Effervescent always, however graceful to a fault, the life and times of Keely Smith has taken many directions and side streets. From her 1948 introduction of future partner, animated artiste of lyrical brass Louis Prima--to her current jewel box sensation Vegas 58: Today, Keely Smith never compromised her opinions, feelings, and unique demeanor. At 73, she is still Vegas, still flamboyant, still the icon of class entertainment to those who embrace the moments and city she aided in sculpting.
One should never lose sight of those who fashioned and affected the Vegas charisma. From its earliest beginnings, the main strip became a classy getaway for the rich and famous. If ever there were a "First Lady of Las Vegas" that ignited the spark and ambiance of the town, Keely Smith would seize that honor unchallenged. She brought class, talent and humor to the Vegas that for the most part, was dominated by male headliners.
Her energy today on the stage of Feinstein’s is still intense, with a sizzling, spirited sound that characterizes her celebrated life. Ms. Smith is what Vegas should have remained authentic and untarnished by the corporate/industry-driven changes. Her new project unveils those qualities and helps revitalize those thrilling days that shaped and designed the Las Vegas that was the entertainment Mecca.
From the pure Vegas of yesteryear, to the commercial Vegas of today, Ms. Smith sets the record straight concerning her life in the limelight. From her home on the west coast, we go between sets to Las Vegas 58 Today, still living and breathing inside the mind and heart of Ms. Keely Smith.
JazzReview: Going back to the Vegas of 1958 versus the Vegas of 2005, what are the significant differences on both a positive and negative scale?
Keely Smith: Well, positive, it’s very difficult (laughter). I was in Vegas about six months ago and oh God, I really should not say this for it would not look good in press! However, I did not see anything good about Vegas. It’s too crowded, the traffic is horrible, too many hotels, too many casinos. When Louie and I went there in 1954, there were only about 30,000 people. The street called Paradise Road, which is the second main street off the strip, was a dirt road in those days. Everybody was nice, all the stars were nice, help and owners were nice. If a star got sick, a star from another hotel would go fill in for them--no question of money or gifts. You just filled in and went back and did your own show. All that’s changed and I blame Howard Hughes for it!
When Howard Hughes came in, he brought a corporate set up. Up to that point, one or two, maybe six people owned these hotels. When you walked in the door of the hotel, you knew everybody from the front door into the showroom. You not only knew Louie and regular people, but everybody that worked there. It was a first name basis for the most part; it was wonderful in those days.
Of course, you could go to any hotel and see Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Jimmy Durante. Today, I think, maybe there are three hotels that have names, the rest are what we call book shows.
JazzReview: Who do you perceive should be credited for much of the success of Las Vegas and why?
Keely Smith: Well, that’s a hard question because I would have to pat Louie on the back. When we first went to town, there was a group working in the lounges called the Mary Kay Trio. They were wonderful. When Louie and I hit there, we took over and the Mary Kay Trio went down the list a bit. Then Frank (Sinatra) came in the Sands. Danny Thomas came in and Sinatra slowly brought in Dean Martin, along with Sammy Davis. I would have to say that this whole group of people helped make the town.
Of course, at our hotels we had Marlena Dietrich, George Burns who brought in Bobby Darin and first introduced Ann Margaret. In our lounge Don Rickles used to work opposite us. So I would have to say the lounges were very important in the early days. Now they have gotten rid of most every lounge and have put slot machines in them.
JazzReview: Was there an influence that organized crime had when it came the success and failure of the entertainment during the early years? Who were the icons?
Keely Smith: Oh no! I don’t think so! I became friendly with Sam Giancana out of Chicago. He was a wonderful man and all he was, was a fan. He was friendly with Frank (Sinatra). I don’t know whom else. To my knowledge, they had nothing to do with the entertainers coming in.
JazzReview: As an entertainer stepping on the glitter of the stage for the first time, what memories go through your head?
Keely Smith: I was so dumb; nothing went through my head (laughter). I am telling you, I was probably the most naive person you have ever seen work Las Vegas.
When Louie and I married in 1953 and I got pregnant in 1954, we were broke living in New York. The man who was the entertainer director of the Sahara Hotel was a man named Bill Miller. Years ago he had a wonderful nightclub in New Jersey call Bill Miller’s Riviera. Louie knew him and called him, told him his wife was pregnant, he was broke, and needed a job. Bill said "I can give you two weeks in the lounge." Louie said, "Okay," and we took it. Bill said, "Louie, you’re used to working as a headliner wherever you work." Louie said, " Man it doesn’t matter. We need the job!"
