Keely Smith could have easily been billed as “The Queen or First Lady of Las Vegas.” For nearly half a century, Smith entertained thousands of people visiting the nation’s home of gambling and entertainment. She first went to Las Vegas in the early 1950s and brought delight and pleasure to many who often stood in line to see her and spouse Louis Prima. As a headliner in only the most prestigious hotels in Nevada and elsewhere, Smith often began her act at midnight and five performances later wound her program to a close at 6 a.m. after bringing audiences to their feet. Many of her recordings over the years have been filled with upbeat tempos and high exuberance, but her presentation style of tenderness and perfect voice control has made her one of the best lyrical deliverers of ballads of all time.
Born Dorothy Jacqueline Keely on March 9, 1932, in Norfolk, Virginia, to Howard Keely and Fanny Stevens, she was the couple’s only daughter and the youngest of three children. Her father was of native American Cherokee and Irish descent and her grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. Her father was a carpenter and after her mother divorced him when Smith was nine years old, she later married Jesse Smith, who was also a carpenter. The Smiths later had a son. Keely recalled, “We lived in a very bad section of Norfolk called Atlantic City, and when I say bad, I mean every thief, every hooker, every anybody that did anything bad that landed up in jail came from this little section of town that I lived in.”
She began singing as a child and started her career with Joe Brown’s Children’s Radio Gang show in Norfolk when she was eleven, and later Smith sang with Norfolk bands as a teenager. She had gone to Brown’s studio to watch a friend, Rae Robinson, audition for his show and Brown asked her if she could sing. She tried out by singing “White Lies and Red Roses” and was selected, but her girlfriend was not. Each week she would go to the radio studio and pay $1 to learn a new song. Her family was very poor and her mother took in laundry to earn enough money to pay for the weekly song lessons. Brown used four to eighteen year old children to sing not only on his radio programs in Richmond and Norfolk, but at military bases on the weekends throughout Virginia. Using the skills she learned through song lessons, Smith participated in the programs. Although she received no pay, she learned the valuable lessons of microphone technique essential to the entertainment business. As Smith grew older, she became the group’s secretary and participated in World War II United States savings bond rallies by singing off the back of a truck in Norfolk with other children from Brown’s troupe. Smith never received vocal lessons during this time or throughout her career.
Smith’s performances with Brown’s group led to vocal performances at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk with
Born Dorothy Jacqueline Keely on March 9, 1932, in Norfolk, VA; daughter of Howard Keely, a carpenter, and Fanny Keely (nee Stevens); youngest of three children; married Louis Prima on July 13, 1953, and divorced October 3, 1961; married Jimmy Bowen, a record producer in 1965; divorced; married Bobby Milano, a vocalist and musical entertainer, April 1974; children, from her marriage to Prima: Toni, born 1955, and Louanne, born 1957.
Joined Louis Prima’s orchestra and later changed her name to Keely Smith, using both her original surname and that of her step-father, late-1940s; entertained United States armed forces personnel in Europe and Japan, early-1960s; remained in the Nevada and California areas for most of her career until she retired from Las Vegas nightclubs in 1998; continued her recording career and renewed her appearances in nightclubs around the United States, including appearances at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Orleans, 2000. Smith has received over 30 awards and has often donated her time to charitable causes including the American Cancer Society and the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles.
Addresses: Business —Keely Smith, c/o Keely Smith Enterprises, 3434 Oneida Way, Las Vegas, NV 89109.
Saxie Dowell and his Naval Air Station band three and four nights a week with no pay. Dowell was the composer of the 1939 hit song “Three Little Fishes.” She left Dowell and joined a local band leader, Earl Bennett, and was paid $5 a night, enabling her to pay for all of her school clothes, books, and other personal necessities. She stayed with Bennett for several years performing in nightclubs in the Norfolk area including the popular Surf Club. Her devoted mother accompanied her everywhere because she was underage.
