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Keely Smith, Queen of Swing

Jazz is American art form and an international phenomenon! Jazz is not the result of choosing a tune, but an idea that is created first in the mind, inspired by one’s passion and willed next in playing music! Jazz music is not found in websites or books, or even written down on sheet music; it is in the act of creating the form itself that we truly find jazz music.

Women in jazz have been marginalized, exoticized or ignored as significant contributors to the history of the music. As a step toward placing the contributions of jazzwomen on even ground with other comprehensive, scholarly documentation of jazzmen, a light must be shed on the women we’ve missed, the one’s we’re at risk of losing and the ones who have been and are still prevailing.

One of those prevailing women, categorized as the ‘Queen of Swing’ is Keely Smith. I had the pleasure of speaking with Keely recently and enjoyed the incredibly historic achievement of her career that has spanned nearly half a century.

JazzReview: Let’s begin with you being named the "Queen of Swing."

Keely Smith: I don’t really know. I just sing and have fun, and do what I like doing and it comes out right.

JazzReview: It’s such an honor and yes, it does come out right. I’m pleased to say that the Swing Movement is coming back; it seems to introduce a whole new generation to the music and its fun. You have certainly contributed to the excitement. What do you think of this new movement to swing?

Keely Smith: I think it’s wonderful. When I worked at the House of Blues (3or 4 of them across the country) the kids were very nice. I mean they were good dancers. I’m a jitterbug myself, but these kids were really good dancers. They were enjoying the music and understanding the lyrics. When I worked at the House of Blues the first time, I told them, ‘I’m basically a ballad singer, so if I sing a couple of ballads and you don’t like them, just tell me and I’ll stop.’ Do you know they sang the words with me of "You Go to My Head?" I couldn’t believe that they even knew the songs, much more the words. So, they are beginning to listen to good music.

JazzReview: Who were your earlier inspirations?

Keely Smith: Very easy--Ella Fitzgerald and June Kristie. That’s who I listened to when I was growing up and still do to this day. I loved both of them. My favorite male singer was Nat Cole.

JazzReview: This is the third in a recent series of recordings that honor those men who have had a tremendous influence on your life. Your former husband Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra, and Count Basie. Can you tell the readers a little about the tribute to the legendary icons?

Keely Smith: Actually Bobby Milano, who is my producer and a great singer, wanted to do an album of Frank’s songs. And he said to me there’s nobody better to do this than you because of my relationship with Frank. So we went into the studio and recorded the CD. Frank was alive and he got a chance to hear the entire thing. As a matter of fact, he was the one to ask me to put Angels Eyes on the CD. He loved it, but as we were mastering it, Frank passed away. I decided then I could not try to release it.

Right after that, the retail chain Gap commercial came up, "Jump, Jive, and Wail!" That was such a great success. I guess around then was when the House of Blues called me to work there. I asked Bobby, ‘what am I going to do? These kids aren’t going to know who I am.’ Anyhow, we decided to take a chance on it.

We went in and did the House of Blues and had 1,400 people there and 1,100 were under the age of 30. They knew who I was! You couldn’t begin to dance. They were jammed shoulder to shoulder, and that’s where they sang, I Wish you Love and You Go to My Head. It was just wonderful.

I, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck. [It was] probably one of the worse shows I’ve ever done in my life. It was awful. Bobby decided after that show we should do the Louis Prima’s CD. When we were mastering that one, Jimmy Darrin was recording in Chicago and he brought the boss of Concord Records, John Burkes, into our master studio. John Burkes heard part of what we were doing and said, ‘I’d really like that record for the label.’ I had never heard of Concord Records and couldn’t do business with a label I had never heard of. It took me five months and we finally decided to go with them. And, I’m glad I did because they are the most wonderful people to work with. They have the greatest employees; everybody is nice and so much fun. When you walk in there, there’s this happy feeling. You don’t feel like you’re walking into a business.

When John Burke heard the Sinatra CD, He told us he had the have it for the second release. When it came time to do the 3rd CD release Bobby said, ‘We have to do something that is just as strong as the Sinatra one.’ Me, I wanted to do a small 12 musicians CD, but Bobby persisted and said, ‘No, we have to go with something else.’

He remembered that I was friends with Basie and had worked with him. I agreed to do a Basie tribute, but knew that there were only two hits of Basie’s that I would want to do, April in Paris and I Can’t Stop Loving You. We decided to do some that I wanted to do, but with Basie’s arrangements, and that’s what we did. We had some of the greatest arrangers--Dennis Michaels, Don Menza and Frank Collect. They are the arrangers for all three CDs.

JazzReview: Was the relationship a close one with all three of the men you paid tribute to? I know one had to be.

Keely Smith: [laughter] Yes, I was married to Louis Prima. When the subject of marriage came up, I first thought how impossible it was. He was in the fast lane and I considered myself a country girl. And then, of course, Basie and I were great friends.

JazzReview: In your CD Keely Swings Basie Style, an 18-piece band and a 22-member string orchestra (led by pianist conductor Dennis Michaels) accompanies you. This is a wonderful blending of music.

