Like so many others, we were introduced to the voice of Keely Smith through her recordings with her husband, Louis Prima. In the late 1970s we stumbled upon a Capitol Records "greatest hits" collection and we were hooked for life. First and foremost, the records were fun, but Louis' insane musicality and Keely's smoky, other-worldly voice were such a great alternative for the popular music of our day that we obsessively began collecting their records and playing them for anyone who would listen.
If being a part of the Louis Prima organization was Keely's biggest asset, it also became her biggest curse. Despite hit records and a solo career, it seems Keely is destined to first and foremost be a part of the Louis and Keely legend. What a shame! That first Louis & Keely record we bought had two Keely solos, I Wish You Love and It's Magic. At the time, I Wish You Love seemed like just a pretty ballad, but It's Magic was just about the most exciting thing going. It was alternately both sweet and hot. One chorus sung straight and the next a popping swinger with the orchestra answering Keely's call. It was this record that convinced us Keely wasn't just an "also-ran" in the big picture. She was the real deal.
Some voices just strike a chord in one and there's nothing to be done. We haven't met many people who don't at least like and enjoy Keely, and a lot of us get downright obsessive. A common complaint is that perhaps her delivery of a good lyric leaves something to be desired. It's not that she's bad, but she's not a storyteller. In general, we're more interested in music than lyrics (although a bad lyric can ruin a song, no doubt.) Still, we also find this complaint debatable. She exudes a controlled sexiness that's irresistible and definitely tells a story. It may not be a Brecht/Weill story, but it's one that's easy to understand.
Around the time David Lee Roth had a hit with Just a Gigolo / I Ain't Got Nobody ("borrowed" almost note for note from the original Louis Prima and Keely Smith recording), Keely played San Francisco's Venetian Room. The reviews all marveled at her voice but were surprised by her lack of stage presence. In their heyday, Louis was like a wind-up toy, jumping around the stage and making merry while Keely was the stone-faced cigar store Indian. Our guess is this was a clever way around Keely's stage fright or inexperience. There's no way a novice could hold his or her own on stage with Louis Prima in his prime, so they created a very funny shtick that would go on to be copied by Sonny and Cher. We went to see her several times at the Venetian Room and while it's true, she was no Judy Garland, manipulating the audience up and down and anyway she'd chose, she was fine. Her attitude was almost "I've got a great voice. I have tasteful and exciting arrangements. We're all adults. Let's go!" It was certainly enough for us.
We remain completely smitten with Keely's voice. We have no idea how hard she's working, but she makes the most powerful notes seem effortless. There's no "look ma, no hands!" routine. There's no dramatic flailing of the arms or painful grimace accompanying notes and sounds that few other singers can produce. There's no pseudo-gospel or jazz efforts. It's just singing, in the best sense. There is the odd Virginian accent at times, almost more pronounced now than in her youth, giving certain words like "heart" and "house" more emphasis than they'd normally have. And there's the smokiness. Just a hint to suggest her steaming sensuality underneath a cool exterior. It all just sends us.
A question that continually haunts us is, "Where the hell is she?" She looks great, has a reputation among the cognoscenti and her voice is intact, if not a little better. Old troopers like Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and Anita O'Day are hawking their wares all over town, yet Keely Smith remains an interesting footnote in the short-lived neo-Swing movement, despite being in peak form. There's been talk for years of a movie, there was a documentary, there was the famous Gap clothing store commercial that featured Jump, Jive & Wail and contemporary rock stars like Brian Setzer were having hits with her songs. So where is she?
After meeting Keely Smith a few times and working with her "team", which is very much a family affair, we've come to the conclusion that Keely is her own worst enemy in regards to her career. And that she doesn't really care, despite lots of people working very hard to get her back in the spotlight. She doesn't seem to enjoy talking about herself, except in the context of her years with Louis. Whether these are easy pat answers she can provide without thinking or she really sees her importance only as part of the famous Louis & Keely team, it's hard to say. She wants things done her way or not at all and the result is that she gets to spend time with her family (whom she obviously adores) instead of touring or guesting on talk shows. We just find it so odd that someone with so much talent and a substantial solo career would still see herself as the little girl that Louis plucked off the boardwalk and shaped into his own vision after all these years.
Our work with her was going to be to put Keely Smith on the Internet. An associate warned us it would be like "working with the Smurf family" but we didn't care. Keely didn't really understand the Internet and admitted she had only recently played on a girlfriend's computer with AOL. She really liked Robert Goulet's site (www.robertgoulet.com) and this should have been our first clue we were in trouble. This was after a year of our working on the site with her management and having them approve every step we made. At one meeting, Keely, in a Betty Boop t-shirt (we assume they same one she wore on Conan O'Brien's show) turned to us and said, "Steve, when it says Keely Smith, it has to be first-class all the way!" meaning the work we had done wasn't. What's good and what isn't is somewhat subjective, but also at the table was the editor of her fan club newsletter, Keely's Kews, a sweet but very "handmade" newsletter that goes out with Keely's approval. It's many things but "first class" doesn't come to mind on first viewing. What we got from this is that Keely doesn't really trust anyone, including herself (except when it comes to music) and therefore nothing gets done.
We look at Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney as examples of where Keely should be on the popular culture map. More power to Tony and Rosie, but Keely Smith should be the toast of the town. But that would mean endless touring, recording, promoting and having some sense of savvy in regards to what's going on culturally and where she fits, so it's just not going to happen. Perhaps we live in a dream world, but when her staff kept going on about how great it was getting Keely on the Donny and Marie talk show, we kept thinking, "Donny and Marie? She should be a regular on the Tonight Show! She's Keely Smith!"
with Keely Smith and her team ends up being selfish. We want more product!
But if she doesn't want to tour and would rather spend her time with her
family, who can blame her? If something inside her tells her that her
worth as a performer is tied to her past, and the effort to really kick-start
a new career is too much work, so be it.
It's dangerous to meet your heroes in person, and Keely was no exception, but for all the frustrations, it was worth it just to hear her sing as we did in that hotel ballroom. If we had a couple of extra thousand dollars to play with, we'd kidnap her and put her in a recording studio with a good trio and tell her to just sing. Or we'd make the Gap, David Lee Roth and Brian Setzer foot the bill. The good news is that the Sinatra tribute that's been in the can for years is rumored to be released on Concord Records this year. Of course, it's not enough for us, but no amount of Keely singing would be.
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