Louis Prima Jr
Philip ClevingerGregg FoxRyan McKay
Marco PalosSteve PandisTed SchumacherLeslie Spencer
Return to “The Witnesses”
Born four days before Father’s Day 1965, Louis Prima Jr. is the youngest child and only son of music and entertainment legend Louis Prima. His mother and Louis Sr.’s widow, Gia Maione Prima, began performing with Sr. in 1962, and put her career on hold in order to raise Louis Jr. and his sister, Lena Prima.
It was Gia who first introduced him to music, teaching Jr. how to play the drums at 5 years old. But it was his father who first put him on stage. Also at age 5, Louis hit the stage at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, when Sam Butera shouted those familiar words, “and now, the man who plays pretty for the people… Louis Prima!” Louis Jr., with trumpet in hand, walked onto the stage to a sea of laughter. Later that same night, Louis and his sister Lena floored the crowd with a rousing, “Prima-ized” version of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” This would not be the only time that he would “trick” the fans, walking onstage in place of his father, nor would it be the his only time sharing the stage with his father and The Witnesses. Louis Jr. and Lena performed several songs over the years, including Loggins and Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance and Your Daddy Don’t Rock and Roll” and “On Top of Spaghetti.”
“We grew up on the outskirts of Vegas, on my dad’s golf course, ‘Fairway to the Stars,’ and spent two weeks every summer at my grandparents’ in Toms River, New Jersey. My grandfather Tom Maione owned the Red Top on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights. That’s where my mother grew up. It was a typical Italian family. Mom had breakfast for us every morning, and dinner was promptly at five, so my dad could catch a nap before heading to work. We were fortunate enough to not only see my father onstage in Vegas quite often, but we hit the road with him over the summers as well. My father got a big kick out of having me come on stage instead of him. He would even have me come up and tell dirty jokes. The crowds loved it, I had no idea what they were laughing at.”
The early 70s saw the Vegas landscape changing, Sr. returned home to New Orleans, to take up residency at The Royal Sonesta, moving the family with him. It was there that Louis Jr. first learned to play the piano. His aunt (Louis Sr.’s sister) Sister Mary Ann taught piano, and Louis quickly caught on. The family moved into the home that Sr. built for his mother on Pretty Acres Golf Course in Covington, LA., but soon realized the house might need to be raised, due to a termite infestation. “It is the first time I saw my father cry.” And the family promptly moved back to Las Vegas.
“The 70s are the times I remember the most, playing golf with my father and going into the city with him. The way he treated people along the way made the greatest impact on me. He always had time for a hello and a smile. He never turned away from a fan or a casual acquaintance who just wanted to say hello.” One of Jr.’s fondest memories was watching his father record his final album, Wildest 75. But the elder Prima had been diagnosed with a Tumor on his brain stem and, despite the odds, opted for surgery. “He felt young and vibrant. The tumor was affecting his performances and everyday life. I don’t think he was willing to give up the stage. That’s where he belonged.” After the surgery in July 1975, Prima Sr. slipped into a coma that would last three years.
“My mother was left with quite a mess, business and family. We had to sell the golf course in Vegas and move back home to Covington.” Gia had Sr. flown to New Orleans, to the Oschner Clinic, and the family took up residence back at Pretty Acres. It was then that Louis Jr. found Rock and Roll. “I hated disco.” He picked up the guitar but was quickly frustrated with its difficulty. “I don’t know if it is dyslexia or restricted finger movement from a broken arm, but it just did not come easy to me. I still play from time to time, but not well. I admire guitar players, what a difficult instrument, and some make it look so easy.”
Shortly after his father passed away in August of 1978, Jr. and family moved back to Las Vegas. When enrolling in junior high school, he chose band as an elective and told his mother he wanted to play the trumpet. He continued playing through high school, and cites his band directors Bruce Cullings and William “Mac” McMosley as major influences in his life. The high school bands were some of the top in the country, winning top honors in every competition. They competed in the Heavy Division of the Chaffey Jazz Festival, and they marched in the Fiesta Bowl and Sun Bowl.
