Entertainer, singer, actor, songwriter, and trumpeter Louis Prima passed away on this day in 1978.
Disney fans will recognize his distinctive voice as the raucous orangutan King Louie in the 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book. In the film Prima's character sang the memorable "I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)" written by Robert and Richard Sherman. It was actually Disney record producer Tutti Camarata who convinced Prima to take part in the animated film. ("I Wanna Be Like You" has been re-recorded countless times by such artists as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Smash Mouth, and the Jonas Brothers.)
Born into a musical family in New Orleans, Prima started playing professionally in his late teens. His trumpet and singing style was directly influenced by growing up in New Orleans - a city oozing with musical diversity. Like jazz great Louis Armstrong (also a New Orleans singing trumpet player) Prima developed a distinct scat singing style.
Throughout his professional life, he rode the musical trends of his time. Prima started out with a New Orleans jazz band in the 1920s, then led a swing combo in the 1930s, a big band in the 1940s, a hip Vegas act in the 1950s, and a pop rock band in the 1960s. As a songwriter, Prima's 1936 composition "Sing, Sing, Sing" became one of the biggest hits of the swing era (first made famous by Benny Goodman).
Prima is probably best remembered for his 1950s Vegas act with singer Keely Smith (his fourth wife), saxophonist Sam Butera and his band The Witnesses. A mix of humor and swing/blues/boogie-woogie music, Smith and Prima were the model for Sonny & Cher - a wise-cracking Italian musician and an exotic serious singer. Throughout the 1950s they tirelessly performed to sold-out audiences at The Sahara in Las Vegas and released a string of record albums. Prima and Smith even won a Grammy in 1959 for their single "That Old Black Magic."
Prima's legacy continues today as his influence can be heard in recordings by Brian Setzer (who recorded a version of Prima's "Jump Jive and Wail") and David Lee Roth (who had a huge hit with a version of "Just a Gigolo"/"I Ain't Got Nobody"). Many of his old recordings have been used on television (The Sopranos and Gilmore Girls) and in feature films (Mission Impossible III and Elf).
Sadly in 1973, Louis Prima suffered a mild heart attack. Two years later he complained of headaches and had bouts of memory loss. Unfortunately it was discovered that he had a stem brain tumor. Following surgery (to remove the tumor) he went into a coma and never recovered. He spent the last few years of his life in a New Orleans nursing home until his death at the age of 67 on this day in 1978.
He is buried in Metaire Cemetery in his hometown. Prima's gray marble crypt features a figure of the angel Gabriel playing a trumpet. The inscription on the crypt's door quotes the lyrics from one of his biggest hit songs:
"When the end comes I know, they'll say just a gigolo, and life goes on without me."
Click HERE for more August 24 Disney history.