KEELY SMITH BETTER THAN EVER
By Jimmy Scalia
I had the pleasure to be present at a ceremony a month or so ago in New York City hosted by Women In Music Inc. On the agenda for this event were six recipients: Caroline Bienstock, Rachelle Friedman, Helen Hobbs Jordan, Jean Riggins, Ronnie Spector and Keely Smith for the very prestigious Touchstone Awards. The Touchstone Award symbolizes the visionary spirit of women in music who make a difference through their pioneering mission of service to the music industry.
I had the chance to meet and talk with Keely and her husband Bobby Milano. Knowing Keely had bestowed upon her some very special awards such as, The City Of Hope Award and her own star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame (just to name a few), I asked her how this award ranks in comparison to other awards in the past. Her response was: " The name of this award is important, Women In Music. I have received other awards in the past but to receive something that symbolized not only your accomplishment but being a woman makes this a very special award. I am not a woman activist, I definitely believe in family and man, I do not neccessarily believe man is the boss, but I was raised that way to tell you the truth. You know, you grow up, you get married, you have babies and you stay home. I have a southern outlook on a male/female relationship. The fact that I have survived and raised my daughters almost alone and stuck it out and it finally looks like I have a new career going again and to have the Woman In Music Award, that is important to me".
Dot Keely, or as we know her Keely Smith has in fact come a long way. To think that it must have been fate which lead that eleven year old girl to go down to a radio program with her girlfriend which was called Joe Brown's Radio Gang. It was actually her girlfriend who wanted to go down and Keely went with her, just as a companion. While at the radio program Mr. Brown turned to Keely and asked her, "Do you sing?" She responded; "Yes, but just for my family". Mr. Brown had convinced Keely to sing a couple of songs and by the time she finished Mr. Brown had accepted her for the show and not her girlfriend. Believe it or not Keely had stayed on that program almost until the time she left home with Louie Prima. Mr. Brown had people from two years of age to eighteen they would tap dance, twirl batons, do comedy and sing. Anything you could think of in music Mr. Brown had in that group of children.
He would take the children and do shows all around Norfolk, Virginia on Friday and Saturday nights. Here is where Keely learned microphone technique as well as building her repertoire of songs. Then at fourteen Keely started singing with a naval air station band. The leader of that band was a gentleman by the name of Saxy Dowel. Saxy Dowel was a famous saxophone player in New York with the big bands. Saxy had players in his orchestra from the Glenn Miller band, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James, a lot of talented musicians worked in Saxy's band. Saxy also penned the tune, "Three Little Fishies". At fifteen Keely went on to her first paying job which was with Earl Bennett. She earned $5.00 a night. That five dollars did in fact enable Keely to buy school books and clothes for herself.
In 1947 Keely and her family went to New York. From New York the Smith's ventured to the seaside town of Atlantic City, New Jersey. While walking up and down the boardwalk Keely spotted place called The Steel Pier with a big banner that said, " Louie Prima and His Orchestra". Keely had never heard of Louie but turned to her brother and jitterbug partner and said, " Let's go see who this guy is!". Before long Keely found herself trying to make her way through the crowd to get closer to the bandstand. She was a bit perplexed because she could see half the people were standing up by the stage while the other half were in the back of the room dancing. She thought to herself, " What in the world is going on up there"? So she picked up her baby brother (figuring by holding a baby she would be able to get through the crowd) and worked her way up the edge of the stage. She is watching this man and cannot take her eyes off him, it is obvious that Louie Prima has already made quite an impression on Keely Smith. In 1948 Keely mentioned to the owner of the The Surf Club in Virginia Beach, that he should book a fellow by the name of Louie Prima. She pleaded with him and told him that she will pack the place for him on the opening night, She went on to say Mr. Prima will pack it from then on. Just as Keely said, the crowd loved Louie! It turns out Louie was on the look out for a girl singer. The girl singer that was with him was very nervous and it was obvious just how nervous she was. He then announced to the crowd that he was looking for a new singer. Several of the girls from the Joe Brown radio program came up to sing. At this point Keely was on the beach when all of a sudden she heard coming from the loud speaker "Dot Keely come to the bandstand." Being very concerned that something might have happened to a family member she scurried to find a blouse and skirt and went running up to the bandstand barefoot and said to Louie "Has something happened to my mother?" He replied back, "No, no everything is fine but I do understand you are a singer". Keely said, " Well, yes but not your kind of a singer. I just sing with a little local band. I'm not a professional ". He tried to convince her to come up on the stage which he finally did. Needless to say she was very nervous and shaking like a leaf. The two tunes she sang were Embraceable You and Sleepytime Gal. When the two songs were through Louie turned to Keely and hired her on the spot! She went to work for him that night. The only dress she had was her prom dress. One of the things that Louie did not know was that Keely already knew all of his arrangements. What happened was after Keely saw Louie in Atlantic City she went home and bought all of his records and knew all of the arrangements and the girl and boy vocals. So when she went to work for him she simply just fell right into it, and the rest as they say is history.
