july 2009

The Man Who Put The Wail In 'Jump, Jive An' Wail'

Sam Butera, Saxman Supreme, Dead at 81

By Billy Altman

Sam Butera, the New Orleans-born-and-bred tenor saxophonist who died June 3 in his adopted home of Las Vegas at the age of 81 (August 17, 1927-June 3, 2009), was one of those musicians whose name may not register with most people. But trust me, in some form or other, you've been touched by his music. And it almost don't matter how old or young you are, either.

Let's work backwards. Familiar with the Jonas Brothers' version of "I Wan'na Be Like You"? Well, if you are, then you surely know that the song comes from the old Disney film The Jungle Book, where it was performed by the royal primate "King Louis"—aka Louis Prima, the legendary Vegas wild man, backed by his band the Witnesses, led by shotgun-riding sax man Sam Butera.

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Familiar with Brian Setzer's '90s version of "Jump, Jive An' Wail"? That was a Louis Prima original, too—and whose wailing saxophone is all over that song? Sam Butera's.

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How about David Lee Roth's '80s hit version of "Just A Gigolo?" Roth learned that one from the Prima catalogue, too—and whose arrangement was it? Sam Butera's.

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Like Prima, Sam Butera grew up in the Big Easy, and carried the unmistakably joyous swing of that city's jazz tradition proudly—and, yes, wildly—throughout a career that began back in the mid-1940s when, as a teenaged sax prodigy, he got to play at New York's Carnegie Hall with a group of "All American" young jazz musicians selected by Look magazine.

After nearly a decade of paying his dues with a variety of big bands and small combos, Butera's big break came in late 1954 when Prima's brother saw Butera performing at a club and raved about him to Louis, who had just gotten booked into the Sahara Hotel in Vegas with his then wife and singing partner Keely Smith.

For the next 20-plus years, Butera played the ever-faithful sideman/sidekick to Prima as the two presided over a raucous, often all-night Vegas lounge act that quite accurately became known as "The Wildest Show In Town."

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Louis Prima, 'Hey Marie,' Sam Butera, saxophone

Long after Prima's career tragically ended—he lapsed into a coma in 1975 during brain tumor surgery, never recovered and died in '78 —Butera kept Vegas revelers hopping, and bopping with his ever-energetic, ever-generous spirit, until heart problems finally led him to retire in 2004.

Here are a couple choice clips of Sam Butera in action and, naturally, wailing. And that is the key word: wailing. For if ever there was a player who personified the wild, wailing sax, it was Sam Butera. He will be missed.

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Sam Butera, 'Chantilly Lace'

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Sam Butera, 'Kansas City,' on The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson introducing a commercial for prune juice at the end

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