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Sax plays ‘Exodus’ at Sam Butera’s funeral

They saved the saxophone until the end of the traditional Catholic funeral Mass. And the recording was not “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the hand-shaking closer of nearly every lounge show Sam Butera ever played.

Instead those gathered at St. Viator Catholic Church heard the Italian-American musician’s version of the theme from “Exodus,” the movie about the fight to establish the state of Israel. It was proof that Butera’s appeal, and a blistering sax solo, crosses all cultural boundaries.

“It just seemed more appropriate. It was a true exodus,” said Nick Tavaglione, a longtime friend of Butera’s who chose the song and closed his eulogy by saying the late musician would tell St. Peter, “I think what you should do is get rid of this guy Gabriel, because I’m gonna be blowin’ the horn from now on.”

Butera died June 3 at age 81, after years of declining health. Saturday’s memorial service remembered more the father, grandfather, friend and golfer than the musician who played alongside Louis Prima, making the Vegas lounge a place of swingin’ legend.

“He was a lot different at home than he was onstage,” Butera’s granddaughter, Melissa Faccinto, told mourners in a eulogy. “He was quiet and kept to himself a lot.” But she also said he “loved what he did,” and “had he been able to, he would have passed away with a saxophone in his hand.”

That it was not a “show business” funeral, with Butera’s occupation not even mentioned for the first 40 minutes, seemed fitting for the hard-working musician. His fame was largely relegated to cult status because he usually chose the structured routine of the Las Vegas lounge scene over self-promotion and bigger career challenges.

But they were there; musicians of all ages. Don Hill, the 87-year-old former saxophonist for The Treniers, grew up five blocks from Butera in New Orleans and was playing in Las Vegas seven years before Butera arrived in late 1954.

There was Eddie Nichols of Royal Crown Revue, a band early to the retro-swing revival of Prima and Butera’s shuffle beats in the 1990s. And Kirk and Nicole Tracy, who perform as Kid and Nic, planned to do the Butera tribute song they wrote and recorded, “Honkin’ and Screamin’,” in their Saturday set at the Hacienda Casino outside of Boulder City.

Longtime friend Rich Rose reminded people of “that everlasting big smile” in a eulogy, and was among those who later gathered at the Italian-American Social Club — where Butera threw his sax behind many a fundraiser — to eat, drink and socialize.

“The very first time I saw him, he got to my soul,” said Rose, who described himself as “a fan who ended up being a friend.”

Before Prima died in 1978, “all Sam had to worry about was the music and the arrangements,” Rose noted. Once Butera kept the act going as the frontman, he took on all the business logistics without the booking agent or business manager who might have helped him make the jump from the lounges to ticketed headliner.

Rich Vento said he and his wife Carol volunteered to help Butera sell his merchandise at gigs when they realized he had no one to do that. It was Vento who drove Butera to what turned out to be his final gig, a 2004 after-party for a cable-TV awards show.

Heart medicine made his ankles swell so much he played that show in sandals. Butera was “laying down in the back seat when he popped up and said, ‘I decided this is it! I’m gonna tell the boys tonight,'” Vento recalled of the retirement announcement.

Butera’s final years were more appreciated in Europe, where he did play ticketed concerts in large theaters. Here at home, he remained loyal to the lounges, but they did not stay faithful to him. One by one the prestigious gigs dried up, and even one of the last that seemed worthy, at New York-New York, had pit bosses complaining about the group being too loud and distracting players, just as they had groused in the ’50s.

But Butera’s legacy has made its way to You Tube, the only place 27-year-old Marco Palos ever got to see him. But “that bursting of energy is really what inspires me,” said the musician who plays in a band called Phat Cat Swinger, and who drove from California to attend the service in his finest vintage wear.

The family was “very welcoming,” Palos said. But then, that is to be expected. The last words in the church service came from Nick Butera, reciting his father’s famous sign-off: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

Contact Mike Weatherford at mweatherford @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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