The Intimate Keely Smith

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Keely Smith spent the 1950s in the shadow of her husband, Louis Prima. Both Smith and Prima were superbly talented for different reasons. Prima was a natural showman, a terrific musician and a high-energy R&B crooner. But Smith was the better vocalist. As Prima's straight-faced sidekick, Smith occasionally joined him in a comedic duet. When she did, she'd always take the song seriously for a bit to show off her chops. Your ears immediately took notice and you wanted to hear more. Unfortunately, we rarely did, and most of her solo albums during the period didn't always show off her full range of vocal talents. So Smith was thought of more as a comic foil rather than a powerful singer and shrewd interpreter of a lyric.

After Smith and Prima divorced in 1961, she signed with Frank Sinatra's Reprise label in 1962. As a Las Vegas fixture in the 1950s, Smith had become friendly with Sinatra, who surely appreciated her vocal talent and gumption. Between 1962 and '64, Keely recorded five jazz-pop albums for Reprise, and in many ways they are her finest works. All five albums are exceptional, with Smith showing off her taste, skill and range. She always had a young, smart approach to songs but never cut corners vocally, giving them her all.

One of these albums, The Intimate Keely Smith, recorded in 1964, has just been re-issued by Real Gone, and the quality of the work is, frankly, astonishing. Smith's song choices are off-beat and perfectly tailored for her voice, and her delivery is confessional and pure saloon. What's more, we hear Smith's voice completely exposed, with little to mask her intonation or articulation. Both are heart-melting.

On the album, Smith is accompanied by Jeff Lewis and Ernie Freeman (p), Dennis Budimer (g), Red Mitchell (b) and Irv Cotler (d). The group frames her sensitivity, and Smith's voice is so breathy and cozy, she seems snuggled on someone's shoulder while singing.

The songs are Somebody Loves Me, As Long as He Needs Me, Blame It on My Youth, He Needs Me, Sinner or Saint, It Had to Be You, Time After Time, Nancy/You Are My Sunshine, God Bless the Child, You'll Never Know and The Whippoorwill. See what I mean?

In addition to the original 11-song line-up, there are two bonus tracks—Twin Soliloquies, with Sinatra, and No One Ever Tells You (by Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Phil Spector for the Crystals), which was recorded by Smith as a Reprise single in 1963.

It's about time we've had a re-appraisal of Keely Smith, reminding those who thought she was a comic that she could sing artfully and introducing her to those who have no idea who she is or why she's so special. This is a flawless album and a perfect way to get to know a Las Vegas singer who should have been as widely known as any of the great jazz vocalists.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Intimate Keely Smith (Real Gone) here.

JazzWax clips: Here's As Long As He Needs Me. from Oliver! (1960). Dig the sound quality!

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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