While rooted in New Orleans jazz, swing music, and jump blues, Prima touched on various genres throughout his career: he formed a seven-piece New Orleans-style jazz band in the late 1920s, fronted a swing combo in the 1930s and a big band group in the 1940s, helped to popularize jump blues in the late 1940s and early to mid 1950s, and performed frequently as a Vegas lounge act beginning in the 1950s.
Prima made prominent use of Italian music and language in his songs, blending elements of his Italian identity with jazz and swing music. At a time when “ethnic” musicians were often discouraged from openly stressing their ethnicity, Prima’s conspicuous embrace of his Sicilian ethnicity opened the doors for other Italian-American and “ethnic” American musicians to display their ethnic roots.
Fans knew Prima as a genial and patient celebrity: he always signed autographs or posed for pictures with a smile. To the record companies and big corporations, however, Prima showed little deference, and he was uncompromising in seeking adequate compensation for his work.
Warner Brothers offered him $60,000 to be in a movie based on the life of Helen Morgan, but he rejected it; when the studio increased the offer to $75,000, it was still not enough. Prima wanted $100,000 and creative control of his role, which was rejected by Warner Brothers. He had protracted disputes with the Strand Theatre in Ithaca and Majestic Records, and he flatly refused to allow a former songwriter to advertise herself as “formerly featured with Louis Prima’s orchestra”.
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