Pop-jazz vocalist Keely Smith is a siren, a dark-eyed, clear-toned temptress whose passionate vocals and often idiosyncratic phrasing never fail to reach an audience's soul. When Smith meanders through her signature song, "I Wish You Love," she doesn't just get a response, she ignites and exploits emotion with almost surgical mastery, and today that incomparable voice delivers the song with so much additional heat and psychological information, it's nothing short of sublime.
Smith honed her skills beside New Orleans trumpeter Louis Prima in the Las Vegas lounges of the 1950s. Husband Prima's untamed clowning and Smith's smoldering detachment made for a presentation of unrivaled appeal, one that's constantly being revisited. Currently gracing several television commercials and providing the title track for Brian Setzer's breakthrough swing album, Lewis and Keely's songs mixed Olympian hip and sheer artistry. "The Wildest" they were dubbed, and the couple proved it night after night under what can only be described as punishing conditions. "We never missed a performance, Louis and I," says Smith, "and we did five shows a night, six nights a week, 40 weeks a year."
While that union's demise may have been inevitable, hastened as it was by Smith's series of lush, perfect solo albums at Capitol, Louis - who died in 1978 - and Keely remain ineluctably bound together in the public mind. When she and longtime Prima saxophonist Sam Butera reunited for a knockout stint at the Desert Inn's Starlight Theater, which ran from March 1993 through July 1996, capacity was reached twice nightly. The music was as fiery and romping as ever, yet it was Smith's ballads, so charged, so fully realized, that really knocked the crowd over.
"We were doing 36 weeks a year at the Desert Inn," she says. "It was a wonderful job, and working with Sam the first two years was wonderful, but then it got to be very hard, and that's what took the fun out of it." The punishing schedule finally knocked Keely over, and she dropped completely out of view. "I really got tired, and in all of my life, all of my career, I had never gotten tired before. So I took off a year, but it's wound up being two years."
Smith's idea of taking a little break involved a considerable amount of work. She's been writing her autobiography, a not entirely pleasurable project: "A lot of the things that I did, I didn't realize until I actually wrote them that, hey, maybe that wasn't cool to do. I'm still in the process of pulling stuff out - I'm not sure. And yet I'd like to be honest with it."
Better still, she's recorded an 18-song tribute to her old pal Frank Sinatra: "I did it before he passed away, so he got to hear it. He thought it was wonderful. We did 'September of My Years' up-tempo instead of as a ballad, and he said, 'Why didn't I think of that?'"
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Preparing for her first Los Angeles performance in over 30 years, Smith now seems the antithesis of fatigue: "I feel that it's time for me to get off my rear and go for it, instead of just being happy to sit back and do two shows a night in a lounge. Don't misunderstand that. I come from a lounge, and I love and respect them. You can touch the people, you can talk to them. But I'd like to get to the point where I can do whatever I want to, because the lounge is really hard work. I'm going after it this time - I'd like to do a television series, I'd like to do a Broadway show, because I think I've done just about everything else."
One aspect of Smith's career remains constant, inviolate: "I would never touch how I sing. I would never work on it. What I do now, I rehearse maybe two weeks ahead of time, and I sing to my own old records, the Capitol records, and I get all the high notes and all the low notes, get the muscles built back up.
"I'm very lucky - I sing like I talk, and it's not an effort to do that. I don't do scales, I don't go to vocal coaches - never been to one. As a matter of fact, when we first got to Vegas, someone said to Louis, 'Are you going to send her to a vocal coach?' He said, 'No, I'm not going to touch her.' But one night a vocal coach came in and Louis asked him, 'Do you think she needs any work?' He said, 'No. Not at all. Leave her alone.' And, thank God, they did."
Keely Smith appears at House of Blues on Wednesday, September 23.