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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews

The MrLucky Interview:

It's no secret to readers of MrLucky that Keely Smith has been one of our favorite singers. Like most everyone else, we first heard her through the seminal albums she made with husband Louis Prima on Capitol Records. The initial appeal was Keely's Beauty to Prima's Beast, but after listening more closely, it dawns on one that Keely Smith was much more than merely a stone-faced foil to Prima's hi-jinx. Her greatest success, as a member of Prima's organization, has also been her greatest curse. With more luck, and perhaps ambition, she could have been remembered as one of the finest pop vocalists America has produced. Her legend is so tied to Prima, however, too often her solo efforts are ignored-- at least among the general population. Fans of classic pop singing have always known about Keely's talents, and now thanks to the Swing revival, a clever Gap television commercial (featuring Louis & Keely), and a large catalogue of recordings finally available on compact disc, Keely Smith is riding high.

We recently had a chat with Ms Smith during what promises to be the initial swell of a new wave of popularity. Unlike this writer, who would like to stand on the roofs and scream Keely's praises to anyone with a minute to spare, Keely Smith is a well-balanced, sweet and unassuming personality who seems to take her current popularity (and past disapointments) in stride. Her easygoing demeanor matches the gorgeous, pure, effortless notes that sneak out of her mouth when she sings.

Steve Sando (editor, MrLucky): Was Louis supportive of your solo career?
Keely Smith: Capitol Records wanted to record us and they wanted a group and Louis said, "Fine, you can have the group but you've got to get Keely her own separate contract." and they didn't want to do it.

S: Oh.
K: And Louis said, "Fine, well, if you don't give her a contract then you aren't going to get the group," and finally they wanted the group bad enough they came along and said, "OK, we'll give her a contract."

S: But when they finally did it they give you the cream of Capitol's arrangers…
K: Oh yes, they gave me Nelson [Riddle], but you know what happened when we sat down to select the songs, we had a record producer named Voyle Gilmore and he played a bunch of standards and he said, "I want to play you a really pretty French song." He said it won't mean nothing and you won't do it in the album but I just thought I'd play it for you and he played I Wish You Love. So, at the end of him playing all these songs I looked at Louis, I said, "Babe, I'll sing any 11 songs y'all want me to but I want to sing I Wish You Love."

S: That's wild.
K. And Mr. Gilmore said, "That'll never be a hit!" But I wanted to sing I Wish You Love and Louis looked at the man and he said, "She's gonna sing that song!" and that's how we got that.

S: Did you ever meet the composer, Charles Trenet?
K: No.

S: Do you ever have any communication at all?
K: No.

S: It's too bad.
K: Yeah.

S: You know, I have a version of Marlene Dietrich singing it, which I assume is after yours.
K: Really?

S: But she changes the lyrics slightly. It's a song from a mother to a boy.
K: That is interesting.

S: When you were at Capitol, you were working with Nelson Riddle and Billy May. How important was the arranger for you?
K: Extremely.

S: Because there was a very particular Capitol sound in the '50's that was so top-notch.
K: Well, Nelson Riddle was given keys that I sang these songs in, and every one of those arrangements in [the album] I Wish You Love is a Nelson Riddle arrangement.

S. Geared towards you -
K: Yeah. Now, that is not a normal procedure for Louis Prima. Louis Prima used to write all arrangements for our group. He always had say-so over everything. But I think because Nelson was Sinatra's arranger Louis decided not to try to tell this man what to do, just to go ahead and write. So that's why when people ask me about When Day Is Done and When Your Lover Has Gone and things like that that have those up tempos I always give Nelson the credit because those were his ideas. They came from his head, not Louis'.

S: And the ballads as well, right?
K: Uh huh, everything.

S: Do you have a preference? Singing ballads or up tempo? Or would you want to sing both?
K: Oh, I'm a ballad singer.

S: Before Louis, you obviously wanted to be a singer because you sang with Slappy, or what was his name?
K: (laughs) Saxy Dowell...

S: I'm wondering what singers got you started.
K: Ella Fitzgerald and June Christy.

S: Really? Did you hear them live or just on the radio or--
K: Oh no, I never saw them live, just from recordings.

