Louis Prima Jr. is drinking vodka in the back of a PT’s pub, and I ask him to tell me about his tattoos. On his right arm, there’s sheet music to Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” (“I hurt myself today to see if I still feel”). Left arm: Radiohead’s “Creep.”
“I’m a dark soul,” Prima says, but he also says, “I’m a happy soul.” Or rather, “I want to be happy.”
“I want to make people happy. There’s nothing better than getting onstage and making people smile for a living. But life ain’t always pretty. There’s a little sad part to me. I keep that to myself and I keep that in my ink.”
Not long ago, I saw Prima and his eight-piece band rock the Paris Las Vegas, and I was so impressed by their tight musicianship and high energy, I tracked Prima down here in this PT’s pub at Decatur Boulevard and Flamingo Road so we could catch up.
He has his dad’s manliness. His dad, Louis Prima, was the talented songwriter and Vegas bandleader of the classic hits “Just a Gigolo,” “Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Angelina,” “Oh Marie” and “I Wanna Be Like You” from Disney’s “Jungle Book.”
Prima Jr. grew up in Las Vegas and in New Orleans. His dad gigged in both cities.
“My father made a living doing five shows a night,” Prima says. “He was gone most of the time.
“He was the greatest dad in the world. He was every bit as fun offstage as onstage.”
When Prima was 9, his dad underwent surgery for a brain stem tumor, lapsed into a coma and died three years later, in 1978, leaving behind $2 million in IRS debt and little or no song royalties.
“He lost a lawsuit, and rather than pay them whatever it was — $36,000 back in ’62 or ’63 — he said, ‘You can have them all’ ” — the rights to those classic tunes, Prima says.
So Prima was raised by his mother, Gia Maione, who scraped for every dime they got.
“When my father entered the hospital for surgery in 1975, he wrote a check to his manager to pay the band for one week. And when he was asked about Gia and the kids, he said, ‘(Expletive) them, let them figure it out,’ ” Prima says.
“It’s not been all tiptoeing through the tulips. There’s been battles and struggles and ugliness. I was wearing clothes my mother made me, and I was proud of it,” he says.
His mother, now living in Florida, recouped most of the song rights and re-established the elder Prima’s legacy.
“It’s an empire she has built from nothing.”
Three years ago, Prima put together his crack band and started playing everywhere — Italy, New York, New Orleans, Vegas, Seattle and onward.
This Saturday, the band (officially: Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses featuring Sarah Spiegel) plays the Nevada Blind Children’s Foundation’s Ladybug Ball. Next week, they play the BottleRock Napa Valley festival with Jane’s Addiction, Kings of Leon and The Black Keys.
“We’re not playing nostalgia here. I call it ‘The Shock Factor,’ ” Prima says. “It takes two or three songs for people to understand I’m not Bill Murray singing ‘Star Wars’ on ‘Saturday Night Live.’
“This is what my father did. He was loud, he was brash, he was obnoxious, it was boisterous, it was energetic, it was entertainment by destruction. It was, ‘You’re going to listen to this, and like it, and enjoy it, and forget the world exists.’ And we do that for 2013.”
Doug Elfman’s column appears Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He also writes for Neon on Fridays. Email him at email@example.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.