THE SOLO CAREER
I asked Keely about her start as a solo artist.
SCALIA: Is it fair to say that Louie nurtured you for a solo career?
KEELY: Actually pushed, I do not think nurtured is the right word. Louie never touched me vocally, he never told me how to sing. The only thing Louie ever said to me was, "When you're singing, you're telling a story". So, I sing Jimmy, like I talk and I think that is why the phrasing is the way that it is. People have asked me about that. I don't think about phrasing, I sing like I talk and it works. He had never given me any advice nor has anyone else. What he did do is when Capitol Records came along and we were at the Sahara and we had gotten so hot, they wanted to sign the group to record and Louie said, "Ok but you have to give Keely her own individual contract". Their response was, "No"!. So Louie said, "Well then you can't have the group". Capitol then said "Ok we take a pass". About two months later they came back and said " Ok we'll take her." And do you know what was so rewarding about that was my very first album wound up being a gold album. "I Wish You Love", turned out to be a big hit for me, and they kind of had to eat their words. That happened another time in our career, The Dean Martin Show wanted the group but again they did not want me, they wanted Julie London. Louie said, "No, Keely is Keely Smith and we are not going to do anything without her, and if you want to use Julie London you can get another group!". Finally they came back and said, "Ok".
After that we were working the Macambo in Hollywood and this gentleman who I had never met before came in. His name was Sye Howard and he was a big producer in Hollywood. He came and saw the show and when the show was over he came up to me and said, " I'm Sye Howard and I will to be doing the Dean Martin Show that you are going to be on. He said to me, "I've got to apologize to you, he said you're wonderful!" I said to him, "What do you mean apologize"? He said " Well, I'm the one that did not want you. I was pushing for Julie London, I was so wrong!" He featured me on the show and he gave me my own spot without the group, It just turned out great! But I'll tell you Louie stood up for me, he really did. Louie evidently knew someting that no one else knew including me.
Keely also told me of the teaming of Frank Sinatra and herself for a couple of duets done at Capitol records. Frank called up Keely and asked her if she would like to record with him. It was obvious what the answer was . Out of the two songs one was the tune "Nothing In Common" which was originally scored for a film by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. When Keely arrived at the studio she was briefed on the intoductions and endings. They did one take and at the finish of the song to Keely's amazement Frank said, " Ok, that one's good ". Keely being shocked said " No, No that's not good! I think we can do it better." And everyone just waited to see Frank's reaction. You see, Keely was not aware that very few people disagreed with Sinatra. It turns out they did do another take.
The song might have been a bigger hit had Capitol put more effort into pushing the tune. It seems there had been a little discrepancy on a Nat King Cole tune that did not get Capitol's full attention because they were pre-occupied with a Sinatra song. So this time around they were focusing on Nat's record.
SCALIA: I would like to talk about your new release titled "KEELY SINGS SINATRA" It seems to be getting rave reviews here in the states as well as across the pond. Is the success of this CD twice as sweet for you since it holds up as a quality Sinatra music Cd and yet still stands on it's own as a great Keely Smith disc?
