A conversation with legendary recording and Las Vegas star
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
I grew up listening to Keely Smith. She and then husband Louis Prima were appearing on the now-Classic TV Variety Shows, released a string of hit recordings, and were a part of the Las Vegas scene which was very much in the headlines with Frank Sinatra who was a pal to the young Kennedys. With some of the same repertoire as Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Peggy Lee, and with a silhouette as enticing as Cyd Charisse – I recognized how Keely Smith was different. She radiated sex and confidence. Her fiery beauty is a blend of Cherokee and the Emerald Isle. The voice is sensuous, her musicianship impeccable. She is currently in town until April 5th at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko. It was my pleasure to relax with Keely in the comfortable lounge by the cabaret, along with her brother, affectionately known as Piggy. As Chet Baker’s recording of “Look For The Silver Lining” played in the background, we laughed a whole lot.
SEÁN: I know your voice and how to listen to you. I revisited your recordings last night to prepare for our interview today. Again, I’m wrapped-up in beautiful arrangements of songs that have crept into what is now referred to as the “American Songbook”. And there you are, at the time – doing whatever it was you did – that then becomes The Standard. So, you have had a huge impact upon my life. No wonder I am the way I am! It is an honor to be here with you today.
KEELY: Thank you, that’s very sweet.
SEÁN: What’s going on with the show at the Rrazz Room?
KEELY: I do basically the same show wherever I work. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big room or a small room. I never sing a song I don’t like. We have excellent musicians here and it’s a fun show. I’m very outspoken. I say whatever I feel like saying and I do that on stage. No matter the size, I treat my audience like it’s a little living room. So far, it’s been all right.
SEÁN: What songs are you performing here?
KEELY: “Let The Good Times Roll”. That’s not a Keely Smith song, but I’m singing it. (Turning to her brother.) Help me, Piggy.
PIGGY: “Jump, Jive, an’ Wail” … “That Old Black Magic” …
KEELY: Give me some ballads here!
PIGGY: “It’s Magic”.
KEELY: I only sang that because somebody asked for it!
SEÁN: That was one of the songs I was listening to last night. When you sing the words, “it’s magic”, you have a way of expressing it that I’ve never heard before. There’s a slight pause before you go to “It’s magic!” – as though preceding it in parentheses, “it must be”. This spell, this whatever it is that’s between the two of us, must be some kinda power.
KEELY: I like what I do. I associate most of my songs with somebody. I sing to people, mostly men. So, through the years, because of people I have loved or have been involved with – I still sing to those same people.
SEÁN: In “I Wish You Love” there is a warmth and longing that truly comes across. Again – ways of spinning a phrase – interpretations I don’t hear from other singers. The same lyrics, the same thread of ideas – “I wish you health, and more than wealth, I wish you love” – it comes across as not only do you genuinely mean it, but maybe there’s a possibility we might get back together.
KEELY: (Laughs) I recorded that when I was with Louis, so there was no break-up or anything at that point. I think when you sing, “I wish you love”, you have to mean what you’re saying. You are saying it to somebody. I enjoyed singing it.
SEÁN: Looking back – what remains a favorite moment for you? Something that stands out – a favorite opportunity, a favorite recording experience?
KEELY: I really don’t know. Almost anything. Singing with Sinatra was very good! One of the highlights was doing President Kennedy’s Inauguration. I was friends with Jack.
SEÁN: Did you perform at his Inauguration?
KEELY: Yes, Louis and I did.
SEÁN: What did you sing? Was it at one of the parties he and Jackie would have attended?
KEELY: Oh, yes. We did “Old Black Magic” – about three songs.
SEÁN: How did that happen? Being friends with Sinatra would have helped, of course, but he had a lot of friends.
KEELY: Sinatra was putting the show together.
SEÁN: What an amazing moment that must have been in your career!
KEELY: Well, it was and it wasn’t. I was friends with Pat (Patricia) Kennedy long before Jack became President. Because of that, I was friends with her father (Joseph) and her brothers – so, I knew Jack prior to his being elected. It wasn’t a big deal to me. But, I was in awe of it.
SEÁN: When you make the quantum leap from being recognized with recordings and appearing in major clubs to singing at the Presidential Inauguration – that is a high which few performers experience or might ever come their way.
KEELY: I would’ve loved to have sung at Obama’s inauguration. I love President Obama. When it was happened for us, I really didn’t have to think too much about it. Frank was putting the show together and I already knew Jack. But, years later, I realized how important it really was.
SEÁN: Where were you performing at the time?
KEELY: Louis had booked a club in Washington, so we went to work right after the show for Jack.