S: There's a budget CD out on Laser Light and you sing the song I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine. This must have been one of your first recordings.
K: You know something, Steve, I don't even know about that record. I remember I used to sing it though.

S: I'll send you a copy.
K: And it has to be with a big band, right?

S: Yes.
K: Right. I don't know if it's -- it's probably after RCA. It's so hard to tell because these people today are bootlegging so many things and they put any dates on it they want and they put any label on it they want. So I don't really know what year that was.

S: What about Politely and working with Billy May?
K: Well, working with Billy May was a lot different from working with Nelson because Nelson is laid back and kind of quiet - until you cross him and then he can let you know who's boss. But he was very kind and very charming, and very tender with me - because I was so young --maybe not in age, but in experience and recording, and so forth, that he just, he kind of knew how to talk to me. And he knew I didn't talk to anybody but Louis. And he really treated me wonderfully. And Billy May, on the other hand, is sharp and smart and fast and witty, and was wonderful to work with -- don't misunderstand me. He just scored my arrangements in the Sinatra album.

S: Oh, great.
K: And I love Billy. But it was a different album. You know the songs were treated differently. And it was a pleasure and a thrill to work with Billy May.

S: And Swinging Pretty, anything in particular about that session that strikes you?
K: Not really. That was for Dot -- no, no, no .

S: That was Nelson again. On Capitol.
K: You know what we did in Swinging Pretty? We recorded in Chicago actually, because we working the Chez Paree, so Nelson came to Chicago. And Louis included our small group into Nelson's big band.

S: Oh. Because it swings a little harder than I Wish You Love.
K: Right. But I Wish You Love is really, truly Keely Smith. The others are a little step away from her.

S: After all those great albums on your own and with Louis, you both left Capitol for Dot Records. How did that come about?
K: The contract was up at Capitol and, unfortunately for us, Dot offered a lot of money, we owned our own masters and we could produce our own records through our own company, and they just offered us the world really. They bought us a home in L.A. And Louis went for it. Not that it was the right thing to do, to tell you the truth. I think leaving was a big mistake at that time.

S: Well, you definitely were the class act on Dot, I would say. You were probably the biggest act.
K: Yeah, but we went from being Nelson Riddle's class -- whatever you want to call it to -- and I hate to put anybody down - -to a very commercial Randy Wood and Billy Vaughn.

S: It's not the same thing.
K: It's not the same. And, and, you know we had some hits on Dot but nothing like Capitol.

S: So you went to Dot when you were at your peak really then?
K: Um hmm.

S: And it was more a business decision than anything else?
K: Absolutely.

S: In 1961 you did quite a bit. You did Swing You Lovers, you did Dearly Beloved and the Christmas album. Is that possible?
K: It's possible. With Randy Wood, yeah.

S: Did you rush, getting all these things out?
K: I don't remember feeling rushed.

S: What Kind of Fool Am I, to me, is probably one of the best Dots.
K: It's my favorite.

S: What about getting Anthony Newly to change the lyrics for the title track? Did he really do that for you?
K: Yes he did, but we had to get a petition. And I was doing it at the Riviera Hotel, on stage. And I was singing "What kind of fool is he?" because I didn't believe the song - it was right after Louis and I broke up - and I didn't believe the song the way it was written. So I changed the words and sang it the way I wanted. And the people would come and say, "Why don't you record that? Why don't you record that?" So, we got in touch with Leslie and Tony and asked for permission. And first we were turned down. And so, Barbara Bell went out and got a petition of, like, twelve hundred signatures and sent it them and then they gave me permission to change it.

S: The arrangements are H.P. Barnum. This album just seems more sensitive to you than the others on Dot.
K: Well that's the way -- that's truly me, too. I love singing those kinds of songs. I'll Be Tired of You…and there's some really great love songs in that one. H.P.Barnum, I haven't seen him in a long time, but he was so talented and he was a dear, dear friend. I met him through Jimmy Bowen and we became great friends. And I think he's a great arranger.

S: You don't hear much of him though.
K: No. You see, I think he's still working.

S: Oh, that's good. Also, this album has Don't Blame Me which just sends me to the moon.
K: Well, that's the song that was playing the first time that I ever danced with Sinatra.