KEELY: Yes, it's doubly sweet because it is Frank, however I must admit
to have this kind of recognition on my own is nice. I never obtained the success alone that Louie and I had together and it looks like now I might reach that.
You do realize Louie and I had won the first Grammy in 1958 for "That Old Black Magic". One of my thrills would be to win my own Grammy. Two years ago I had my star put on the Hollywood walk of fame. That was a big thrill for me because that was mine. So, yes this Cd is important to me.
SCALIA: I feel that this is one of the best CD's you have done. It is
also a great tribute CD.
KEELY: I did not do it as a tribute to Frank, when I did it Frank was alive. I was singing to him! To me there is a difference. Unfortunately he passed away while we were still mastering it but he did get to hear it and loved it, and that's all that mattered to me.
SCALIA: How is it working with Billy May?
KEELY: Oh, Billy May is
marvelous. The most wonderful thing happened when he walked into the studio and approached the podium to conduct, the musicians stood up and applauded him before he ever opened his mouth. I'll tell you I got chills!
SCALIA: I also enjoyed meeting and talking to your husband Bobby Milano
who I understand is in the process of doing his own CD?
KEELY: No, he completed it. It is a finished product and it's wonderful! It is called Bobby Milano In Concert.
I produced it, he produces mine and I produce his. And you do know Dennis Michaels our conductor is my son-in-law.
SCALIA: Oh yes, and just let me say he did a fantastic job. My wife Dina and I were blown away with the orchestra and your voice at New York's Irving Plaza. Do you think you will ever team up with anyone else?
KEELY: To begin with I don't want another partner, I cannot replace
Louie Prima, there is no way anyone can come near him. I worked with Sam Butera for three years in Vegas and the act was very good. He kind of did Louie, but then again he was not my partner. It was my show and I hired him. As for Bobby Milano he is good enough to do his own thing as a solo. If we wind up doing some duets down the line that is one thing but to incorporate him in everything I do would be wrong.
SCALIA: Gerry Stonestreet threw me a couple of questions to ask you.......Are there any future CD projects on the burner for you?
KEELY: Well I have a five CD deal with Concord and I've only given them two so far. We were going to go in and do something called "In A Keely Mood". We were going to do it with strings and do a mood album. We were going to try and recreate the feeling of the "I Wish You Love" album. However the Sinatra one is doing so well that the company and Bobby both are now talking about going back in and doing "Kelly Sings Sinatra One More Time". Bobby now came up with an idea to do an album called "Keely Smith and her All Stars". It will feature people like Eddie Daniels, Ray Brown, Stephane Grapelli and Doc Severeson, all top jazz players in the world and have them come in and do maybe two songs each on the album. So, I really do not know what the next project will be.
SCALIA: Is there any chance your Reprise material will be reissued on CD?
KEELY: I've been trying to get the Reprise material. I've been tying to buy it they won't sell it to me. I've been trying to lease it, thet won't do that. They just released the Sinatra repertoire theater, where I have two duets with Frank. There is a possibility they may release the Reprise, someday.
SCALIA: Is there any truth to the stories that you may be performing in
the UK this year?
KEELY: No, although I had been talking a deal with Pizza On The Park but
it did not work out.
Now we just talked to someone who is putting a tour together for Patti Page and Al Martino, so we are talking to him, he is a disc jockey over there in England. I would love to go to England.
In closing let me just say that Keely Smith and Bobby Milano are two of the nicest, most professional people one can ever have the pleasure of talking with. It is amazing how to this day Keely Smith's voice has not shown any signs of ware. And if you are not familiar with her current CD titled "Keely Sings Sinatra" on the Concord label, I strongly urge you to do yourself a favor and pick up a copy and experience a little bit of heaven here on earth, Keely Style!
My thanks to Keely Smith and Bobby Milano. A very special thanks to Gina Andriolo and Lisa Brigantino of Woman in Music Inc. who were very accomodating to me. If you wish to learn more about Women In Music you can visit their web site at: www.womeninmusic.org Please be sure to visit the Jimmy Scalia website at: www.jimmyscalia.com
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