From: Patricia Yorton
Sent: Saturday, June 6, 2009 8:34 AM
To: Jack Yorton
Subject: Sam Butera
Sam Butera, former Louis Prima saxophonist,
dies in Las Vegas at age 81
Posted by Keith Spera, Music writer, The Times-Picayune June 03, 2009 5:20PMSam Butera, the hard-driving, hard-swinging New Orleans saxophonist who was Louis Prima's longtime musical partner, died Wednesday in Las Vegas following a long illness. He was 81.
Mr. Butera joined Prima's band in 1954. With singer Keely Smith, they built one of the most popular acts in the golden age of Las Vegas. Mr. Butera cooked up the arrangements that gave the likes of "Just a Gigolo"/ "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "Jump Jive An' Wail" maximum impact.
"Louis's ace-in-the-hole was Sam Butera," said Gia Prima, the fifth of Louis's five wives and the singer in his band from 1962 to 1975. "That animal attraction that they had, with Sam's honking sax and Louis's jumping and jiving -- without Sam, Louis couldn't have pulled it off."
Mr. Butera grew up in the 7th Ward. His father owned Poor Boys Grocery & Meat Market. One evening the elder Butera took his son to see a big band, and asked the boy which horn he liked the best.
"The saxophones were closest, so I pointed to the saxophones," Mr. Butera recalled in a 1996 interview. "The next day I had a horn."
A prodigy, he turned pro at 14, serving as the human jukebox for strippers on Bourbon Street. "I worked at every joint on that street," he recounted. "You name it and I worked it. All those girls wanted to do was mother me."
At 18, he was voted the "Outstanding Teenage Musician in America" by Look Magazine at Carnegie Hall in New York. After graduating from Holy Cross High School, he considered Notre Dame University scholarships for music and track and a career in mechanical engineering. Instead he hit the road with big bands led by Ray McKinley, Tommy Dorsey and Al Hirt.
By late 1954, he'd cut several records under his own name. He often performed at the 500 Club on Bourbon Street, which was owned by Prima's brother Leon. Looking to staff his new band at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, Prima scouted Mr. Butera at the 500 Club and offered him a job.Mr. Butera had never been to Vegas, then a desert stopover with 30,000 inhabitants. He banked as much as $700 a week backing Lili Christine the Cat Girl and other strippers on Bourbon Street; his first Sahara paycheck was $250. His wife, Vera Marie, wanted to return to New Orleans; Mr. Butera insisted they stay.
"I thought it would be a good move," he said.
It was. Mr. Butera started writing arrangements for Prima's band, the Witnesses. "That's when it happened," he said. "The sound, you know?"
That sound was an explosive mixture of jump blues, jazz, top-notch crooning and no-holds-barred entertainment. During a seven-year run at the Sahara with the Witnesses, they defined Las Vegas cool. On-stage, Mr. Butera and Prima cut up big-time, blazing away at each other during trumpet and sax duels, thrashing around, stomping through the crowd.
"His contributions to Louis are immeasurable," said Ron Cannatella, a radio host and director of the Louis Prima archives. "They were a team. They worked perfectly together."
Mr. Butera's enormous tone stood toe-to-toe with Prima's manic energy. But for all the antics, Mr. Butera was also a serious musician who insisted the music be correct.
"Every night before the shows, you could hear Sam in the dressing room running scales and fussing over his reeds," Gia Prima recalled. "He wanted everything to be perfect. I don't think there's another tenor sax man that could touch him."Their popularity extended far beyond Vegas. After scoring a national hit with "That Old Black Magic" in 1959, they sold out as many as four shows nightly at New York's Copacana -- more than even Frank Sinatra.
"We had fun, and we played good music, what the people wanted to hear," Mr. Butera said in 1996. "And it was our own thing. Then everybody started copying our style of music."
After Louis Prima fell into an irreversible coma in 1975, Mr. Butera continued to record and tour with Frank Sinatra and others. Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore and Dean Martin solicited Mr. Butera as guests on their TV shows.
In 1985, former Van Halen singer David Lee Roth launched his solo career with a copy of Mr. Butera's "Just a Gigolo" / "I Ain't Got Nobody" arrangement. Ex-Stray Cats frontman Brian Setzer scored a Grammy for his cover of the Prima/Butera classic "Jump Jive An' Wail."
During the swing revival of the 1990s, Mr. Butera was perceived as one of the music's originators. He and his band, the Wildest, enjoyed long, successful residencies in Nevada, Atlantic City and elsewhere, perpetuating the swing and shtick of vintage Vegas.
"He carried the legacy on," Gia Prima said. "Sam could really reproduce that sound. If you wanted to hear that music, you had to go see Sam. It was amazing that he kept on as long as he did."He made his New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival debut in 2002. In the Economy Hall Tent, a tuxedoed Mr. Butera declared his intention to play "music you can relate to. All old songs. None of that new s---."
He delivered his usual repertoire of lounge-worthy Viagra jokes and airtight versions of "Jump Jive An' Wail," "Just a Gigolo" and "Down On Bourbon Street." "That's happy music, folks," he said
During occasional New Orleans visits, Mr. Butera often purchased pastries for his mother at Angelo Brocato Ice Cream & Confectionery on North Carrollton Avenue. The title of his 1996 CD proclaimed that "The Whole World Loves Italians." He last came to town in 2003 to be induced into the Italian-American Hall of Fame. Nancy Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Jerry Lewis sent tributes; Pete Fountain presented the award.
When failing health made travel difficult, Mr. Butera retired. He entered a Las Vegas hospital in January, and never left.
Next year is the 100th anniversary of Louis Prima's birth. Gia Prima is planning numerous commemorations. With news of Mr. Butera's passing, "my heart is saddened," she said. "For me it's almost like losing Louis again."
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Vera, two sons and two daughters. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.