Louis Prima | The Wildest! (November 1956)
Big Band / Swing – 32:00
Picking a favourite Disney film is no mean feat. When you have the likes of Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Mary Poppins – the list of choices goes on. Add to that neglected classics like The Emperor’s New Groove, The Princess and the Frog and The Black Cauldron, and then the Pixar films (which now come under the Disney banner) and it is almost impossible. Almost – but not quite. Because, from my childhood to this day, one stands out above all the others. Because one film still manages to put a smile on my face, no matter how blue I am. Because, without any doubt in my mind, the Disney film which is head and shoulders above all the others is still The Jungle Book.
What is it about the film which causes such affection to well up in me? It certainly wasn’t the first Disney film I watched (though I don’t recall exactly, I’m pretty sure the first one I saw was Sleeping Beauty at a very tender age). In fact, it was only later in life that I began to go back to it as any sort of classic. But there is so much in it which, over the years, has created a real resonance with me. There is a beauty in the simplicity of the animation; it does the job of creating a vivid landscape without ever being showy. The story, again, is a simple coming-of-age tale which is easy to follow but, as is often the case, has a universality to it. And it has a thumping heart and soul through the characters: Bagheera the panther; Baloo the bear; and, of course, King Louie, the orangutan who just wants to be human.
The primate royal, whose scene has always seemed the centrepiece of the movie to me, was given amazing character by the wonderful Louis Prima. The swinging sound of the King of the Swingers still has me, much like Baloo, grooving along, unable to stop my shoulders swaying. This is a voice with the power of dance – so it comes as little surprise to find that The Wildest!, which precedes the Disney film by more than a decade, instantly has the same effect on me.
Outside of The Jungle Book, I’ve not really come across much Prima. Which is a shame, given how highly I rate his performance in the movie. The singer, who was able to constantly adapt his sound to fit with the times, was in the midst of a renaissance when he recorded The Wildest!: he had moved from the clubs of New York to the stages of Las Vegas; married a woman almost half his age (Keely Smith); and was enjoying a new found audience that lapped up his joyous sounds. It is these wonderful, happy, dance-fuelling rhythms that make the album such a pleasure to find.
Things open with the wonderful Just a Gigalo; the beat pounded out from the piano makes you just want to get up and dance. It was Prima’s most famous number – a line from it was used as his epitaph on his gravestone – and it isn’t hard to see why. There is an infectious feel to the whole album that pervades into the soul from the start. Prima has been likened to a poor man’s Louis Armstrong; and, while Satchmo is clearly unparalleled in his genius, it does Prima a disservice. He had worked hard to achieve the success he attained by the release of this album and his talent for a good number shines through.
As the album moves into (Nothing’s Too Good) For My Baby, the Latino feel whisks you away to a nightclub in South America. This could be the soundtrack to many a film from the 1950s with a setting south of the border. I can see Cary Grant walking into a bar with Rita Hayworth dancing to one of these numbers. But above all, the swinging sound cannot but bring a smile to your face (how can you not grin hearing Prima sing to Smith that ‘just for you I’d learn to bake a pie…’?) Things never let up as the album races from track to track, with Smith taking lead vocal on the wonderful The Lip. Each number has a hook that draws you in and, at this speed, it is little wonder the album is over in little more than half-an-hour.
We slow down for the instrumental Body and Soul, displaying that the talent of Prima went far beyond his voice; this is more of a smoke-filled room of a number, but one that nonetheless creates a groove in the shoulders. As Prima turns the tune into The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, you realise that he is more interested in creating joy in any way he can. Oh Marie is something of a throwaway number, but it gives you a couple of brief minutes to get your breathe back before the medley cover of Basin Street Blues / When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. Prima’s version of the classic Louis Armstrong songs may not have the deep resonance of Pops’ wonderful voice, but that doesn’t need to distract from the quality of the numbers; the trumpet playing is impeccable and Prima’s voice carries them well.
As you’d expect Jump, Jive an’ Wail is another toe-tapper that keeps the beat moving incessantly on; one thing which can be said of this album is that it never really lets you stop for breath. It feels as if you are being dragged on to your feet and given free-reign to just get down and boogie for 30 minutes. The wonderful joy of letting yourself go and dancing is clear in song after song after song on The Wildest! A tango feel to Buona Sera shows how even a slower number can keep you on a dancefloor (although, admittedly, it soon picks up speed).
Finally, after the brief instrumental of Night Train, things round off with the wonderful I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You. It is a winning end to a fantastic album which, as the title suggests, shows that Louis Prima really is the wildest – in fact, a decade before he hit the big screen, this album goes a long way to crowning him the King of the Swingers.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:
Next time: This is Fats by Fats Domino