SEÁN: Thus, a ride along with the wave.
KEELY: Louis always mixed business with pleasure.
SEÁN: In some of the descriptions that come up about how we would see you or remember you is the term, “deadpan expression”. I certainly didn’t see that nor do I hear it in your recordings.
KEELY: You’re right! There’s nothing deadpan about me at all. It’s just that on the stage, Louis was so crazy; always jumping and moving, even the voice to a degree. I was always very quiet, and I just stood there. But that was me. That was not an act. That’s just the way I was and Louis, thank God, never tried to change that.
SEÁN: And as I remember, all eyes were on you.
KEELY: Well, I don’t about that.
SEÁN: Oh, yeah? Well, one look at you and we’re all thinking – “That’s one Wicked City Woman.”
KEELY: That’s funny! I never felt wicked in those days, but I was too dumb to know anything then.
SEÁN: Few performers know what they really register.
KEELY: That’s probably good.
SEÁN: With all your television appearances, what or who stands out to you the most?
KEELY: I loved Perry Como. He was such a nice man and so easy to work with. He was kind, warm, very easy-going – nothing was a problem with him. Perry was distinguished, a big star at the time I’m talking about. He was just a wonderful man; very involved with his family. He was very much in love with his wife. Another show I remember – one of Sinatra’s TV shows – the director wanted me to scratch my nose at a certain point. I went to Louis and told him, “Babe, you gotta talk to this man!” So, he goes to him and says, “You know – she scratches when she itches. She’s not going to scratch on cue.” I don’t remember the song but – “She scratches when she itches and that’s it!”
SEÁN: And the Grammy? Where do you keep the Grammy?
KEELY: I don’t know where it is. (Much laughter) I’m ashamed to say that, now that you’ve asked me! I’ve moved so many times. I have it. I just can’t go put my hands on it.
SEÁN: So, not in a shrine to be kept on display for your guests. Who are you listening to these days? Do you listen to anybody?
KEELY: Nobody. Actually, I love Michael Bolton. I don’t know him, but I like his singing. If I’m really in a mood to listen to music, I put on Nat “King” Cole. He was my favorite singer. Sometimes I’ll put Frank on, depending on what the CD is. Girl singers I don’t really listen to. I used to love Ella. But I don’t play music that much. I’ll listen to instrumentals – Nelson Riddle, Mantovani, things like that. It’s easy listening. If I’m doing bookwork or washing dishes and all this music is playing, it’s just wonderful.
SEÁN: Has anything come along within the past ten years of song, that you might say ‘I wish that had been around then’ or that you might now want to incorporate into a show?
KEELY: There are some good songs out there today.
SEÁN: Do you have a relatively contemporary piece that you put into the show here at the Rrazz Room?
KEELY: I don’t have the faintest idea. You’re going to have to see the show! (Much laughter)
SEÁN: I guess so! How long does the show last?
KEELY: About an hour. It depends on how much I talk.
SEÁN: I pass your material on to some of my young clients who are developing their own shows here in The City.
KEELY: You should be!
SEÁN: The questions I get are, ‘Who should we listen to?’ and ‘How do I find a hook in this song?’.
KEELY: You just have to believe in what you are singing and sing it.
SEÁN: But, when you’re 25 years old or younger, all of this fabulous material is new to them. Some of the kids say they have never listened to Barbra Streisand or even heard of Celine Dilon. So these songs, your songs, are brand new. They might just as well be referring to any genre of Classical music – they don’t know how to listen to it.
KEELY: You just picked two singers that are absolutely wonderful, but that I would not listen to if I were going to become a singer. Because they sing absolutely perfect.
SEÁN: Who would you listen to?
KEELY: Ella Fitzgerald is the only one. Some of Peggy Lee’s stuff. What I call the “learned singers” are absolutely marvelous, but I feel no heart from them. Ella sings with heart, Peggy sings with it. Some of the male singers did. You’ve got to have some kind of feeling worth doing, not just words.
SEÁN: You don’t see yourself on the same pedestal as them?
SEÁN: Well, I do. (Much laughter) And people I talk to, those whom I work with and who listen to your recordings – they do too.
KEELY: That’s great.
SEÁN: Revisiting your songs last night, what I was immediately struck with was you familiarity. It just leaps out. You’re singing to me. You are giving a sense of intimacy, that stuff that happens behind closed doors.
KEELY: That’s what I feel when I sing them.
SEÁN: Whereas with Ella Fitzgerald we get pure music, perfection, an obviously gorgeous voice. But, she’s not necessarily what I want with candlelight.
