Keely Smith was a natural singer who was appearing with big bands by her early teens. Spotted by Louis Prima in 1949, Smith toured with the New Orleans singer-musician for several years without notable success. At a financial low point in the mid-1950s, the duo was hired in Las Vegas to grind out after-hours sets at the Sahara’s Casbar Lounge.
It was an odd, infectious act — Prima ever the clowning, effervescent front man while Smith stood at the back of the stage or away from the microphone wearing a detached, diffident and even disdainful look on her deadpan face at all of his hep-cat gyrations. At some point, she would deign to join in, and they’d zoom off on swing arrangements of up-tempo tunes like “Don‘t Worry ‘Bout Me,” “Hey Boy, Hey Girl,” and, irresistibly, “That Old Black Magic,” which in 1959 won them the first-ever Grammy Award for best performance by a vocal group or chorus.
Over a five-year period the couple became Vegas’ hottest lounge act. With her trademark bob, deadpan demeanor and seductive voice, Smith was an ultra-cool counterpoint to the hyper-ventilating singer-trumpeter Prima, as their hard-swinging six-man backup band, the Witnesses, slapped out quick-tempo, saxophone-dominated arrangements.
Though Prima was initially the duo’s dominant force, things changed, in part because of Smith, who emerged as a strong singer in her own right, particularly of ballads. Around 1960, she caught the caught the eye of a powerful outside force — Frank Sinatra. Smith had married Prima, 22 years her senior, in 1953, but his infidelities were ongoing, and Sinatra made it clear that his interest, both on-stage and off, was in Smith more than the duo. They had a brief affair, he proposed, but she turned him down.
Smith acknowledged in a 2002 interview with the Associated Press that she and Sinatra had a relationship, but that she turned down the singer when he proposed marriage, in part because of her desire for a domestic life: “I would never fit into his life. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t cuss. I truly believe in my heart if we had gotten married, we would have divorced.”
Gradually, Smith branched into a solo career, singing in the 1958 movie “Thunder Road,” and having her first hit with 1961’s “I Wish You Love.” But a desire to raise her children and the ascent of rock 'n’ roll caused her career to fade away in the '60s and early '70s. Smith had two daughters, both with Prima — Toni and LuAnn. She raised them after she and Prima divorced in 1961. Smith remarried twice, first to Jimmy Bowen, then Bobby Milano. She and Milano divorced a few years ago and a few years later he died, setting off a furious debate online over whether they had ever formally married or not.
Prima died in 1978; she, meanwhile, made a low-key return to singing in nightclubs and Nevada casinos.
In 1998, a popular commercial popularized the Prima classic “Jump, Jive and Wail.” The public realization that Smith had never gone away and was a powerful ballad singer on her own led to renewed interest. Beginning in 1985, she released a series of standards-based CDs — “Smith Sings Sinatra” in 2001 won her a Grammy nomination. She has continued to play live shows since.
“When Louis and I broke up,” said Smith, “he said I’d never be anything without him. Having the recognition on my own has been nice.”