Sam Butera dies at 81; 1950s-'60s tenor saxophonist

Sam Butera, a hard-swinging tenor saxophonist who formed a rowdy and successful onstage partnership with entertainers Louis Prima and Keely Smith in the 1950s, died Wednesday at a hospital in Las Vegas. He was 81.

He had Alzheimer’s disease, according to a report in the Las Vegas Sun.

Prima, nearly 20 years older than Butera, was a composer (“Sing, Sing, Sing”), trumpeter, singer and irrepressible stage performer, a combination of Louis Armstrong and Jerry Lewis. His career was on the wane when he teamed in 1954 with Butera, who a few years earlier had been named the country’s outstanding teenage jazz musician by Look magazine. Both men were New Orleans natives of Italian heritage.

Butera was enjoying a long engagement at a New Orleans club owned by Prima’s brother before he and Louis Prima began a musical union in 1954 that lasted nearly two decades. They recorded hit albums for Capitol Records, became nightclub fixtures from Las Vegas to New York and appeared in movies and on television.

Prima was married to Smith, a smoky-voiced balladeer with a pageboy haircut, until their rancorous divorce in the early 1960s. Prima’s fifth wife, Gia Maione, later joined the act as singer.

Backed by a small band called the Witnesses, the Prima-Smith-Butera partnership re-created jazz and pop standards in a dazzlingly inventive array of styles and tempos: swing jazz, “shuffling” upbeat jump blues, Italian tarantellas and Dixieland. Some of their best-known titles included “Just a Gigolo"/"I Ain’t Got Nobody” (done as a medley), “Pennies From Heaven,” “That Old Black Magic” (which won a Grammy Award), “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” and “When You’re Smiling.”

Mostly, Butera took a supporting role to the headliner Prima but was at times allowed to shine in a singing role, notably on “There’ll Be No Next Time,” a jokey, blues-inflected number about a man who goes to jail for “failure to support” his faithless wife.

Prima had complications from surgery for a benign brain tumor in 1975 and was in a coma until his death in 1978. Afterward, Butera performed with a band he called the Wildest. He lived to see his music influence a later generation of musicians as varied as David Lee Roth, who had a hit with “Just a Gigolo"/"I Ain’t Got Nobody,” and Brian Setzer, who won a Grammy for his cover of “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.”

Butera was born Aug. 17, 1927, in New Orleans, where his father owned a meat market and played guitar and concertina. Butera later recalled that when he was 7, his father took him to see a big band and asked which of the instruments the boy liked best.

“The saxophones were closest, so I pointed to the saxophones,” Butera told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “The next day, I had a horn.”

He married his childhood sweetheart, Vera, who survives him, as do their four children.

In addition to his work with Prima, Butera enjoyed a prolific side career performing with entertainers including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., with whom he recorded the acclaimed 1965 album “When the Feeling Hits You!” He also put out several albums under his own name, including “The Rat Race” (1960) and “The Whole World Loves Italians” (1996).

He told interviewers that with companions such as Sinatra, he lived hard much of his life, with a typical day starting with two beers and ending with a bottle of Courvoisier.

Prima was the most influential figure in his life.

“The whole thing is entertainment, man,” Butera told a reporter. “I learned that from him. You can get up on stage, do all the singing and talking you want, but if you don’t know how to laugh and get happy with the people, it’s nothing.”

Bernstein writes for the Washington Post.