Friday, June 05, 2009

Sam Butera gets his NY Times obituary

Tabloid Baby pal and inspiration Sam Butera, the great, innovative sax player who provided the spark for Louis Prima and created some of the most joyful, rocking, hippest music ever heard in a Vegas lounge or committed to vinyl, died this week at 81. And the world stopped to take notice.

Las Vegas Review-Journal

Sam's obituary in The Los Angeles Times spelled out his achievements in a colorful way:

"...Prima, nearly 20 years older than Butera, was a composer ('Sing, Sing, Sing'), trumpeter, singer and irrepressible stage performer, a combination of Louis Armstrong and Jerry Lewis. His career was on the wane when he teamed in 1954 with Butera, who a few years earlier had been named the country's outstanding teenage jazz musician by Look magazine. Both men were New Orleans natives of Italian heritage.

"Butera was enjoying a long engagement at a New Orleans club owned by Prima's brother before he and Louis Prima began a musical union in 1954 that lasted nearly two decades. They recorded hit albums for Capitol Records, became nightclub fixtures from Las Vegas to New York and appeared in movies and on television.

"Prima was married to Smith, a smoky-voiced balladeer with a pageboy haircut, until their rancorous divorce in the early 1960s. Prima's fifth wife, Gia Maione, later joined the act as singer.

"Backed by a small band called the Witnesses, the Prima-Smith-Butera partnership re-created jazz and pop standards in a dazzlingly inventive array of styles and tempos: swing jazz, "shuffling" upbeat jump blues, Italian tarantellas and Dixieland. Some of their best-known titles included 'Just a Gigolo'/'I Ain't Got Nobody' (done as a medley), 'Pennies From Heaven,' 'That Old Black Magic' (which won a Grammy Award), 'Jump, Jive an' Wail' and 'When You're Smiling.'

"Mostly, Butera took a supporting role to the headliner Prima but was at times allowed to shine in a singing role, notably on 'There'll Be No Next Time,' a jokey, blues-inflected number about a man who goes to jail for 'failure to support' his faithless wife.

"Prima had complications from surgery for a benign brain tumor in 1975 and was in a coma until his death in 1978. Afterward, Butera performed with a band he called the Wildest. He lived to see his music influence a later generation of musicians as varied as David Lee Roth, who had a hit with 'Just a Gigolo'/'I Ain't Got Nobody,' and Brian Setzer, who won a Grammy for his cover of 'Jump, Jive an' Wail.'

"...In addition to his work with Prima, Butera enjoyed a prolific side career performing with entertainers including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., with whom he recorded the acclaimed 1965 album 'When the Feeling Hits You! 'He also put out several albums under his own name, including 'The Rat Race' (1960) and 'The Whole World Loves Italians"'(1996).

"He told interviewers that with companions such as Sinatra, he lived hard much of his life, with a typical day starting with two beers and ending with a bottle of Courvoisier.

"Prima was the most influential figure in his life.

"'The whole thing is entertainment, man,' Butera told a reporter. 'I learned that from him. You can get up on stage, do all the singing and talking you want, but if you don't know how to laugh and get happy with the people, it's nothing.'"

His obituary in the New York Times was official notice that a giant had passed on:

The New York Times
Sam Butera, Saxophonist for Louis Prima, Dies at 81


Sam Butera, whose tenor saxophone provided a raucous counterpoint to Louis Prima’s frenzied “jump, jive and wail” vocals for two decades and who was later a successful bandleader in his own right, died on Wednesday in Las Vegas. He was 81.

The cause was pneumonia, his daughter Cheryl told The Associated Press.

Singing and clowning over a driving shuffle beat, Prima and his wife, the singer Keely Smith, became one of Las Vegas’s biggest attractions in the 1950s with a crowd-pleasing mixture of jazz, rhythm and blues, and pure showmanship. Mr. Butera’s high-energy saxophone solos were an essential element of Mr. Prima’s success, as were the many arrangements that Mr. Butera wrote for the band.

Sam Butera was born in New Orleans on Aug. 17, 1927. His father, Joseph, was an amateur musician who made his living as a butcher and encouraged young Sam’s interest in music.

Mr. Butera began studying saxophone when he was 7 and became a professional musician at 14, playing in a strip club on Bourbon Street. At 19 he won a talent contest sponsored by Look magazine, which led to an appearance with other winners from around the country at Carnegie Hall.

After working with the big bands of Ray McKinley, Tommy Dorsey and others, he formed his own group and began a four-year residency at the 500 Club in New Orleans. He was hired by Prima, a fellow New Orleans native, in December 1954 and put together a band, the Witnesses, to back Prima at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas.

Mr. Butera and the Witnesses continued to work with Prima, in Las Vegas and later in New Orleans, until Prima fell into a coma after undergoing brain surgery in 1975. He died in 1978.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Butera stepped into the spotlight. Doing as much singing as playing, he led a band that performed songs from the Prima repertory and frequently accompanied Ms. Smith, who had divorced Prima in 1961. He retired in 2004.

Mr. Butera’s survivors include his wife, Vera; two daughters, Cheryl and Diane; two sons, Sam Jr. and Nick; eight grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Among Mr. Butera’s best-known arrangements was the medley of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody” that was a hit for the Prima-Smith team in 1956. To Mr. Butera’s chagrin, it became an even bigger hit for the rock singer David Lee Roth three decades later.

“He copied my arrangement note for note, and I didn’t get a dime for it,” Mr. Butera told The New York Times in 1997. “But there wasn’t an act in Atlantic City or Las Vegas that would do that song, out of respect for me.”

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