When Smith was 15 years old, she and her family went to New York City on vacation during the summer of 1947, a trip she never dreamed would influence her life forever. Her family decided to abandon their New York vacation and go to Atlantic City instead where the seashore weather might provide a more favorable respite. One night she took her younger brother Busta to the famous Steel Pier because they were “jitterbug nuts” and she wanted to see which orchestra was playing. She recalled, “There was this man named Louis Prima, who we had never heard of before. We had never heard a record, never heard anything by him. And we heard this music coming in as we walked up to the ballroom and I looked at my brother and said, ’My goodness, who is this man? This band is wonderful.’ But when we got in there, it was unbelievable what was going on. Half the people were dancing and the other half were standing around the bandstand. I edged my way up to the stage and placed my little brother on the stage, and I stood there absolutely mesmerized watching this man. I just stood there dumbfounded. I had never seen anything like it before. Besides being one of the best bands to dance to, they were funny. The comedy was unbelievable.”
When she returned to Norfolk, she went to the Surf Club and talked to the manager, Mr. Cain, about the band she had seen that was so terrific, and she encouraged him to bring the group to his club. The Surf Club was known for always bringing in the very top bands, but Cain had never heard of Prima and his orchestra. The following summer the Surf Club was jammed when Prima made his debut. “The audience couldn’t believe how good they were, and not only that, they were very funny,” she recalled. During one of his performances, Prima announced he was looking for a female vocalist for his band. Six members of Joe Brown’s troupe auditioned, but Smith did not. Prima had brought his wife on the tour and she learned from Smith’s brother, Piggy Keely, that he had a sister who could sing. When Prima learned from his wife that Smith could sing, she was pulled off the beach on a Sunday afternoon and asked to audition on the spur of the moment. She was wearing a bathing suit and had to borrow a blouse and a skirt for the audition. Barefoot, Smith sang “Sleepy Time Gal” and “Embraceable You” and was hired on the spot. Before that week was out in August of 1948, she was on the road with Prima and his orchestra touring the country.
Prima suggested Smith change her name to Dottie Mae Smith since her nickname was Dot and Smith was her stepfather’s name. But she said, “Why don’t you call me Keely Smith, because in those days everyone in school called everyone by their last name. They never called you Dot or Dottie, it was always Miss Keely.”
She began singing with Prima at the Paramount Theater in New York City, the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, Asbury Park, New Jersey, and returned for gigs in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and anywhere cities called for big band music. In 1949 when Prima and Smith returned to Virginia Beach, the Prima led band, as part of their act, left the stage and marched into the Atlantic Ocean playing and singing as they walked into the waves. By 1952 she was performing at the EI Rancho in Las Vegas but big bands were coming to an end and the Prima and Smith act was having difficulty finding work. By November of 1954 Prima and Smith were married and had found work in the Sahara Hotel lounge in Las Vegas after driving across country where they remained together until 1961.
In 1954 Prima and Smith formed a team which became a tremendous night club attraction in New York, Chicago, Hollywood, and especially Las Vegas. They developed a new style that dealt with a wide range of songs, from jazz to pop ballads, that brought them and the Prima orchestra to the height of popularity in the country. Besides Keely, the Prima entourage also featured Sam Butera and the Witnesses, a group that made many records which ranked high on the teen-age lists in the 1950s and 1960s. Prima had formed a band in 1934 called Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang, and the group made a long series of records for Brunswick and Vocalion. Prima to some came across as a musical clown, but those who worked with him almost invariably respected him for his first-rate musicianship and his contagious spirit.
Her movie career included appearances in three motion picture films including the classic 1958 film Thunder Road, for which she sang the soundtrack. Robert Mitchum got a hit record out of the title tune. Others included “Senior Prom” in 1958 and “Hey Boy! Hey Gir!” I in 1959 with Louis Prima in which Smith and Prima wrote part of the score. Her music has appeared in such films as The Deerhunter, Raging Bull, Analyze This, That Old Feeling, and Mad Dog and Glory.