Keely Smith: It was a thrill recording with them. They were good studio musicians.

JazzReview: As you said, you weren’t taking Basie’s music, you chose his musical influence, which was quite different, and it had a great treatment to it.

Keely Smith: Basie always had that big brass sound a really solid funk rhythm; you could really get into it and move with it. That’s what we really went after.

JazzReview: It was definitely achieved. How are your records managed?

Keely Smith: I pay for my own records and I release them to the record company because I want to own them. That way nobody can tell me what songs to sing or what arrangements to use. So, I keep my guys in the dark until the product is finished.

They told me this CD couldn’t possibly be as good as the Sinatra CD. I said, ‘Well, listen to it and decide for yourself.’ They called me up the next day and were raving saying, ‘My God, we can’t believe you did this!’ It’s just different and it’s me singing songs. With Frank I sang some of his songs, with Louis I sang his songs, but with this I’m singing. I must admit I like this one.

JazzReview: The swing version of How Sweet It Is and I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You were two of my favorites.

Keely Smith: How did you like Take the "A"-Train?

JazzReview: Great!

Keely Smith: I think that was the best arrangements I’ve ever heard. One of the musicians said to me, ‘I never heard Basie play like that.’ I said, ‘That was Broadway Basie!’ [laughter]

JazzReview: I know you said you selected each song. Was there something that inspired the making of each song?

Keely Smith: No, actually Bobby selectedI Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, and I didn’t really hear it that way, but he did. I have always wanted to sing the James Taylor’s song How Sweet It Is and prior to recording it, I found Marvin Gaye’s CD and heard his version. That really worked well for me. I was kind of surprised it worked as well as it did. I didn’t think I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You would work, but it did. Mood Indigo has always been a favorite of mine for years. [With] Take the "A"-Train, I don’t think anyone has done the ballad yet. How High the Moon I recorded once before and we liked it so much, we decided to do it again. "The house I Live In, which won an Oscar in 1946 with Frank Sinatra, was a documentary. And naturally April in Paris and I Can’t Stop Loving You was Basie’s. You Go to My Head has always been one of my favorites.

JazzReview: And you ended the CD with the Star Spangled Banner.

Keely Smith: Yes, that’s part of the House I Live In. As a matter of fact, I close my show with that song. It’s not a Basie’s arrangement. We call it a bonus track.

JazzReview: Does it have any significant to the tragedy of 9/11?

Keely Smith: Somebody said it was a shame I didn’t get the album released prior to September 11th of this year, but that wasn’t the aim. It was just when I started putting the song into the show, it’s been quite a while since I started doing it now, that Bobby felt I should be doing something patriotic. He chose that song of all songs. At the time I didn’t think that was right, but he was right again. It works and people seem to love it when we do it in the show, so we decided to put it into the album.

JazzReview: Where will you take your career next?

Keely Smith: I’m not sure. I would love to do a Broadway show and I would love to do a TV show. Do you remember the Dinah Shore Show? I’d like to do a variety show like that. There’s nothing on the air like that today. Or, I’d like to do a TV series. I have a good idea for a TV series that would naturally include a lot of music. I’m certainly not ready for retirement.

JazzReview: What would you tell the newcomers inspiring to become the next Keely Smith?

Keely Smith: Don’t Give Up! It’s God-given. Luckily, Louis Prima saw something in me and decided to take me from Virginia. He never tried to change me and for kids there will always be someone that says, ‘Hey! You can’t sing forget about.’ There’s choices a person has. If he thinks he can sing, keep at it. It’s hard. It’s not an easy job. Of course, I had a Cinderella story. Louis took me from home, so I never really had to struggle other than when we had no work, we struggled together. So I never had to walk the pavement knocking on office doors, begging for jobs and things like that sense. I really did have a Cinderella story. I think people have to really believe in themselves and not give up.

JazzReview: That’s the best advice. Whom will you make a tribute to next? Is there someone else in mind?

Keely Smith: The only person I really thought of was Nat Cole, but I probably won’t do that because he was my favorite and I knew him well. He was the nicest man I ever met in the business. I absolutely adored him. I often think, if it would be strong enough, to make a tribute to him. I think the next one I want to do will be some pretty songs and add some strings and so, a lead album. Bobby wants me to do a Latin album. I don’t know if the public can see me doing a Latin album.

JazzReview: Why not?

Keely Smith: I don’t know, they’re used to me singing the way I sing, and all of a sudden I’m singing Spanish. They’ll wonder what has happen to me. [laughter]

JazzReview: I think they’ll appreciate Keely Smith meets Latin jazz

Keely Smith: I may try it. I hear a wonderful Latin singer all of the time. I love his music. I don’t understand what he says, but it’s the feeling you get from his songs.

JazzReview: I do hope that you will consider making a tribute to the legendary Nat Cole just as you have done an exhilarating and incredible tribute to Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra, and William ‘Count’ Basie. Nat Cole will be one of your masterpieces.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Keely Smith
  • Subtitle: Keely Swings Basie-style
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