The recent passing of vocalist Keely Smith gives us a moment to remember not only one of the most entertaining duos of the pop era, but also one of the all-time female vocalists, albeit a perpetually underrated one.
Smith’s marriage and career with the energetic Louis Prima is well documented — if you need a refresher, Popularsong.org covers it a bit on this page — the zenith of course being their 1958 Grammy for “That Old Black Magic.” Their onstage repartee paved the way for the likes of Sonny & Cher and many others since.
To truly understand the depth of Keely Smith’s talent, one needs to look to her career post-Prima. The pair split shortly after performing at Kennedy’s inaugural ball, and Smith was more or less adrift when she turned to friend Frank Sinatra. The chairman signed Keely to Reprise records, where she went to work with Nelson Riddle and company. The first result was a grand slam album called Little Girl Blue/Little Girl New, full of standards from the pens of Irving Berlin, Jules Styne, Herb Magidson, Rodgers and Hart, Jimmy Van Heusen, Bob Merrill and other top lyricists and composers. Smith’s take on tunes such as “Blue Skies” and “Willow Weep for Me” are as capable as any; combined with Riddle it was a new black magic on its release in 1963.
Smith would follow this with more wonderful recordings, including an album of Lennon-McCartney covers in 1964, with future second husband Jimmy Bowen at the production helm. Bowen, of course, was the ex-rockabilly singer who had a knack for production with a clear orchestral sound, notably Sinatra’s “Stranger In the Night.” Working with Smith’s vocals and Ernie “Raunchy” Freeman’s arrangements, the results were even more magical.
If you haven’t explored Keely Smith’s post-Louis career, this is an opportune time to do so as there is plenty of her material available right now. We’ll get you started with her take on a familiar tune, below. It starts slowly…then, wow…