S: Oh, really?
K: That's why that's in there.

K and S: (both laugh)

S: Oh, that's really funny. So, what about the Twist album? Any thoughts on that?
K: Oh, God. The Twist album. Well, Randy wanted me to do that. And H.P. Barnum literally stood and sang in my ear when we recorded.

S: So you would know what to do?
K: So I would know the songs. I didn't know the songs.

S: How funny.
K: And he really did. He sang in my ear and I was able to sing those songs. Not that it's one of my better albums.

S: But it's fun. It's not --
K: Yeah.

S: About this time you did summer stock.
K: I only did it one year. I did six weeks of it. I played Julie in Showboat. That's the part of the half-white, half-black girl.

S: Right.
K: And, actually, that was the Ava Gardner part --

S: Right.
K: And it was wonderful. Andy Devine was the Captain and we had some really wonderful people in the show, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And, to be honest, I didn't have the faintest idea what I was doing. I mean I'd get up there every show and I'd cry my heart out in one song and the people in the 26th row didn't even know I was crying because I was used to the camera. I wasn't used to a live performance of 26 rows of people, you know. I learned a lot from it and I would do it again if the role was right, if I enjoyed the role.

S: Well, Julie, that's a great one.
K: It's hard for me to be locked into the same words day and day out.

S: What about the movies? We know about Hey Boy, Hey Girl, Senior Prom and Thunder Road. Was that something you enjoyed doing? It's quite a bit different than performing in a nightclub.
K: Well, I enjoyed working with Mitchum. And the main reason is he would let you say whatever you wanted to say. But when I first went down there I had learned the script backwards and I got there and he changed everything. And he told me, "This is the thought that we want to get across and just say whatever you want to say." And it was quite a thrill to work with him and also a very great learning experience.

S: I bet.
K: It could be a cult movie.

S: Exactly. Hey Boy, Hey Girl and Senior Prom, were they fun to do?
K: Kind of.

S: Kind of ? ( laughs)
K: Well, you know, it was with the group and it was a very similar story, close story people think - actually people think that it's the way I got on the band. But it's not true at all. But it's a cute story about a girl who has a little brother and they help in the church and the little brother introduces her to Louis and Louis is looking for a singer and we kind of hit it off together. It's a cute family movie. Nothing to write home about.

S: The fact that the Oscars passed wasn't a big surprise?
K: (laughs)

S: I notice that in Senior Prom the credits they list Connee Boswell. Did you have any interaction with her?
K: No. None at all. I didn't even know she was in it. I would have loved to have met her. Well, you know, when they filmed those things, Steve, they hardly ever filmed in sequence, for one thing. And then you film, and you don't know who else is in the movie.

S: Back to the music. After Dot, you started recording for Reprise, Sinatra's label. Was that like going back to Capitol in some ways?
K: Not at all. Hmmm.

S: Not at all? (laughs)
K: No. It was nice to record with Nelson again. You know.

S. Right. And Little Girl Blue/Little Girl New was a beautiful album.
K: Thank you.

S: That's another thing-- whoever owns it now --
K: You know, I've tried to lease them, I've tried to buy them. No one will even pay any attention.

S: They're crazy.
K: They're just sitting on them. And they're doing nothing and there are some good albums in there.

S: Yeah. There's also The Intimate Keely Smith - -what inspired you to do that?
K: Well, in those days, I had what we called a "mood spot" that I did on stage of about six or eight --depending on how I felt at that particular show--ballads that I did just with the trio. I told Jimmy Bowen who was my record producer at the time, "I want to go in and I want to do this mood spot on a disc." And he said, "Gee, I don't know." So he went in, he let me record it the way I wanted to which was with no endings. It was just going from one song to the other. And after we did it, the company, Reprise, came back and told Jimmy, "You can't do that because the disc jockeys have no place to cut off a song or start a song." So, we had to go back in and do it giving them cuts in between where they could end the song and start another song.

S: But it still feels like one take, though--
K: I still think they should have left that alone.

S: But it's still great. And I think a lot of people mention that it's their favorite album.
K: Oh, that's nice.

S: Great Time After Time among other things. And what about the Lennon and McCartney Album?
K: That was a very big album for me. That was a Top 10 album for me in London for years.

