Born 17 August 1927, New Orleans, Louisiana
Sax player, bandleader, arranger, vocalist, songwriter.
Sam Butera is probably best remembered as the leader of Louis Prima’s band, but his career continued long after Prima’s death. He was not only a master on the tenor saxophone, but also a competent vocalist and songwriter.
Butera was born and raised in an Italian-American family in New Orleans, where his father Joseph owned a butcher shop and played guitar in his spare time. Sam heard the saxophone for the first time at a wedding when he was seven years old, and, with his father’s encouragement, he began to take lessons. At school he studied the clarinet, but eventually he returned to the sax. He went straight from high school into the ranks of a number of leading big bands, including those of RayMcKinley and Tommy Dorsey. At the age of eighteen, Sam Butera was voted the “Outstanding Teenage Musician in America” by Look magazine.
His major influences in those years included Gene Ammons, Charlie Ventura, Lester Young and Big Jay McNeely. Jazz was his first love, but Sam was already playing proto-rock & roll in the early 1950s, when he was a member of Paul Gayten’s band for a year or so. Gayten’s main sax player was Lee Allen, who became a big influence on Butera’s raucous playing style. Inspired by Gayten’s band, Butera formed his own five-piece combo, which became the house band at the 500 Club in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The club was owned by Leon Prima, Louis Prima’s brother. Sam was still working there when he cut the first recordings under his own name (all instrumentals), first for RCA in 1953 and then for its Groove subsidiary in 1954.
Towards the end of 1954 Butera got a call from Louis Prima, who asked him to quit his nightclub gig and join him (Prima) in a new venture in Las Vegas. Louis Prima had been a big name in the swing era, but by 1954 most people thought that his time was over. However, Prima was not yet willing to give up and saw all kinds of possibilities on the Vegas horizon. He believed in Butera and almost begged him to put a rhythm section together. Sam didn’t really like to leave New Orleans, but he agreed and moved to Las Vegas, hooking up with Prima and leading his band, the Witnesses, which he would continue to do for the next twenty years. Almost overnight, Louis Prima, Keely Smith and Butera’s band were the hottest act in Las Vegas. Their sound was an explosive mixture of jump blues, jazz, top-notch crooning and no-holds-barred entertainment. All this led to bigger paydays, TV appearances and a string of hit records for Prima, sometimes with Sam in the role of second vocalist.
Butera and the Witnesses also recorded extensively without Prima. Most of Sam’s own record releases came out on Capitol and its Prep subsidiary (1957-59, 1962), Dot (1960-61) and Prima (1963-64). Some of these were vocals, like the excellent rocker “Bim Bam” (1958, Capitol 4014). Many instrumentals by Butera and the Witnesses are hidden on Louis Prima and Keely Smith albums.
In 1960 Butera played a part in the movie “The Rat Race”, starring Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds. The music from the film, played by Sam and the Witnesses, has been reissued on a Jasmine CD.
In November 1975 Louis Prima underwent surgery to remove a brain tumour. He never regained consciousness and remained in a coma until his death in August 1978. Butera remained on the Vegas lounge circuit as a performer in his own right, though the lounges got smaller and smaller as time progressed. Doing as much singing as playing, he led a band that performed songs from the Prima repertory and frequently accompanied Keely Smith, who had divorced Prima in 1961. David Lee Roth (former lead singer of the rock group Van Halen) stole Sam’s arrangement of the Prima classic “Just A Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody” and scored a # 12 hit with the medley in 1985, which made Butera very angry. The arrangements Sam made with Prima have also been covered by Brian Setzer, Los Lobos and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.
Sam Butera was inducted into the Las Vegas Hall of Fame in 1999. When failing health made travelling difficult, Butera retired, circa 2004. He died in a Las Vegas hospital in June 2009, following a long illness. He was 81.
More info : http://tinyurl.com/yb6vrw5f
Obituary : http://tinyurl.com/y9nmraco
Recommended listening : - Hot New Orleans Nights (Bear Family BCD 15449). RCA and Groove recordings, 1953-54. Released 1999. 19 tracks, six previously unissued. - Sheer Energy (Jasmine JASCD 313, 1995). Live recordings. 15 tracks. - On the 8 CD-set “The Capitol Recordings : Louis Prima, Keely Smith, Sam Butera” (Bear Family BCD 15776, 1994), CD 7 and 8 are devoted to Sam. A 1-CD alternative for the Capitol recordings is “Ultra-Lounge : Wild, Cool & Swingin’” (Capitol 5 20335 2). Released in 1999, 22 tracks, mostly from 1958-59, a mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers. Annotated by R.J. Smith. - The Wildest Clan + Apache! (Hoodoo, 2016). Two Dot albums (1960-61) plus 6 bonus tracks from 1954-58.
Acknowledgements : R.J. Smith, Rob Finnis, Bruce Eder.
Dik, July 2017
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