KEELY: It’s not what you want to have sex by.
SEÁN: Precisely! (Much laughter) Thank you! See? I’m trying to be a gentleman here and…
KEELY: You can say anything you want to!
SEÁN: Well, there it is. My clients know I’m constantly pushing that message about the SEX in a song. It’s the most difficult thing for performers to deal with in front of a group of strangers. You have to let me know who you are when I’m not the one you’re with. I know what that stuff is for me, and I might prefer Keely Smith singing in the background. She makes it all so conducive. Do you listen to your own recordings?
KEELY: When I don’t work for a while, I go back and listen to my recordings – just to get my voice back in tune and to remember the lyrics. But, no, I don’t go back and listen to my recordings for enjoyment.
SEÁN: Let’s take one of your songs as an example, “It’s Been A Long, Long Time” – as in, “Kiss me once, then kiss me twice…” You are singing to that person. When you were preparing to record an album with a number such as that, how much rehearsal time happened between “we’re going to sing it like this” to actually recording the song?
KEELY: That was a Nelson Riddle arrangement. I was a brand new singer on Capitol at that time and you don’t get Nelson right off the bat. They game me Nelson Riddle because of Frank. All we did was give Nelson keys. Whatever key I sang the songs in, that’s what Louis would give to Nelson. That’s how Nelson riddle wrote all those arrangements. I never had anything to do with them. We never told him what to write or how to write it. I can’t read music. So, when we went into the studio, they had to teach me the arrangement. Then we just started recording. In those days, everything was done live.
SEÁN: How many takes happened before they yelled, “Cut/Print”?
KEELY: Three. That was the most – ever.
SEÁN: Was it a hybrid recording – take this section from that take then splice it together?
KEELY: No. You couldn’t do that in those days. You had to be prepared. You can’t just go in and say, “OK, I’m going to this because I’m…” whoever you are. You have to know what the heck you’re doing.
SEÁN: How about all that on-stage choreography between you and Louis?
KEELY: (Much laughter) What choreography? There was nothing but Louis and I. I used to call that, “Being Husband and Wife”. We could do things because we were married that most people couldn’t get away with on-stage.
SEÁN: As I remember, it sure looked natural.
KEELY: Well, if grabbing ass is natural, then it was natural.
SEÁN: And Louis sounds like a guy you’d want to do that to.
KEELY: He was so much fun. Off-stage he was exactly the opposite. He’d sit down in a chair, take a quick 30-minute nap, and then go back on stage.
SEÁN: What would you do for fun?
KEELY: I don’t know. I’m not sure how we wound up with two babies. We worked from midnight until six in the morning in Las Vegas. We’d go home, change our clothes, get in the car, drive to Lake Mead and go water skiing – at 7:00 in the morning. Then we’d go home, I would be with the kids for a few hours, take a nap, be with the kids, have dinner, and then we’d go back to work. That was it.
SEÁN: Who were you listening to in those days? Whose show would you go out of your way to see?
KEELY: I’d go see Frank when he was at the Sands. I was very close with Sammy Davis, Jr., so I’d go see him. Billy Eckstein I loved. When Lena was in town, I’d go see her. She was wonderful. We had a group called Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. They were at the lounges and we’d go see them late at night. I wasn’t much of a goer. I’m still not a goer. I’m very much a home-person.
SEÁN: What’s coming up for you after the Rrazz Room?
KEELY: I’m just lookin’ for a man.
SEÁN: (Much laughter) Good for you! Who knows? Maybe somebody will raise their hand tonight.
KEELY: I’m going to England. I have a boyfriend over there.
SEÁN: What do you do to prepare for a gig like this at the Rrazz Room?
KEELY: If I haven’t sung for a while – I’ll start about two weeks ahead of time. I listen to my own recordings and sing along with them to get over the hoarseness. By the time I come to work I’m ready to do a full show. I’m practicing to sing what they expect to hear. People are funny. When they come to see your show they want to hear what’s on that record. On stage, I’ve changed arrangements of songs – and then people come up to me afterwards and say, “That’s not the arrangement on the record.” So, I put it back.
SEÁN: And in the same keys?
KEELY: In the same keys. God has been very good to me. I don’t abuse my voice. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I’m not into drinks. Basically, I live a very healthy life. And I’m a happy person.
SEÁN: It shows.
KEELY: And I put my faith in God. That’s it.
SEÁN: That sounds like a Finale to me. What are you doing for an encore?
KEELY: Gonna look for a man!
SEÁN: Can you hum a few bars for me? (Much laughter).
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