Remembering Keely Smith

Keely Smith (1928 – 2017)

Paying tribute to the ballad singer

Keely Smith (Mar. 9, 1928 – Dec. 16, 2017), while best known for her association with her former husband Louis Prima, had a strong solo career as a ballad-oriented singer.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Smith began singing professionally when she was 15 with the Earl Bennett band.

When she was 21 in 1949, she met and began performing with trumpeter-singer Louis Prima, four years before they were married.

After Prima began using tenor-saxophonist Sam Butera and his rollicking band in the mid-1950s, the Prima-Smith combination hit pay dirt, becoming the hottest act in Las Vegas with their high-powered show.

While Prima and the musicians were hyper and humorous, Keely Smith wore a deadpan expression as if she were not impressed by it all, only showing feeling when she emerged from the hilarity to sing a warm ballad.

Smith, who had a solo hit in 1957 with “I Wish You Love,” divorced Prima in 1961 and had a busy solo career in the 1960s with a new hit in “You’re Breaking My Heart.”

After years off the scene, the Retro Swing movement helped bring her back to singing in 1985 and she continued performing until about a decade before her death at age 89 from heart failure.

This version of “When Day Is Done” features Keely Smith on a 1958 Frank Sinatra television special, joking a bit with Louis Prima and Sinatra before displaying the beauty of her voice on the 1920s ballad.

-Scott Yanow