Smith was signed to Capitol Records with her own recording contract in the mid 1950s. During her first recording sessions, Mr. Gilmore, the producer for Capitol Records, began to play songs for the purpose of providing selection possibilities for her first album. When he got to one song, he remarked that he was going to play a pretty French song, but that it didn’t mean anything. When Gilmore finished playing, Smith remembers remarking to Prima, “I’ll sing any eleven songs y’all want me to but you gotta let me sing “I Wish You Love.” Gilmore believed that the song was not among Smith’s best options, but Prima insisted, “If she wants to sing “I Wish You Love,” then she’s going to sing “I Wish You Love.” It has become one of the most beautiful love songs of all time and one of her signature songs. Written by the noted French composer and singer Charles Trenet in 1955 and called “Que Reste-til de Nos Amoursa,” it was featured by New York City cabaret singer Felicia Sanders. The song was also made popular by Gloria Lynne’s 1964 Everest recording, but it is Smith’s rendition that has delighted listeners for decades.
One of Smith and Prima’s greatest hits was Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic.” Although written in 1942 and a number one hit for the Modemaires, Prima and Smith revived it in 1958, making it another million dollar seller and a longtime favorite of the public. Mercer said, “That one came from one of the early Cole Porter songs I heard when I first came to New York. It was a song called “You Do Something to Me,” and it had a phrase in it—‘do do that voo-doo that you do so well.’ That thing about voodoo must have stuck with me, because I paraphrased it in “Old Black Magic.” It won a Grammy Award in 1958 for Best Vocal by a Group.
Another of Prima and Smith’s biggest hits was “Just a Gigolo.” It had been a popular Viennese song written in 1930 by Leonello Casucci and originally titled “Schoner Gigolo.” It was first introduced in the United States by Broadway singer Irene Bordoni and was a successful recording by Vincent Lopez and his orchestra. It later appeared in the 1946 musical film Lover Come Back that starred Lucille Ball before the Prima-Smith blockbuster revival.
In January of 1961, Prima and Smith appeared at the District of Columbia National Guard Armory for a gala to help raise money to pay off the Democratic campaign debt along with some of America’s top talent, including Frank Sinatra. They later appeared at the inaugural ball for newly-elected President John F. Kennedy. Later that year Prima and Smith’s marriage ended in divorce and she went solo beginning in 1962. In 1963 Smith had a top 20 hit in the United Kingdom, “You’re Breaking My Heart,” that remained on the top 20 British charts for five weeks, as well as a charted album of Beatles’ compositions. That same year she switched to the Reprise label, where Nelson Riddle was her musical director. In 1964, after she had gone solo, she traveled to Germany and Japan entertaining United States military personnel. Later, she also assisted the National Guard in recruiting campaigns. In 1975 Prima was operated on for a brain tumor and fell into a coma. He died in New Orleans in 1978.
For most of her career she has appeared in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Reno, Nevada and Palm Springs, California, nightclubs and hotels including the Desert Inn, The Thunderbird, The Sands, The Sahara in Las Vegas, as well as at the Paramount Theater, Apollo Theater, and Copacabana in New York City. She was a regular at the prestigious Mocambo Club in Los Angeles for years and in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as well as at many other nightclubs and venues around the United States.
Smith has recorded over 25 LP vinyl albums on the Capitol, Dot, Jasmine, Applause, Fantasy, Reprise, and PAUSA labels. She has also performed songs by such notable composers and lyricists as Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Sammy Cahn, Ira Gershwin, Jimmy VanHeusen, Jule Styne, Jimmy McHugh, George Gershwin, Joe Young, Harry Warren, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Johnny Burke, Rube Bloom, Brooks Bowman, Hoagy Carmichael, Einar A. Swan, Ruth Lowe, and Bernice Petkere. In 1958 Frank Sinatra recorded his last commercial issued 78 RPM record, which was a duet with Smith entitled “Nothing in Common” on the Capitol label. She has also worked with George Greeley, Don Menza, Dennis Michael Zuvich, Nell Carter, Bud Shank, Bill Perkins, Dinah Shore, Billy Vaughn, H. B. Barnum, Frank Sinatra, Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Ernie Freeman, Brad Benedict, Bill Miller, Kurt Reher, Alex Murray, Murray Kellner, Arthur Herfurt, Fred Falensby, Victor Bay, Eleanor Slatkin, Joseph Saxon, William Hinshaw, Alton Hendrickson, Alex Beller, Vincent DeRosa, Gerald Dolin and Juan Tizol.
