You can take the girl out of Virginia, but you can’t take Virginia out of the girl. At least that’s what Norfolk native Keely Smith says of herself after nearly 50 years in Las Vegas.
“I think I’m still a Virginia girl,” she told me by phone last week. “I hope I never lose that. It’s kept my feet on the ground and my head on straight.”
Smith, who has made quite a name for herself in the world of music, will be among the five honorees Tuesday night at Norfolk’s second Legends of Music Walk of Fame induction ceremony and concert at the Roper Performing Arts Center. And it all started when she was an eleven year old named Dot Keely living on Olney Road in Norfolk, when a friend asked her to come along to an audition for a radio show called Joe Brown’s Radio Gang.
“I went with my girlfriend,” she remembers, “and Mr. Brown asked me if I sang. I said only for family, but he said, ‘Well come on, sing a song for me.’ And they took me but they didn’t take my girlfriend.”
She continued to sing through her years at Blair Junior High and Maury High School, first with the Naval Air Station band led by Saxie Dowell, then with bandleader Earl Bennett.
“Doug Parker’s band was the hip, swinging band,” she laughs. “I sang with the corny band, Earl Bennett. I sang with Earl all through my high school days. He played all the Shriners and the Elks Clubs and all that kind of stuff.”
In the summer of 1947, Keely and her family took a trip north, during which they visited the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was there that she and her brother “Piggy” first saw the big band of Louis Prima, a band she had not previously heard of, though Prima had recorded a number of swinging novelty hits. They loved what they heard and told everyone back home of this great music they’d discovered.
“In Virginia Beach at the Surf Club, [the owner] Mr. Kaine brought in a different big band every week in the summer months. We went to him and told him, ‘You’ve got to bring in Louis Prima.’ He’d never heard of Louis Prima, but I said, ‘Trust me, he will pack this place.’
“Luckily, Mr. Kaine listened to us and the next summer he brought Louis in. We had the place packed opening night. We had gotten all our friends to come. And sure enough, Louis was that good that he packed it the rest of the week.”
That first Friday night, Prima announced from the stage that he was looking for a singer. Several of the girls from the radio show tried out, but Keely didn’t.
“On Sunday afternoon they had a tea dance,” she recalls. “And I was out on the beach in my bathing suit when I heard from the bandstand, ‘Dot Keely, come to the bandstand.’
“My mother and dad went with us everywhere, so I thought something had happened to one of them. I borrowed a skirt and a blouse and I went in. Louis was waiting there and I said, ‘Is there anything wrong with my mom?’ And he said, ‘No no, I understand you’re a singer.’ And I said, ‘Yeh, but not your kind of singer.’ He said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ I said, ‘I sing with a little local band around town.’ And he said, ‘I’d like you to get up and sing a couple of songs.’ I started getting nervous, my knees started shaking. Finally he talked me into it.
“I went up onstage barefoot, in this borrowed blouse and skirt, and I sang two songs and he hired me on the spot.
“What he didn’t know,” she continues, “was that I knew all of his arrangements. After I saw him in Atlantic City, I went home and bought every Louis Prima record I could find. I knew all of the girls’ vocals; I knew all of the boys’ vocals. He didn’t have to teach me anything. The only thing was, the only gown I had was my high school prom dress. So, the only thing he had to do was get me some gowns to wear.”
Dot Keely became Keely Smith, and she and Prima began a musical association that would last through the next decade. In 1953, the two were married, and when Keely became pregnant, Prima decided it was time to slow the pace down a bit.
“He called Bill Miller, the entertainment director of the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, and said, ‘I need a job. My wife is pregnant and we’re broke and we need a job.’”
Miller offered them two weeks in the hotel’s lounge doing the midnight-6:00 am shift, playing five shows a night. The two weeks stretched into seven years, and their act, combining Prima’s wild stage antics with Smith’s cool demeanor and classy vocals, became one of the most popular shows in town.
“It wasn’t a role,” she says of her stage persona. “It was something that I did. I was never a hand clapper or a finger snapper, and when we were at the Sahara Lounge, the stage was very small. It was up behind the bar. And there was no place for me to stand except in front of the upright piano. I used to just cross my arms across my chest and for a half hour I just stood there and did nothing. It was like a half hour before I sang anything.
“Where I was standing, I could see the front door, I could see the showroom door, I could see a side entrance, and I watched people come and go. I was so busy doing what I call being nosy that when Louis would come and shake my skirt and do motions to me, I would look at him like, ‘You’re interrupting my train of thought.’ It gave the impression that I was a deadpan and that I was angry with him.”
At the first Grammy awards ceremony in 1958, the duo won a Grammy for their rollicking version of “That Old Black Magic.” Around the same time, she began a successful singing career on her own with the album I Wish You Love. But she maintains that she never realized how big she and Prima had become.
“I had two beautiful daughters,” she says. “In the daytime I would stay home with them, Louis would go play golf, and in the night time we would go to work. So it didn’t dawn on me that we were stars or not stars.”
The marriage and musical partnership ended in 1961, but Keely Smith’s solo career soared until she took a hiatus to spend more time with her children in the mid ‘60s. In the interim she was linked romantically with her sometime duet partner Frank Sinatra:
“I almost married Frank. He was a wonderful man, but we lived different lifestyles. Frank was on the fast lane and I was still a Virginia girl.”
In recent years, her music has reached a whole new generation, thanks in part to a television commercial for the Gap that featured her and Prima doing “Jump, Jive and Wail.” In the last four years, she’s produced three critically and commercially successful recordings for the Concord Jazz label, including the Grammy nominated Keely Sings Sinatra.
And Tuesday night, this “Virginia girl” comes home to sing a few songs, take a few bows, and get a star on the Granby Street sidewalk.
copyright © 2003 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.