Beginning her career as the female singer in Louis Prima's band, and later becoming famous as one half of their hugely successful Las Vegas lounge act, KEELY SMITH's early achievements were tied to someone or something else.
Now in her early 70s, she has found the renewed interest and acknowledgment of her own talent to be immensely gratifying. "I'm thrilled that the resurgence is of my career by myself because for many years everything I did was with Louis, and now all of a sudden I'm being recognized on my own and that really is the ultimate for me," she recounted recently to the Los Angeles Times.
Throughout the 1950s, Louis and Keely were the undisputed King & Queen of Las Vegas and have been credited with essentially inventing the modern lounge act. Performing five shows a night at the Sahara's Casbar Lounge, they became a huge draw for both the average blue-collar tourists as well as some of the biggest celebrities at that time. On any given night, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Howard Hughes, and the young Senator John F. Kennedy could be found in the audience. Many of the show business elite would add to the audience's enjoyment of the show by affably heckling the duo and sometimes even getting up on stage to join the act.
During this period, Capitol Records issued a series of chart-topping albums that consisted of abridged versions of Prima and Smith's beloved nightclub act. In addition, Keely released I Wish You Love, a solo debut that confirmed her own star power by receiving a GRAMMY nomination and selling over a million copies. Keely's appeal and renown is just as strong today, having survived several decades, various musical trends and the fickle nature of the entertainment industry. Actor Robert DeNiro and director Martin Scorcese have been long-time fans of Keely's and over the years have placed her music in numerous films, including The Deerhunter, Raging Bull, Analyze This, That Old Feeling, Big Night and Mad Dog and Glory.
The revival of the swing movement in the late '90s inspired The Gap retail chain to use Prima's signature tune, "Jump, Jive and Wail" in one of its popular ad campaigns. This renewed interest in swing and big band music also led to an invitation for Keely to perform at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, where she sang to a jam-packed crowd of admirers, both young and old. Most recently, Keely has performed to SRO audiences across the country, including a five-night stop in Atlantic City and a stint at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York City. Talks are currently underway to book Keely into Caesar's in Las Vegas, bringing her back full circle to where it all began.
In the meantime, Keely is writing her autobiography, which has been a work in progress for several years. "I started it about four years ago and then put it aside," she explains. "When I read it, I wasn't sure if I liked what I had written, but now I've started on it again. I want to do it with complete honesty, or not at all." And there are certainly plenty of lifetime experiences to chronicle: winning one of the first-ever Grammy Awards in 1959, performing at President Kennedy's inauguration, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and friendships with everyone from The Rat Pack to Elvis Presley.