I realize the title of this piece might sound a little melodramatic, but for two decades beginning in the mid-1950s Sam Butera was the guy who led — and performed in — the band behind entertainer Louis Prima. That meant he was performing in the shadows of the flamboyant Prima and his wife, singer Keely Smith, one of the most popular musical comedy acts around in those days.
The son of a New Orleans butcher who loved music and played a couple of instruments in his spare time, Butera naturally enough grew up with musical aspirations. By his late teens he was playing saxophone professionally in area clubs, and by the post-war years had moved up to regular spots in several big bands, including those of Ray McKinley and Tommy Dorsey.
Butera eventually formed his own jazz group and returned to New Orleans, where he began a period of several years that would see him performing everything from bebop to R&B, and even a little early rock and roll. (He also sang from time to time. See video below, which shows him singing to a one-man audience — Louis Prima.)
Butera soon began what would become a long association with Louis Prima, first by regularly appearing at his brother’s club and eventually joining Prima himself in Las Vegas. Prima had already had a taste of stardom by then but was trying to regain some career momentum, and it occurred when he worked up an act with his wife, backed by Butera and a band they named the Witnesses. For the next twenty years the show would be a big hit in Vegas and other venues, and that popularity would translate to everything from record sales to TV appearances. (Butera even made a cameo in the movie The Rat Race — covered in a previous post.)
For the rest of his life, Butera would enjoy the financial security from those decades, which would enable him to move closer to performing and recording the kind of music he enjoyed, generating a number of solid jazz records along the way. He would continue to do so until he was slowed by Alzheimer’s, and he died in 2009.