He was best known for his musical partnership with entertainer Louis Prima. They were a nightclub fixture and appeared on TV and in movies.
Sam Butera, a hard-swinging tenor saxophonist who formed a rowdy and successful onstage partnership with entertainers Louis Prima and Keely Smith in the 1950s, died Wednesday at a hospital in Las Vegas. He was 81. He had Alzheimer's disease, according to a report in the Las Vegas Sun.
Prima, nearly 20 years older than Butera, was a composer ("Sing, Sing, Sing"), trumpeter, singer and irrepressible stage performer, a combination of Louis Armstrong and Jerry Lewis. His career was on the wane when he teamed in 1954 with Butera, who a few years earlier had been named the country's outstanding teenage jazz musician by Look magazine. Both men were New Orleans natives of Italian heritage.
Butera was enjoying a long engagement at a New Orleans club owned by Prima's brother before he and Louis Prima began a musical union in 1954 that lasted nearly two decades. They recorded hit albums for Capitol Records, became nightclub fixtures from Las Vegas to New York and appeared in movies and on television.
Prima was married to Smith, a smoky-voiced balladeer with a pageboy haircut, until their rancorous divorce in the early 1960s. Prima's fifth wife, Gia Maione, later joined the act as singer.
Backed by a small band called the Witnesses, the Prima-Smith-Butera partnership re-created jazz and pop standards in a dazzlingly inventive array of styles and tempos: swing jazz, shuffling" upbeat jump blues, Italian tarantellas and Dixieland. Some of their best-known titles included Just a Gigolo"/"I Ain't Got Nobody" (done as a medley), Pennies From Heaven," That Old Black Magic" (which won a Grammy Award), Jump, Jive an' Wail" and When You're Smiling."
Mostly, Butera took a supporting role to the headliner Prima but was at times allowed to shine in a singing role, notably on There'll Be No Next Time," a jokey, blues-inflected number about a man who goes to jail for failure to support" his faithless wife.