Her television credits include the Ed Sullivan Show, the Andy Williams Show, and the Dean Martin Show, as well as many other guest appearances. In 1999 she appeared on an A&E cable television network biography special about the “Rat Pack.” In addition, she played the part of Julie in a summer stock production of Jerome Kern’s Showboat. After she appeared on the Johnny Carson Show in New York singing “Little Girl Blue,” composer Richard Rodgers was so impressed that he offered her the lead role in the London production of his 1962 hit musical No Strings. It was his first production after the death of his partner Oscar Hammerstein II, but she turned it down.
In recent times she has appeared at the House of Blues in Hollywood and Los Angeles accompanied by a 14-piece orchestra. She is currently working on her autobiography, and a new tribute CD entitled Keely Sings Sinatra is scheduled for release in 2000. She has made Las Vegas, Nevada, her home for many years.
Be My Love, Dot DLP 3241
Because You’re Mine, Dot DLP 3415
Dearly Beloved, Dot DLP 3387
The Hits of Louis & Keely Capitol SM 1531
I Wish You Love, Applause APCL 3325
I’m In Love Again, Fantasy F9639
The Intimate Keely Smith, Reprise RS 6132
Keely Christmas, Dot DLP 3345
Keely Smith-I Wish You Love, PAUSA PR 9052
The Lennon-McCartney Songbook, Reprise 6142
Little Girl Blue, Little Girl New, Reprise R9-6086
Louis & Keely, Dot DLP 25210
Louis Prima Digs Keely Smith, Coronet CXS-121
On Stage, Louis Prima & Keely Smith, Dot DLP 25266
Politely!, Capitol ST 1073
Return of the Wildest, Dot, DLP 3392
Swing You Lovers, Dot DLP 3265
Swingin’ Pretty, Capitol T-1145
That Old Black Magic, Reprise 6175
Together, Dot DLP 25263
Twist with Keely Smith, Dot DLP 3423
What Kind of Fool Am I, Dot DLP 3461
The Wildest! Applause, APCL 3324
Be My Love, Jasmine JASCD 321
Because You’re Mine, Jasmine JASCD 333
CheroKeely Swings, Jasmine JASCD 323
Dearly Beloved, Jasmine JASCD 328
The Hits of Louis & Keely, Capitol 91208
Keely Christmas, Jasmine JASCD 329
Live Guard Sessions 1963, Jazz Band EBCD 2109-2
Sinatra 80th, All the Best, Capitol 35952-2
Spotlight on Keely Smith, Capitol 80327
Swing, Swing, Swing, Concord 48822
Swing You Lovers, Jasmine JASCD 322
Twist/Doin’ the Twist, Jasmine JASCD 334
What Kind of Fool Am I, Jasmine JASCD 324
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Lissauer, Robert, Lissauer’s Encyclopedia of Popular Music in America 1888 to the Present, Paragon House, 1991.
Maltin, Leonard, Movie and Video Guide 1995, Penguin Books Ltd., 1994.
McAleer, Dave, The All Music Book of Hit Singles From 1954 to the Present Day, Miller Freeman Books, 1994.
Osborne, Jerry, Rockin Records, Osborne Publications, 1999.
Simon, George T., The Big Bands, Macmillan Company, 1967.
Simon, William L., Readers Digest Treasury of Best Loved Songs, Reader’s Digest General Books, 1991.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, St. Martin’s Press, 1966.
Wilk, Max, They’re Playing Our Song, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1973.
“Dorothy ’Keely’ Smith,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/x.dll (February 2000).
Greg Purcott Productions, http://www.gpproductions.com/acts/grant.htm (January 2000).
“Jumpin Jive, A Tribute to Louis Prima,” http://www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Square/2077/page1.html (June 30, 2000).
“Keely Smith,” All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com (February 2000).
Universal Stuidos, http://www.mca.com (February 2000).
Additional information was obtained through interviews with Keely Smith on October 13, 1999, and February 9, 2000.
—Francis D. McKinley
"Smith, Keely." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-keely
"Smith, Keely." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved December 12, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-keely
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