Though he enjoyed making music, upon graduating High School, Prima decided that music was not in his cards, and he opted to start college and move into the business world. He quickly landed a good job, with what he believed a future, and dropped out of College after only one semester. “I was young and stupid. I was working, paying the bills, and enjoying life on my own, doing all the reckless things that young people do. My sister had a rock band, and the local clubs would sneak my friends and me in to see her. She began inviting me onstage to sing Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” with her. We also would get all dressed up and go see my father’s old band, The Witnesses. They would let me get up and sing as well. I slowly began to REALLY enjoy being onstage, up front, making people happy.” But it was personal tragedy, four days before his 21st birthday that would force Jr. to view life a different way. “In an instant, I realized that life is short. You could be gone tomorrow. And how did you impact the world and those around you? Did I want to go through the paces of existence, or did I want to live life to the fullest? Did I want to pass people along the way, or did I want to impact their lives like my father did?” Almost immediately, he separated himself from all he knew, and formed the rock band PHD. Within a year, he had found a solid band that was renamed Problem Child.
Problem Child became the top draw in the local Vegas scene and set attendance records in several venues in Hollywood. They opened for numerous national acts in every genre, from the melodic Winger to hard rocking Savatage. By the early 90s, major labels were knocking on the door, but music was changing. Grunge was taking over. “With the instant fame of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, labels shifted their focus, and that’s all they wanted. Grunge. Grunge is depressing, sad. It glorifies all that is wrong. We were happy, fast and loud. We made people get up on their feet and smile. Labels didn’t want that any more, and I was unwilling to change. Music isn’t about grief and woe; it’s supposed to make you forget your worries, not sing about them. I was done. Grunge killed Rock and Roll”.
In 1995, though still playing to sellout crowds, Problem Child disbanded, and Louis shifted his musical focus to his other love. “I wanted to make people happy, and there is no better way to do that than with Prima music.” Enlisting the talents of his sister Lena, who had long since quit the Rock Game and established herself as a Las Vegas performer, Louis put together a band in his father’s mold. With the aid of Sr.’s keyboard player Bruce Zarka, Jr. assembled a band of some of the top musicians in Vegas. But things were changing in the Vegas entertainment world, and work did not come easy. Hotels were shifting the focus off of live bands. “I didn’t want to tour anymore; I wanted to play steady in one place.” Coupling this with his frustration with the business end of music, Prima quit again. “The business side of music is all about taking advantage of the artist. For almost 20 years, I watched my mother struggle with the poor decisions my father made. I was not going to let myself get taken advantage of. I felt kind of bad though, as I pulled my sister into my world, and left her to start from scratch again. Fortunately she recovered quickly.”
Jr. left the music world behind for a career in Food and Beverage Management. He started a family and moved on with life, performing only casually with friends. “I have two of the most amazing children, Jacob and Anthony. They are the loves of my life and make me truly happy to my soul.” But the magic of being on stage is a powerful drug. Rising in the business world, as acting Assistant General Manager for HMS Host at McCarran International Airport, was not enough to keep Prima from performing. Whether personal struggles or the dark side of Corporate America, Jr. would again shift focus. In 2004, at the urging of a close friend, he began assembling a band to perform his father’s music. But his focus had changed. Louis did not just want to play for tourists in Vegas. He felt that his father’s music and style, which continued to be a part of popular culture through movies, television and the non-stop remakes of his classics, could be sustained on a global level. “I wanted a band, not just musicians behind me. I knew that every age, every ethnicity enjoys Prima music. I knew that there was no one out there doing it right. I wanted a group that knew how to perform, not just play notes. I wanted people with passion for what they do, who will give it all on stage. I searched for and found people who love the music, have studied the music, grew up on the music. Guys (and gal) who put their all into the live performance. This is not a group of copycats. They bring their own personalities and talents. My Witnesses are the world’s most dangerous band. I am fortunate and humbled each and every time we hit the stage. I love seeing video of us, and the mayhem that goes on behind me. And the best part? We all have become friends, and truly enjoy ourselves on and off stage. I am having the time of my life.”
With a solid group around him, and their debut album, RETURN OF THE WILDEST!, Prima has finally found a home, giving his father’s style of music a jump start, new energy and power, not unlike his father would be doing. “My father continually moved with the times, constantly reinventing himself to remain on top of the musical styles. It is the 21st century, and I want the music to reflect the times: louder, faster prouder. We definitely take it up a notch.” And the sky is the limit. Jr. looks forward to injecting his own music into the mix and continuing his father’s legacy. Sr. performed, recorded, and stayed on top for 50 years. Jr. hopes to take it for 50 more.