Keely Smith, the iconic singer/performer known for her many solo recordings as well as her musical partnership with first husband Louis Prima, died in Palm Springs, CA on Saturday, December 16. She was 89 and under physicians’ care at the time of her passing from apparent heart failure.
Born Dorothy Jacqueline Keely in Norfolk VA on March 9, 19 28 of Native American (Cherokee) and Irish parentage, Smith showed a natural aptitude for singing at a young age. At 14, she sang with a naval air station band and at 15, she got her first paying job with the Earl Bennett band.
Smith, still a teenager, auditioned to be the “girl singer” in Prima’s band, got the job and hit the road with them in 1948. She and Prima married in 1953 and had two children together, Toni Prima and Luanne Prima, both of whom survive their mother.
The Smith and Prima combination was a potent one both on stage, on television, in films and on records and made Keely Smith a household name. Their partnership earned them a Grammy in 1959, the very first year of the awards, for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for their Capitol Records smash hit “That Old Black Magic” which stayed on the charts for 18 weeks. She went on, 42 years later, to receive a Grammy nomination for her 2001 album, Keely Sings Sinatra in the Traditional Pop Vocal category. She revisited “That Old Black Magic” on the 50th Grammy Awards telecast in 2008 when she performed the song as a duet with Kid Rock.
She was also seen on the big screen in Hey Boy! Hey Girl!, Senior Prom and Thunder Road while her performing brilliance earned her the title “Queen of Las Vegas.” She was very resolute in being in control of the trajectory of her career, as underscored by a comment offered to Theatermania some time before her retirement five years ago, “Nobody will ever interfere with what I do on stage. Someone might have an opinion of something but, if I disagree with it, I’ll go with my own thinking. I’m just a plain person. I sing like I talk — and, when I’m on stage, I talk just like I’m talking to you.”
Other Smith and Prima hits included “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and best selling albums with Prima including The Wildest! and The Wildest Show At Tahoe.
Her 1957 solo debut, I Wish You Love, produced by Nelson Riddle, established her as a significant recording star in her own right and she followed that up with a string of releases for Capitol, Dot and Reprise including Swingin’ Pretty and The Intimate Keely Smith. The latter album, recorded after her 1961 divorce from Prima, was produced by Jimmy Bowen who married her in 1965. It was re-released to great critical acclaim just last year with Marc Myers, writing in JazzWax, calling it “a flawless album.”
In a time when few women had the vision to be masters of their own artistic and commercial destinies, she set up “Keely Records” her own record label in conjunction with friend Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records and embraced her role as one of Reprise’s signature artists.
Her classic run of dates at Feinstein’s in Manhattan in 2005 received both critical laudation and standing ovations. Variety noted, “Smith’s bold, dark voice took firm hold on a handful of great standard tunes, and she swung hard” while The New Yorker’s review called her “both legendary and underrated.. she can still sing the stuffing out of a ballad as well as swing any tune into the stratosphere.” Keely Smith’s final performance took place in February 13, 2011 at Cerritos Performing Arts Center in Southern California.
Over the course of a career that ran for seven decades, Keely Smith has been honored with numerous awards apart from her Grammy. She was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, inducted into the Las Vegas Hall of Fame and presented with a Star on Walk of Stars in Palm Springs where she made her home for the past 40 years.
Memorial services for Keely Smith are pending.