S: Was that your idea to record the songs?
K: I think it was Jimmy's. As long as I like something, I would be almost agreeable to do it if I thought it would help.

S. Right. Plus, [arrangers] Ernie Freeman and Benny Carter -
K: Oh, Ernie Freeman was one of the best arrangers I ever heard.

S: Is he the same Ernie Freeman that had that song Raunchy?
K: Probably.

S: He even had some hits as an instrumentalist --
K: Right.

S: You also worked with Basie in the early '60s. What brought that on?
K: Well, I've always been a fan of Basie's. And they wanted me to work Basin Street East. You know, they're always taking two acts. And I said, "Well, you know, who are you thinking of bringing in?" And they said, "Well, who would you like?" And I said, "I'd like Count Basie." And at that point, Basie hadn't gone in and played for a singer before. And they said, "Well, I don't know if Basie'll do that." And I said, "Would you ask him?" And they did and they called me back and said, "Basie said yes, he would love to play for you." So, we went in together and Basie played the first half of the show. And then I came on and did the second half of the show with him and the band. It was wonderful. He was such a wonderful man.

S: It's a shame that you didn't make a whole album together.
K: I know. We were going to and I don't know what happened. It just didn't work.

S: Obviously arrangers are important , but I wonder if there are songwriters in particular that you have an affinity with, like Gershwin, or Harold Arlen. Or is there anyone you noticed that you - -
K: Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.

S: Really? In fact, you're kind of a modern gal really, eh? I mean compared to Gershwin and Porter, and - -
K: Those are Broadway types. You know, I don't go in for Oklahoma and things like that. I think probably Jerry Herman is the closest Broadway writer whose songs I'd like to do.

S: Are there a lot of songs you'd like to do that you haven't recorded yet? Anything off the top of your head?
K: Yeah, there are a few: Violets for Your Furs, Wee Small Hours of the Morning, some really good torch songs.

S: And are there any contemporary singers that you listen to?
K: No.

S: (laughs) Good.
K: I loved Karen Carpenter. She was excellent. But no, there really isn't. You know there was a little girl around years ago named Joanie Summers. She was an excellent singer.

S: Oh sure.
K: And in Las Vegas we had Mary Kay who was one of the best singers I've ever heard. Yeah, but, you know, they've all gone by the wayside and, unfortunately, Karen passed away. And at one point I really did like Anne Murray, too. But, I can't think of one girl I would like to sit down with - although I think Tricia Yearwood is good.

S: She's a good belter.
K: Yeah, Tricia Yearwood is a good singer. But, off hand, I can't think of one I'd like to sit down and put a record on.

S: Streisand? At all?
K: Noooo. ( laughs)

S: A little bombastic?
K: (laughs) Don't misunderstand. I think she's a wonderful, excellent singer. Not my type. Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey -- all those girls just scream and I don't go for it no matter how good they are. It's just not my kind of music. I would listen to Peggy Lee if I had my choice of a singer. Or Ella [Fitzgerald]. I have Ella in my truck, you know. And Dinah Washington. I used to love Dinah Washington.

S: What about male singers? Obviously, there's Sinatra.
K: No. Nat "King" Cole.

S: Nat?
K: Uh huh. He's my favorite.

S: And Tony Bennett?
K. And Bobby Darin.

S: Bobby Darin? Oh, sure?
K: And no, not necessarily Tony, either.

S: And Ray Charles?
K: Oh, Ray Charles, yes. Definitely Ray Charles.

S: While we're naming names, I wrote down a couple, like Lee Wiley. Do you remember her?
K: No but I know people have mentioned her name to me -- many years ago.

S: Bing Crosby?
K: I met him once, I didn't like him, and through the years I never really liked his singing until lately. Lately I've listened to him, I've listened to Fred Astaire, whom I loved, Dick Haymes who was a wonderful singer --

S: A great singer.
K: But, you know, when I was around in those days, I didn't hear these guys. And I'm just beginning to appreciate Crosby and Dick Haymes.

S: That's interesting.
K: And Fred Astaire is probably my favorite over all of those guys.

S: He's such an underrated singer, isn't he?
K: He's so good. And you know what's funny? Every song that Fred Astaire has on his recordings that I have, Sinatra has recorded. Every single one.