When we got there, the guy working the lounge was a gentleman named Cab Calloway and when the show was over, he came over to say hello to Louie. Louie invited him to sit and have a drink. Cab told Louie he couldn’t and Louie asked why not. Louie asked, "Do you have to go right back on?" And Cab said, "No we are not allowed to sit." Louie said, "What? Where do you dress? Where do you sleep?" Cab said, "They (the owners) have us on the other side of town. We dress out back, inside a trailer."
Louie was furious. Louie tried to reach Bill Miller who, thank God, was in his car driving to Mexico, and we couldn’t get him to tell him we were not going to open. To tell you [the truth] we were so broke and needed the job, but the principle was so strong with Louie. That is how he felt. However, we did open, but little by little, Louie changed things in that lounge.
The service bar was right in front of us and we worked behind the bar. I would be singing "The Man I Love" and the girl would be yelling, "Four beers, two that, two this." Louie got that moved to the far end. There were no lights; it was a lounge, not even a showroom. After time and changes, we made a theatre out of the lounge.
JazzReview: Other than talent, what other variables are needed for an entertainer to make it on the Vegas marquee?
Keely Smith: Nothing but pure talent to my knowledge.
Louie, Lounges & Life
JazzReview: It has been mentioned how Louie Prima molded and sculptured your career, however, it seems that once you partnered with Louie, his career took off. Also that signature Keely look was it planned?
Keely Smith: Yes, that is true and he did not mold my career. I don’t care who said that or where it came from.
The deadpan thing was an absolute accident. If I had to do it, I don’t know if I could have because Louie was very funny. I watched everything Louie did on stage. I never missed anything he did, but I was also standing up there for a half hour.
We did five shows a night, which were forty-five minute shows. The first half hour I did not do anything, just stood there. So, I would prop myself in front of the little upright piano. Not knowing what to do with my hands, I folded my arms across my chest and watched everything. I was watching people all over. Then Louie would come over and pull on my skirt. I would look down on him as to say, ‘Don’t interrupt me, I am busy here.' People thought I did it being angry with him, which I wasn’t. That is why I had that dumb look on my face.
I remember one time we did the Frank Sinatra television show. The director came over to Louie and said, "At this point I want her to scratch her nose." Louie looked at him and said, "Man, she scratches when she itches!" In Las Vegas, I would itch and then I would scratch. People thought it was part of the act, which it wasn’t! The deadpan thing came along accidentally and it was just the way I worked on stage.
JazzReview: So it was just the way you were on stage. Was act work for you?
Keely Smith: I did not even considerate it working. I just went on stage. You know, I had my family, I had my daughter, and I had my husband. That’s all I cared about. Being a star never entered my mind.
I didn’t even know how big we were until after we divorced. I never paid any attention to that. Intermission I used to go to the ladies room and read a book. I did not talk to anybody. I did not know how to talk to people. I never though of it as a job!
JazzReview: You ventured out on stage along side greats such as Don Rickles, Shecky Greene, Alan King and the Mary Kaye Trio. Looking back who surprised you with the way their career shaped?
Keely Smith: Well I guess nobody! The difference in the acts is who brought in gamblers. Louie and I brought in gamblers. Sinatra, Martin, and Davis brought gamblers. Red Skelton did not bring in gamblers. Dietrich and Mae West did. I don’t know about George Burns, but that is the difference in the hotels.
Also in those days, each individual room, for instance the lounge and the coffee shop, did not have to pay for themselves. As long as the gambling was in the hotel and earning money they (the owners) did not care what was going on in the different rooms. Today a lounge has to pay for itself. That’s the corporate setup and it’s wrong.
JazzReview: Would you take the same trip through Vegas again? What would you have changed? What did you want to accomplished, but never did?
Keely Smith: I would not have divorced Louie! I would have tried to figure out what was wrong. It got so horrible; I could not live with it. Girls would be calling my home and cussing my mother out and things like that. Louie didn’t do anything to correct it.
I truly think Louie went through male menopause. I didn’t know what that was and did not know men could have it. Maybe if I had known that, I could weathered that storm. I don’t know. I wound up in the hospital after that. It was a mess.
I would have taken the same journey though. I would not change anything else. I probably would not even change the divorce because you learn from everything.
JazzReview: The act and marriage ended at a tough moment in life to digest within a short period of time. Elaborate on that.
Keely Smith: Well, you know, he told me I would be nothing without him. He said, "I made you and you’ll be nothing without me." I believed him and it took almost a year before I walked out on a stage.
I remember Diana Shore called once. She had her Chevy show at that time. She said, "I want you to come to my show." I told her I couldn’t do it. I cannot go in front of a camera." She said, "Your going to get off your ass, get into Hollywood and do this show!" Thank God I listened to her. I went in and did it and thought, "Hey this is going to be okay, I can do this."
