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Keely Smith (1929-2017)

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Keely Smith, a vocalist best known in the 1950s at nightclubs and on TV as the stone-faced half of a husband-and-wife comic duo in which she impatiently waited out and mocked the rubbery crooning style of mate Louis Prima before delivering a sincere pop rendition of her own, died on December 16. She was 89.

After their divorce in 1961, the split left fans wondering whether the personality differences that made their on-stage act so successful were, in part, rooted in their home life. Everything about Keely's darting looks on stage and Prima's apprehensive glaces seemed a little too real. The discord that they ginned up—Prima's primal R&B delivery and Smith's controlled pop response—on hit songs such as That Old Black Magic, Just a Gigilo and Don't Worry About Me seemed akin to the marital strains on TV's The Honeymooners.

In some respects, their mass appeal rested largely with the subtext in their act, depending on your perspective. From a wife's vantage point, the pains of enduring the loud, clownish antics of a husband were all too familiar, while the male view saw Smith as an up-tight kill-joy only too eager to extinguish her husband's fun. In truth, the act borrowed quite a bit from the jazz-pop pairing of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. 

In the 1960s, a newly single Smith went on to have a strong solo career at clubs and on albums, thanks in part to the benevolence of Frank Sinatra, whose Reprise label signed her. Some of her best albums were recording during this period.

In the 1950s, the pairing of Keely and Prima helped loosen up pop music, injecting heat and chicanery to a genre that had grown staid and sexless. A familiar melody in the hands of Prima and Keely was given fresh life as a novelty song, particularly when the blow torch of Sam Butera's raucous saxophone was added.

Here are a bunch of videos celebrating Smith's voice:

Here's That Old Black Magic...



Here's All the Way...



Here's Superstar....



Here's Do You Want to Know a Secret...



Here's Imagination...



And here's What Kind of Fool Am I (that last held note is all you need to know about Smith)...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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