Sam Butera, whose saxophone kept the Strip swingin’ for 50 years, died Wednesday in Las Vegas. He was 81.
The Louis Prima band, with Butera as Prima's saxophone sidekick, gave Las Vegas a distinctive sound and a freewheeling, all-night image when they made the Sahara lounge “The Wildest Show in Town” in late 1954.
Prima died in 1978, but Butera kept the legacy going until 2004. That's when he hung up his saxophone and declared himself retired, citing complications from a heart condition and disappointment in a Las Vegas that had moved beyond its lounge legacy.
A Las Vegan since 1961, Butera died about 6:15 a.m. Wednesday at Sunrise Hospital of complications of pneumonia, a family member said.
It’s impossible to know how many people shook hands with Butera as he capped each set with his signature sign-off song, “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” leading his band on a snake dance among the cocktail tables with a beaming, ear-to-ear smile.
Butera was a New Orleans native, born on Aug. 17, 1927. He started learning the saxophone at age 7.
In 1946, when he was 19, Butera won a contest sponsored by Look magazine that sent him to play with a band made up of other regional winners at New York’s Carnegie Hall. From that band, he was singled out for “All American” honors for his tenor sax skills.
“I used to listen to everybody. That’s how I learned how to play jazz, listening to those great musicians,” he recalled in 2004.
Butera’s eclectic sax sound found a perfect fit with Prima. The fellow New Orleans bandleader had fallen on hard times, downsized his big band and and begged an old friend, Bill Miller, for a two-week gig at the Sahara.
The band started to catch on in the Casbar lounge, but Prima knew something was still missing.
“He wanted me to join him on December 25. I said, 'I got kids, man,’ " Butera recalled.
So he came the next day.
Butera started writing arrangements for the band named The Witnesses, done in a shuffle beat that pushed the 4/4 rhythm onto the snare drum and made the song feel twice as fast as it really was.
He recorded with Prima’s band and separately. His solo career included the 1960 Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds movie “The Rat Race” and its companion album and a 1964 album with Sammy Davis Jr., “Sam Meets Sam: When the Feeling Hits You!”
He also recorded “Stargazer” with Frank Sinatra in 1976 and worked as Sinatra’s opening act at Caesars Palace and on tour that year.
The Disney version of “The Jungle Book” featured Prima and Butera as animated primates.
David Lee Roth revived the Prima version of “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” for a hit single in 1985.
As the local lounge scene faded, Butera received a hero’s welcome in Europe during his final performing years, playing to young crowds of early rock and swing enthusiasts.
His last Las Vegas show was opening the Green Room lounge at Santa Fe Station in September 2002.
Butera and his wife, Vera, lived in the same house near the old Bishop Gorman High School they built in 1961. He also is survived by four children: Cheryl, Diane, Sam Jr. and Nick.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at email@example.com or 702-383-0288.