Prior to Louie and I, the last six weeks we worked together at the Desert Inn. We were headlining the big showroom. I was taking nerve medicine and a shot of scotch to walk on stage every show. That is how nervous I was. When it came time to open the following year at the Riviera by myself I was headlining the big room. My wardrobe lady brought in some nerve medicine and scotch and I said, "No!" I was going to sink or swim on my own that night.
JazzReview: During that rough time, who was your biggest support valve, the one person you could go too?
Keely Smith: Frank! (Pause) Do you need a last name? (Laughter)
Frank & Dean, and The Gown
JazzReview: Talk about the characters in and around the scene Frank, Dean and those others that the strip adorned.
Keely Smith: We had a saying in our group, "Frank (Sinatra) thought he was king. He knew he was." However, Dean (Martin) was the sweetest, kindest, unpretentious man you ever wanted to meet in your life. I absolutely adored him!
As a matter of fact, the very first time I went on my own at the Riviera, there was a man that did all the writing for Dean (Martin) and Jerry (Lewis). He was in town. I called him and asked him to please come see my show. He came and sat with me and asked, "What do you want to do on stage?" I told him I wanted to be a female Dean Martin. He was okay with that and watched my show.
Afterwards, I went and sat with him. He said, "First get rid of the gown." In 1964, I paid $10,000 for it. I asked him if he was crazy. He told me the gown was beautiful, but asked me what was I selling? I asked him what did he mean and I told him I was a singer. He said, "Okay then take the gown and hang it on the end of the stage and let everybody look at it. Then you walk out in a very simple pretty dress and sing your songs. You’re selling your voice and your face not the gown. As far as writing anything for you I can’t do that. You will find everything you need on that stage. Just be yourself." From that day forward no one wrote anything for me. Vegas 58-Today
JazzReview: Your new project "Keely Smith Vegas 58-Today" seems to be an electric moment selected by you to share with all your fans.
Keely Smith: To be honest, there is a man I worked for named Alan Sviridoff. He is the booker and partner of Michael Feinstein at the Regency Hotel in New York. He called me up one day. It was my time to get back and prepare to go into Feinstein’s. It’s a beautiful room in New York. He said to me, "Can you do a show called "Vegas 58?" I asked him what he meant by that. He said, "The old lounge act." So I immediately said to him, "Can you resurrect Louie Prima?" I told him I couldn’t do it without Louie that it would be crazy to even try. I told him I would never work with another man on stage, but I would think about it. Then I went and listened to some of Louie’s old songs and I said, "Heck, no one is going to expect me to sound like Louie, but they might accept me doing some of his songs." I thought it was worth a try and put together a show called "Vega 58 Today."
After I get on stage a do a few songs, I tell the audience we are trying to recreate the old Sahara Lounge days.
It went over so big I could not believe it. Parties of ten and twelve kept coming back three times a week. Understand, that is not a cheap room (Feinstein’s); it’s an expensive room. People would sing, get up in the aisles and dance, and it was wonderful. This year I also went in and took in a show called "Vegas 58-One More Time." It worked out, and again (the audience) accepted me singing Louie’s songs.
JazzReview: During the project, your sense of humor extracts itself numerous times to take center stage when one listens. Was this planned or totally spontaneous?
Keely Smith: (Laughter) Spontaneous! My brother, Piggy, travels with me and my producer, who is my old man Bobby Malano. He never knows what I am going to say on stage and I don’t either. I just walk up there and feel like the people that paid that money to be in that room are not my enemies. They are my friends and I talk to them as if they were in my living room. I try not to say something to offend anybody. I guess I have a couple of times, but I try not to. I try to avoid religion and things, however, I do say whatever I feel like saying.
JazzReview: Where did your sense of humor evolve?
Keely Smith: I don’t think I know. Most people don’t think I can talk anyhow, so .
JazzReview: The piece is truly a tribute not only to Vegas, but to Louie as well. How did you go about selecting the cuts from Louie and your past? Was there one cut that if room allowed should be with the rest?
Keely Smith: No. We did not get everything in there. We cut two ballads out because it was to long. Also the ballads kind of messed up the continuity of the pacing going from slow to fast. I really don’t think I would change anything.
JazzReview: Was there one piece that was more emotional for you than the others?
Keely Smith: No, sometimes talking about Louie gets emotional for me. Actually on What Kind Of Fool Am I, I changed the lyrics because of Louie-‘cause I didn’t think I was a fool. I thought Louie was.
JazzReview: You also threw in a little skat from time to time.
Keely Smith: (Laughter) I am not very good at that.
JazzReview: You do sing with music by Nelson Riddle and Billy May often. Talk if you would about of these men.
