The beloved bandleader Louis Prima was born here, just off North Claiborne Avenue, in 1910. At the time, Sicilians like the Primas and other white immigrants lived alongside creoles of color and African-Americans in Treme. As a child, Prima absorbed the music and performance styles of his black neighbors: spasm bands on street corners, dance bands playing on the backs of trucks to advertise their gigs, spirituals emanating from churches, and brass bands marching in and out of St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. He came to idolize Louis Armstrong, who was ten years Prima’s senior and grew up about a mile away.
Prima led his first band at Jesuit High School and, at 19, landed a gig in the orchestra at the Saenger Theater. In addition to playing trumpet, Prima, a natural showman, started acting in comedy skits. To get laughs on some gigs he hired a black six-year-old from Treme named Earl Palmer to tug on his jacket between songs and say “Daddy, Mama wants you on the telephone.” Prima feigned embarrassment, slipped him some money, and stage-whispered “Here, kid, take this and beat it.” (Palmer went on to anchor the J&M Studio house band and become one of the most influential drummers in popular music).
One night in 1934, bandleader Guy Lombardo heard Prima’s horn from outside of a club on Bourbon Street and recruited him to play in New York. Prima became a sensation at the Famous Door on 52nd Street (not to be confused with the Famous Door that later opened on Bourbon). From there he moved to Hollywood, and spent the rest of the decade playing to packed theaters across the country. He recorded and composed along the way—his tune “Sing, Sing, Sing,” popularized by Benny Goodman, became a jazz standard.
When the market for big bands declined after World War II, Prima adapted his act and found new collaborators. The first was Keely Smith, a young singer who became Prima’s fourth wife–they worked on fresh material at the Sho-Bar in the French Quarter, among other places. The second, saxophonist Sam Butera, came thanks to Louis’ brother Leon. He booked Butera at his club on Bourbon Street, where he’d been playing behind strippers since he was 14. Prima tapped him to lead a band—the Witnesses—to back him in a residency at a Las Vegas casino.
The resulting stage show, with the rascally Prima playing off of Smith’s deadpan, became a national phenomenon. Biographer Garry Boulard notes that Prima’s wildness on stage and the driving rhythm of Butera’s band led some critics to consider them a rock and roll act (though much of their audience would have blanched at the thought). His New Orleans sensibility never left him: he ended every show by parading into the crowd with the band, playing “When The Saints Go Marching In.” A number of hit records followed, including the single “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” arranged by Butera, and Prima and Smith’s duet “Old Black Magic.”
In the 1960s Prima’s brand of showmanship fell out of fashion, and his acrimonious divorce from Smith threw some fans for a loop. He got a boost in 1968 when Disney made him the voice of King Louie the orangutan in “The Jungle Book.” After four decades in the spotlight, from vaudeville stages to television screens, Prima moved home to New Orleans in the 1970s. His tomb in nearby Jefferson Parish is inscribed with lyrics from his signature song: “When the end comes I know they’ll say ‘Just a gigolo’ as life goes on without me.”
About North Claiborne Avenue
Built over a drained swamp, North Claiborne Avenue began to take shape in the mid-1800s, with a canal running down its center flanked by rows of trees (which is why it’s nearly 200 feet wide).
Around 1900, in the formative years of jazz, the surrounding neighborhoods—Treme and the Seventh Ward—were home to African-Americans, Creoles of color, and working-class families of various European backgrounds.
Segregation intensified toward mid-century, with the new Lafitte public housing development admitting black families only. Under Jim Crow, an array of black-owned businesses took root on North Claiborne, catering to those who were denied service elsewhere.
By this time the drainage canal was filled in and live oak branches created a canopy overhead, making the Claiborne neutral ground (median) an ideal promenade for black residents’ parading traditions: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skeleton Gangs all attracted crowds here.
In 1966, over the protests of residents, public officials chose to uproot the oaks and build an elevated expressway above North Claiborne. As in other cities, the interstate paved the way for white flight to the suburbs.
A community of artists maintained the cultural vitality of the Claiborne corridor despite the ensuing divestment. Then, in 2005, the flood following Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. An uneven recovery followed, with many former residents unable to resettle in their neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and their followers still throng their traditional parade routes along North Claiborne, with brass bands and percussionists using the acoustics of the overpass to amplify their sound.
Though some post-Katrina plans proposed removing the overpass, today the city is trying to revitalize the space beneath it. Ironically, some now see it as a bulwark against the wave of gentrification that has displaced black households from sections of Treme and the Seventh Ward closer to the river.
As part of the revitalization effort, in 2018 local artist Ceaux Young painted murals of local musicians on the underside of the bridge. “It’s hard to control the space you don’t own,” he told OffBeat. “My main job is to protect that footprint.”
From 1959, after making it big in Las Vegas, Louis Prima with Keely Smith and Sam Butera perform "Just A Gigolo - I Ain't Got Nobody."
Prima and Smith perform "That Old Black Magic" in 1959.
Sam Butera plays his slow-burning version of "Night Train" while Prima wilds out and Smith looks on.
WWOZ Tricentennial Music Moment: Sheik of Araby--the story of Prima tempting the censors at Capitol Records.