Growing up in Las Vegas is an unusual prospect any way you look at it. Growing up in Las Vegas as the child of Louis Prima takes it to a whole new level.
I was born on Father’s Day in 1965, the last child and only son of the multi-talented singer, songwriter, trumpet player, bandleader and legendary voice, Louis Prima. This isn’t hyperbole. My dad could do it all, and I’m not just saying that because he was my father. He had a career that spanned more than 50 years, starting when Guy Lombardo brought him to New York, where he defined 52nd Street as “Swing Street.” In 1936, he wrote “Sing, Sing, Sing” the biggest Big Band hit of all time (which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame).
Through the next 40 years he continuously reinvented himself as the musical times changed—from writing and recording his own music, to creating unmistakable sounds for others to emulate, to providing the voice for the pop-culture icon King Louie in Disney’s The Jungle Book.
But it was on stage, especially in Vegas, where he truly came alive, where he was the performer that the other entertainers of the day (and even current pop stars) studied to learn how to work a room, how to get a crowd on its feet and how to deliver a show that would stay with the audience.
But to me, he was more than that—he was Dad.
He was a family guy. Whenever he wasn’t on the road, family was the most important thing. He insisted on dinners together every night and church on Sunday mornings.
During summers my mother, Gia Maione Prima, who sang with him from 1962 until his death in 1978, and my sister Lena and I would tour with Dad, watching him perform from New York to New Orleans, Chicago to Los Angeles. Dad had a huge following on the East Coast, something I didn’t really appreciate at the time. I knew he was famous, but it wasn’t until I played five sold-out nights of his music at the Atlantic City Hilton that I realized just how famous. I remember the meet-and-greets after the shows, talking to people who had flown in from England, or the guy from Canada who owned Prima’s Pizza, which was filled with memorabilia from Dad’s career. When he asked me to sign one of my dad’s records, it was like I was touching the past.
Elvis and my father opened the International and the crowds came. In 1968, the first million-dollar contract in Vegas was signed at the Sands and awarded to Louis Prima, Gia Maione and the Witnesses. As a toddler, I watched Mom and Dad from the light booth. When I was old enough, the Sands was where I first sang onstage. My father would bring me out, and I sang “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night, or “Your Momma Don’t Dance” by Loggins and Messina.
I was lucky enough (and old enough) to be with him in the studio while he was recording what would eventually become his last album, The Wildest ’75. To this day, I can’t sing “Leavin’ You,” his one and only ballad, without crying. I’ve only sung it once onstage, because I promised myself I would, and that was enough. The memories of watching him record it are still too fresh.
Recently, when I headlined the Italian Festival at the M Resort and got my son to come up onstage and sing “Just a Gigolo” with me, I was able to feel what my father experienced. It felt like my dad was there, watching us. I’m sure he would have been proud.
By the late ’70s, everything had changed. The lounges, when they weren’t removed altogether, were filled by one-man bands with drum machines and synthesizers, while the headliners were asked to rent the rooms where they were previously cajoled to perform. Shows even began to use taped music in the late ’80s.
But no matter how much I hate the business side of things, creating music is, quite literally, in my blood. Whether I’m in a motorcade with a police escort to a performance in New Orleans, or I’m listening to my management team explain to some entertainment buyer who my father was (which is so frustrating), I can’t stop entertaining. It’s the performing that still gets me up in the morning.
My mother taught me to play the drums when I was 5. I took piano lessons from my aunt, Sister Mary Ann, in the third grade. Guitar came when I was 10 and then trumpet, my legacy, in junior high. I graduated high school with my sights set on college and a business degree—a future in finance. But sitting in with my father’s old band, the Witnesses, at the Four Queens on a regular basis quickly showed me that finance wasn’t the path I was meant to be walking.
Ultimately, it was singing rock songs with my sister Lena’s band that put me in music full time. I put together my own band in 1986. With the onset of grunge music in the early ’90s, labels wanted me to write and perform in the vein of Pearl Jam, etc. I decided that rock and depression was not what I was about and opted to make a career of performing my father’s music in 1995. I haven’t looked back since.
Sure, the scene has changed—it’s nothing my father would recognize from a business standpoint. But there is one thing he would still get 30-plus years after his death: the feeling of being onstage and making people smile, making people forget the rest of the world exists, even if it’s for only an hour at a time. It’s my legacy, it’s my curse and it’s my privilege.