Sax Swing Legend Sam Butera Still Knows How To Blow.
By Ron Bally
NOVEMBER 16, 1998: THE ORIGINAL KING of swing, Louis Prima, would be turning over in his grave if he heard ex-Stray Cat/neo-swing rocker Brian Setzer's recently updated version of his seminal swing hit "Jump, Jive and Wail," according to Sam Butera, Prima's bandleader/song arranger for 20 years.
"I heard the guy's (Setzer) recording and I think it sucks," Butera confirms emphatically via a phone interview from a hotel room near the Mohican Sun Casino in Connecticut last week, where he was performing in the midst of a three-week East Coast tour.
"My honest opinion is they're (today's neo-swing revivalists) playing the songs, but they ain't playing them the way they should be played," he adds. "I don't think their arrangements swing at all. If you listen to that commercial (Gap jeans)--that's us (Prima and Butera). That's the way it should be played. I think if Louis heard this guy's version, he would definitely be upset."
The outspoken, 71-year-old Butera doesn't mince words when it comes to defending Prima's vulgar mixture of Dixieland, swing, jazz and R&B. He plans to unleash his own vibrantly original arrangements on the Old Pueblo when his hot six-piece swing combo rocks the Rialto Theatre on Saturday night.
Although Prima died in 1978 (he lapsed into a coma in 1975 following surgery for a brain tumor and never recovered), Butera didn't retire to a boring life of golf and bingo in the desert wasteland of Las Vegas, his home of nearly 45 years. He's been playing non-stop on the (now dwindling) lounge circuit on the notorious Strip since Prima asked him to move there and become bandleader of the Witnesses' in 1954.
"I love it here (Las Vegas)," admits Butera. "When I first moved to Vegas there was maybe 30,000 people, now you got 1.3 million. Yeah, I've seen a lot of changes--that's an understatement, pal."
He doesn't think Vegas deserves the bum rap it's gotten all these years because of gambling, prostitution and mob-related activities.
"It's changed positively because of the abundance of people. It's definitely more family-oriented now," he offers.
What's kept him slugging away on the volatile Sin City club scene all these years?
"Well, because I enjoy what I do," he says matter-of-factly. "We all get tired, but I still love entertaining people--something I learned from watching the best (Prima)."
Since the meteoric rise in neo-swing music during the past year because of groups like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Setzer's big band orchestra, Butera has been inundated with performance requests.
"We got all the work we want now," he says laughing. "We get requests from people all over the country to come and play. It's amazing."
But obtaining gigs on the Strip these days has gotten a lot tougher for Butera and his veteran band.
"That's the only thing wrong with this town (Vegas)," Butera fumes. "They don't have enough lounges to play anymore. They all either closed or been knocked down--it's a shame. They (club owners) don't want to come up with the bread, so you go out on the road and make twice as much money."
Butera, the grandson of Italian immigrants, was born August 17, 1927, in New Orleans. He began playing clarinet in grade school and graduated to tenor saxophone in high school. In 1946 Look magazine named him the "Best High School Saxophonist in America."
Right out of high school, he performed with big band leaders like Tommy Dorsey, Ray McKinley and Hal MacIntire. He quickly tired of the grueling tour schedule and retreated to the Crescent City to form his own band. He played a four-year stint at the 500 Club in the French Quarter, owned by Prima's brother, Leon. His acquired influences along the way included jazz pioneers Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Ventura, and R&B honkers like Big Jay McNeely, Illinois Jacquet and Gene Ammons. He was greatly influenced by 'Nawlins sax stalwart Lee Allen, who had a stylishly raw tone that transcended rock and roll, blues and jazz.
BY THE mid-'50s, and the impending advent of rock and roll, vocalist/trumpeter Louis Prima was all but washed up and begging for work. He and his singing partner/wife Keely Smith initially flopped as headliners at El Rancho in Vegas. Almost flat broke because of his insatiable appetite for betting on the horses and alimony payments to three ex-wives, Prima was offered a three-year deal as lounge headliner at the infamous Sahara Hotel.
Prima's loud, comical novelty songs with Italian subject matter and off-color wisecracks were an immediate success. After the first Sahara gig, Prima decided he needed a new, more energetic band. His brother suggested he hire Butera.
Butera's vigorous sax playing also gave Prima's music an extra shot of adrenaline, the vitality of youth, which gave him an anxious quality which genuinely qualified him as an early proto-rock-and-roller. Butera was known for blasting forth a screaming sax solo while lying on his back--no one else but McNeely had ever attempted this acrobatic feat before that.
In 1958, their recording of "Old Black Magic" became a stupendous hit, boosting their drawing power for nearly two decades. Prima was commanding nearly $10,000 a week during the height of his success. When Smith divorced Prima and left the band, other vocalists were brought in, but without the same results. Prima and Butera remained together into the early '70s. Dismissed by critics throughout most of his career, Prima is only now getting some of the respect he deserves as both an excellent trumpet player, a vocalist of flamboyant phrasing, a songwriter of incredible scope and a visionary who greatly influenced the course of rock and roll. Butera says simply, and with great affection, playing with Prima was "loads of fun.
"He was the greatest," he continues. "He was great because he could write lyrics, and he had fantastic timing and rhythm. I miss him dearly."
Up until recently, Butera, with his band the Wildest, had been re-teaming with Smith several weeks a year in Vegas, recreating the old '50s show, with Butera taking Prima's parts. Unfortunately, now they don't even speak.
"I don't work with her anymore," Butera says firmly. "We could never get along," he ends without further discussion. When asked if Smith's performing solo these days, Butera testily responds: "I have no idea."
What makes swing music, and especially Prima's unique brand of jump-style blues, sound timeless is that it's probably the only genre of Americana music today which crosses multi-generations: Grandparents, parents and their children are all listening together and enjoying.
"Louis' music is so timeless because today's kids' mothers and fathers played them our music when they were young, and now that they're grown up, they want it back again," Butera explains. "It's that simple, man."
Butera also relishes playing to the younger generation of swing lovers. "They love to dance to this music, and everyone's so enthusiastic it's a pleasure to play to them," he says. "I love the kids, And the parents are responsible for this enthusiasm."
Butera doesn't appear to be slowing down one bit. Future plans for this jive-talkin' grandfatherly hepcat include a recording session next January with Van Morrison. Butera sheds little light on the subject and would only say that his agent and Morrison are working out the details. Will it be a swing album, all the kids will want to know? "Well, we'll have to sit down and talk about," he chuckles.
"I'll tell you," reveals a nostalgic Butera. "It's been a great life, but it ain't over yet."
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