McGlynn on that filmmaker’s feature-length documentary Louis Prima: The Wildest. See that film for more background, by a fine maker of music documentaries (like this year’s gospel survey Rejoice and Shout). I wish a filmed performance existed of the Prima’s “Pleeza no Squeeza de Banana,” but despite that omission, Louis Prima in Person is a welcome addition to Prima studies.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.