Sam Butera, the hard-driving, hard-swinging New Orleans saxophonist who was Louis Prima's longtime musical partner, died Wednesday in Las Vegas following a long illness. He was 81.
Mr. Butera joined Prima's band in 1954. With singer Keely Smith, they built one of the most popular acts in the golden age of Las Vegas. Mr. Butera cooked up the arrangements that gave the likes of Just a Gigolo," I Ain't Got Nobody" and Jump Jive An' Wail" maximum impact.
Louis's ace-in-the-hole was Sam Butera," said Gia Prima, the fifth of Louis's five wives and the singer in his band from 1962 to 1975. That animal attraction that they had, with Sam's honking sax and Louis's jumping and jiving -- without Sam, Louis couldn't have pulled it off."
Mr. Butera grew up in the 7th Ward. His father owned Poor Boys Grocery & Meat Market. One evening the elder Butera took his son to see a big band, and asked the boy which horn he liked the best.
The saxophones were closest, so I pointed to the saxophones," Mr. Butera recalled in a 1996 interview. The next day I had a horn."
A prodigy, he turned pro at 14, serving as the human jukebox for strippers on Bourbon Street. I worked at every joint on that street," he recounted. You name it and I worked it. All those girls wanted to do was mother me."
At 18, he was voted the Outstanding Teenage Musician in America" by Look Magazine at Carnegie Hall in New York. After graduating from Holy Cross High School, he considered Notre Dame University scholarships for music and track and a career in mechanical engineering. Instead he hit the road with big bands led by Ray McKinley, Tommy Dorsey and Al Hirt.
By late 1954, he'd cut several records under his own name. He often performed at the 500 Club on Bourbon Street, which was owned by Prima's brother Leon. Looking to staff his new band at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, Prima scouted Mr. Butera at the 500 Club and offered him a job.