Keely Smith: Well my first album on Capitol was I Wish You Love with Nelson. When Capitol came to Las Vegas to make a deal to record the group, Louie said " We got to get Keely her own separate deal." They refused, too. They just wanted the group and Louie said, "You can’t have the group." Capitol came back a few months later and said, " Okay, we will take her."
Next thing I know I am in a studio with Nelson Riddle, which completely shocked me, because no one could get to Nelson. He really belonged to Frank (Sinatra). I am sure that without Frank telling me anything, Frank had a lot to do with me getting Nelson. Nelson was quiet, very much in command and in control, however everyone liked Nelson. He was kind and I wasn’t afraid of him or making the album. I always had this thing that whatever I had to do, I just went and did it. In those days, that is what I did. I never thought about how big it was, how important it was, or how wonderful it was having your own contract. Again, it was a girl living her life with her husband and her children, and singing is what she did.
Billy May was a little different. Billy was more outgoing and larger than life on the podium. I remember when he came out of retirement to do arrangements for me for the "Keely Sings Sinatra" album. He walked up on the podium and he said, "Okay gentlemen, I don’t want any stuff. Lets get this thing right." (Laughter) That was wonderful.
JazzReview: It’s nice to hear stories like what we just discussed for often times, we delve into the dirt of the business.
Keely Smith: You know something? If you treat people nice there is no reason not to hear stories like this. I mean, I could have gone in there with the attitude "I am Louie Prima’s wife, I’m Keely Smith and I am Las Vegas, this, that, and the other" and been a pain in the ass. That is not the way I was raised I am basically a country girl.
JazzReview: You also mentioned a book in process.
Keely Smith: Actually, I have been in the process for several years. I started talking into a tape recorder and then had the pages typed. I did not like what I read. This is six/seven years ago. I thought, "No, there are something’s here that I am revealing that I don’t want revealed now."
The funny part of it is I thought my romance with Frank (Sinatra) was unknown, nobody knew about it (laughter) until I started talking to, oh God, a very big movie producer named Norman Jewison. He was talking about the movie and I mentioned the fact that I had a romance with Frank. He said, "I know." I said, "You Know?" Norman said, "Keely, everybody in Hollywood knew!"
As for the book, I figured I better wait a little while. Then I talked to my daughter about it. She said, "Mother, if that’s your life, what difference does it make? Just go ahead and do it." Then I decided I had to wait for a couple of people to die because I would definitely be sued. I've been in court in four states. So, I am still in the process of doing it (writing a book).
JazzReview: Tell us about your movie experiences.
Keely Smith: I had a meeting a couple of months ago with Taylor Hackford. Taylor Hackford is a very big movie producer and he produced and directed "Ray," the late Ray Charles movie. He is interested in doing my film and it’s gone from the story of Louie Prima and Keely Smith to Keely Smith - A Woman’s Survival. In talking with him, I told him there has to be two things here: complete honesty, all the flaws, everything has to be there. I don’t want to pussy foot around something that was really wrong or out of line. The other is that they have to listen to our records. There is no way in the world I would allow somebody singing in his own voice and they are supposed to be Louie Prima.
I used Kevin Spacey as an example. My God, Bobby Darrin was one of the best singers around and this guy has the nerve to use his voice instead of Bobby’s records. That does not make any sense to me. I think the public wanted to hear Bobby’s voice. I think Kevin Spacey is a wonderful actor. In his own realm he is wonderful.
JazzReview: Your thoughts on a few names that Vegas have embraced over the years. Just allow the readers a quick quip of the perception of Keely Smith on these icons. First the Rat Pack!
Keely Smith: The Rat Pack was wonderful and I think they did a lot for Las Vegas. They had fun on stage and really enjoyed each other. I don’t know what Joey Bishop was doing up there and I finally asked Frank one day and he said they needed somebody up there to be announcer between what we were doing up there on stage. Peter Lawford I absolutely adored! Of course Dean Martin, there was nobody better.
JazzReview: Marlene Dietrich?
Keely Smith: Marlene Dietrich was absolutely gorgeous. She was breathtaking on stage. I remember one night she came into our lounge and she had on a fur coat. Louis introduced her and she sat up to take a bow. She took her left hand and pushed her fur coat back so you could see her body and put her hand on her hip to take a bow. That was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.
JazzReview: And finally I know we talked a lot about Dean, but what about Frank?
Keely Smith: Oh, Frank was my love! Frank was wonderful, kind, gentle. Frank could be a bastard if he drank, however he was very much like a little boy, very sad. But when he got on the stage, he became alive. He was my friend, my lover, my buddy; he was there for me all the time.
JazzReview: Finally, is there anybody you would have liked to been on stage with and do what you did?
Keely Smith: There isn’t anybody!