Jumping, Jiving, Wailing
Written by Lisa M. Daliet
Wednesday, 29 July 2009 19:23
The story goes that in 1953 bandleader Louis Prima telephoned Sam Butera in New Orleans on Christmas Eve, asked him to pull together a band and join him for a residency at the Sahara Hotel’s Casbar Lounge. So, Butera walked away from a long-standing gig at a hot club on Bourbon Street, hustled together a few musicians and set out for Las Vegas on December 26. He dubbed the band The Witnesses. And the rest, as the say, is history.
Star of the Strip
Butera played a mad tenor saxophone and spent the greater part of his career as the solid backbone and sideman to Prima’s act. The two of them, along with The Witnesses and Prima’s fourth wife Keely Smith, delivered a jump jivin’, raucous show of comic bantering, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, fun antics and hard-hitting swing music. They were wildly popular; the grandfathers of classic 50’s Vegas when stars and high rollers flocked to the neon Strip for glamour and good times, and these two cool cats entertain them all with style, showmanship and shtick. For a couple of Italian guys from New Orleans this was exciting stuff.
“They played infectious music,” says Joe Segreto, long-time friend and one-time manager of the Prima-Butera partnership. Segreto joined the ensemble in 1961 shortly after Prima’s fifth wife Gia Maione replaced Smith. “We’d look out into the audience and there would be Joe DiMaggio, Cary Grant, Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali, all the big people of sports and movies, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis Presley. And Sam was a lot of what they came to see, he was so exciting and his playing was so magnificent. Tom Jones would sit there mesmerized watching him every night. They were enamored by the excitement that Louis and Sam Butera caused. Nobody could sound like Sam on the saxophone.”
Butera brought a hip-ness and edginess to Prima’s classic swing arrangements, infusing into the music a little rhythm and blues, a little shuffle beat and a whole lot of energy.
New Orleans in the Heart
Angelina Butera, great niece to the legendary saxophonist and a highly respected makeup artist and stylist in Hollywood, remembers, “When I was a little girl my parents would bring me to the Blue Room in the Fairmont Hotel to see him during Christmas. He always had a gig there that ran from Christmas Eve to New Years Eve. [One time] Sam stopped the show and had me stand up and he said ‘this song goes out to my beautiful niece.’ Then he played “Angelina” for me, even though it wasn’t on the set list and hadn’t been rehearsed. I remember his gorgeous saxophone and sitting in his hotel room after the show with my dad [Joe, III] as they talked and caught up on all of the New Orleans family affairs. Sam kept that horn so shiny and immaculate. Even though I didn’t know what to do he would let me pretend to clean it and say ‘Wow Angelina it’s never been so clean and beautiful, thank you so much’.”
Sadly, following a period of failing health, Butera’s illustrious life and career came to an end when he passed away in June at the age of 81. A born entertainer, he did what he loved best and touched many people with his music and fun-loving stage persona. Out of the limelight, though, he was quiet and reserved. “At the same time he had a wonderful sense of humor, and was easy to laugh and smile.” recalls Segreto.
Butera’s parents Joe, butcher and owner of Little Joe’s Food Store on St. Anthony Street and Poor Boy Grocery, and wife Rosa settled in the Gentilly neighborhood and raised two boys. Joe, Jr. joined the family business right out of high school, married and had five children, christening the eldest Joe, III. Sam Butera, encouraged by his father, an amateur musician, began playing music as a young boy, first the clarinet then the saxophone. By high school he was playing professionally. “He was also a star at Holy Cross in track and field, and in football.” Segreto remembers, who later attended the historic school. “He was small but he was fast as lightening. He was a big star as a young man in sports and in the band.” But like Joe, Jr., he passed on a partial scholarship to Notre Dame; then hit the road to play music.
In 1946, at the age of 19, he was voted best upcoming jazzmen by Look magazine and was awarded the chance to play Carnegie Hall in New York with the other contest winners.
“I met Sam Butera years and years ago when I was just a child,” says Segreto, who today owns and runs Eleven 79, a cozy Italian American New Orleans style restaurant on Annunciation Street in the Warehouse District. “He was about 12 or 13 years older than me and he was working around New Orleans, and at my father [yet another Joe] and Leon Prima’s place the 500 Club on Bourbon. When I was a teenager, I used to go and see him out at Gordon Natal’s famous club way out on Chef Menteur Highway. He was a young musician just getting started in the business. That’s when I came to know him, long before he played with any of the big bands [Ray McKinley and Tommy Dorsey], and before he went with Louis.”
Prima came to know Butera from the clubs up and down Bourbon including, of course, from his brother’s. “My Dad and Louis were raised together,” says the 68-year-old Segreto. “And were friends from childhood; and then my Dad was in business with his brother Leon. So I knew Louis all my life.”