S: That's very interesting. But Nat "King" Cole, you'd say, is probably one of your favorite male singers.
K: He is my favorite. No -- by far.

S: Most people don't realize you introduced One Less Bell to Answer. Did Burt Bacharach come to you? How did that come to be?
K: Actually, you know I was married to Jimmy Bowen, right?

S: Right.
K: Jimmy found the song. And Jimmy brought it to me to take to Ahmet Ertegun who was recording me at the time. And I guess we just didn't do it properly. Because then the other people [The 5th Dimension] came along and had a smash hit.

S: Oh, I think it's smart -- I mean, I was shocked when I heard it. They almost copied you note for note. There really isn't that much difference at all.
K: Well, they were hot and I wasn't.

S: That must have been a frustrating time when rock was taking over and there was less room for classic pop singers.
K: Not really --

S: No?
K: Not really. I took off nine or 10 years to raise my kids -- so maybe that's at the time. But, you know something, Steve? Nothing really seems to bother me that much. I just think that everything is God's will and whatever He intends for me in my life is going to be.

S: That's a good attitude. You see, if I were you I'd be kind of pissed off at David Lee Roth and Brian Setzer and all these people - -
K: No, not at all.

S: No, you're not?
K: Oh, no. Because you know what happens? When Sonny and Cher came out, the parents went back and pulled out the old Louis and Keely albums and told the kids, "This is who they're copying". OK? Kids came up to me in, like, in 1964 I was dating A.J.Foyt, the race car driver, and they came up to me in Indianapolis and said to me, "Miss Smith, can we have your autograph?" And I looked at them and they were 16 year old girls. I said, "How do you know who I am?" You know, in 1964 nobody knew who I was. And they said, you know, "Our mothers and fathers went and pulled the records out ," and dah de dah. So that helped my career, believe it or not.

S: Sure.
K: Sonny and Cher did that. Then when David Lee Roth came along and copied Just A Gigolo, he helped. Now Brian Setzer, they called and asked me to do back up singing on that record - if you can believe that - which I said no to. But now Brian Setzer now has come out and done a whole resurgence with a Gap commercial and it's a whole new career. I just went into the studio - I'm doing a whole new swing album.

S: Are you doing songs from your years with Louis or a bunch of new songs?
K: I'm doing some of Louis' songs note for note. I'm copying Louis' phrasing and everything on some of the songs. And then there are songs like Let The Good Times Roll, Kansas City, Gitty Up Ding Dong --

S: What is fun to do?
K: Yes. As a matter of fact, we're still working on it. We're going into the studio this weekend and finalize the vocals.

S: That's great.
K: It's going to be a good album. It really is.

S: And will we have a ballad album soon, do you think?
K: No. I have a Sinatra tribute that we have not released yet. And that one I hope to put out after the swing album is out. Another good thing I have going for me to is the House of Blues.

S: Do you like playing the gigs or does it get old?
K: You mean the House of Blues?

S: Just singing live as often as you do?
K: Well, let me explain that. I worked with Sam [Butera] at the Desert Inn for almost three and a half years. When I was through there that's why I've taken off almost two years. I've done concerts here or there but I have not really worked steady in two years. And the main reason for it is you do get burned out.

S: Sure.
K: And now I''m really looking forward to going back to work. But I don't want to work two shows a night, forty weeks a year anymore.

S: No, it doesn't make any sense. And what do you do to keep your voice up? Because, I don't want to embarass you, but it's shocking hearing contemporary recordings. There's virtually no difference.
K: Well, you know, Steve, I don't drink, I don't smoke. I've never been into drugs of any kind and I'm basically a very average, normal person. I don't night club. I get up in the morning, I spend my time here with Bobby and my little dog. My daughters, one of my daughters lives here in Palm Springs, the other lives in L.A. I see a lot of them. And I'm a home body. I'm not what you call a swinger. A lot of people think I am or thought I was, you know. And I think that has a lot to do with it.

We say, whatever the reason for having such a voice- keep up the good work! Of course we'll be reviewing the new discs here in MrLucky as they are released.

A huge thank you to Alain Capretz for his transcibing and editing work.


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