Although now living in LA, having moved after losing everything to Hurricane Katrina, Angelina recalls what it was like growing up in the close-knit Butera family. “Our family owned three homes on six lots—my great grandmother’s home, my grandparents’ home, and ours. The whole family would have dinner around 2 p.m. at my great grandmother’s house every single Sunday. It was like Thanksgiving but with bushaloni or lasagna instead of turkey. Uncle Sam’s trophies and photos were all carefully placed together in the den next to the turntable where we would play his records. We would all gather by the TV every year to watch him perform for the Jerry Lewis Telethon. It was exciting when he would visit. I remember coming home from school one day when I was about 8 and as the school bus dropped me off I saw a big beautiful tour bus in front on the street. Uncle Sam had detoured to come visit his mother and family. I ran over so excited to see him.”
“During his visits he would always go to Angelo Brocato’s on Carrollton Avenue and get a box of cannoli and a case of spumoni along with assorted cookies and bring them to his mother. He had a sweet tooth and loved that place. He had his favorite lazy boy chair and he would just visit with his mama. He had her smile. We call it the ‘Butera’ smile; half of us have it … and man does it light up a room!”
In 1998 Butera received an Entertainer of the Year Award during a ceremony at the Monteleone Hotel and local fans were treated to a show at The Shim Sham Club.
“It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice” – Sam Butera
“Sam was just a star,” says Segreto who managed the music and business for the group for nearly a decade, running the office, handling booking and publishing, and the recording company, Prima Magnagroove Records. “Forty-five minutes or so before a set, Sam would be playing scales to make sure that the horn was sounding correctly. His music, his performance, his singing, he was always just full of energy. It was just like he used to say, ‘this is happy music’. It made people happy, and he was a great comic. Louie was a great comic. The two of them together were unbelievable.”
“When Louis wanted to take off, or later on, when Louis was sick,” recalls Segreto, “Sam would take The Witnesses out and do the show himself. And that was really the beginning of Sam stepping out to the forefront more than he’d ever done before. And he became a marvelous bandleader and performer.”
As a singer, Butera shared with Prima that husky, French Quarter-Italian vocal style. “Like they came from one street corner in New Orleans,” chuckles Segreto in his gravel-filled Italian voice. Following Prima’s death in 1978, Butera would continue to enjoy a prolific career performing with his band renamed The Wildest, and touring for a stint with Frank Sinatra.
Prima, Butera, Maione and The Witnesses played 42 weeks out of the year, alternating between Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe, sometimes traveling to New York or Chicago. They had a string of hits (like “Old Black Magic”, “Just a Gigolo”, “Jump Jive An’ Wail” and the tongue-in-cheek “There’ll Be No Next Time” on which Butera sang lead), appeared in a couple of movies and performed on every major variety television show of the time.
“Once we had a contract [with a 15 or 20 thousand dollar cancellation clause] to play the Steve Lawrence-Eydie Gorme TV Show,” recalls Segreto. “Louis hated to fly and he’d take the train or we’d drive. But [sometimes] we couldn’t get there fast enough. So I told Louis ‘you can’t cancel this time chief”. He wouldn’t talk to us for about three weeks, and didn’t talk to us on the plane at all. So when we’re getting off the plane, Butera said ‘hey chief how you gonna go back?’ He went whoo-whoo like a train. Sam and all of us were laughing like crazy.”
“We were always together, hanging around cooking big pasta meals, spaghetti and meatballs and all kinds of stuff and reminiscing about our families back home,” says Segreto. “There was a lot of camaraderie between Italian guys in the music business. We found out that the Italian guys from Philadelphia were a whole lot like the Italian guys from New Orleans.”
Butera never forgot where he came from nor took for granted the amazing life he led. He had married his high school sweetheart Vera. They lived 63 years together and had four children, Sam Jr., Cheryl, Diane and Nick.
“About four years ago my boyfriend and I went to Vegas for my cousins wedding,” remembers Angelina. “The next day Uncle Sam took the whole family to dinner after a golf game with the sons and grandsons. Later that night he walked Ryan and I through the house; his home is like a museum. He told stories about each photo, each award, each gift, it was truly amazing and a beautiful walk down memory lane. The stories went from the 1950's on.”
“He also believed that he was the saxophone player that Bill Clinton's mother saw on Bourbon Street when she was young, in turn making him the inspiration for Bill playing the sax. He said they played with similar rigs. He wanted to get that message to Bill because in interviews Bill has expressed that he would love to find out who it was that his mother saw play back then.”
During the eulogy at Butera’s funeral someone said “If I knew Sam Butera at all, I’ll bet when he walked through those pearly gates in heaven he shook St. Peter’s hand and said ‘Say Pete nice to meet you, but I think it’s time you get rid of this Gabriel fella because I’m gonna be playin’ the horn up here from now on.”
“I thought that was so right on!” says Angelina.
Next year is the 100 anniversary of Louis Prima’s birth. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is planning a tribute, including a special poster by legendary crooner and artist Tony Bennett.
Photos courtesy of the Sam Butera Estate and Joe Segreto.
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