Keely Smith spent the 1950s in the shadow of her husband, Louis Prima. Both Smith and Prima were supremely talented for different reasons. Prima was a natural showman, a terrific musician and a high-energy R&B crooner. But Smith was the better vocalist. As Prima's straight-faced sidekick, Smith often joined him in a comedic duet. When she did, she'd always take the song seriously for a bit to show off her chops, and your ears immediately took notice. You wanted more. Unfortunately, we rarely did on their duets, and most of her solo albums during the period didn't always show off her full range of vocal cunning and power. So over the years, Smith was thought of first and foremost by many as a comic foil who could carry a tune rather than an exceptional singer with a sense of humor.
After Smith and Prima divorced in 1961, she signed with Frank Sinatra's Reprise label in 1962. As a Las Vegas fixture in the 1950s, Smith had become friendly with Sinatra, who surely appreciated her vocal gifts and gumption. Between 1962 and '65, Keely recorded five jazz-pop albums for Reprise, and in many ways they are her finest works. All five albums are exceptional, with Smith showing off her taste, skill and range. She always had a young, wise approach to songs and never cut corners vocally, giving them her emotional all.
One of these albums, The Intimate Keely Smith, recorded in 1964, has just been re-issued by Real Gone, and the quality of the work is, frankly, astonishing. Smith's song choices are off-beat and refreshing, perfectly tailored for her voice, and her delivery is confessional and pure saloon. What's more, we hear Smith's voice completely exposed, instrumentally, with little to mask her intonation or articulation. Some almost sound a cappella for a stretch. The results are heart-melting.
On the album, Smith is accompanied on the different tracks by Jeff Lewis and Ernie Freeman (p), Dennis Budimer (g), Red Mitchell (b) and Irv Cotler (d). The group aimed to frame her sensitivity, and Smith's voice is so breathy and cozy, she seems snuggled on someone's shoulder while singing.
The songs are Somebody Loves Me, As Long as He Needs Me, Blame It on My Youth, He Needs Me, Sinner or Saint, It Had to Be You, Time After Time, Nancy/You Are My Sunshine, God Bless the Child, You'll Never Know and The Whippoorwill. See what I mean? Every single one will knock you out.
In addition to the original 11-song lineup, there are two bonus tracks—Twin Soliloquies, with Sinatra, and No One Ever Tells You (by Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Phil Spector for the Crystals), which was recorded by Smith as a Reprise single in 1963.
It's about time we've had a digital-era re-appraisal of Keely Smith, reminding those who pegged her for a cut-up that she was first and foremost an artful jazz vocalist while introducing her to those who have no idea who she is or why she's so special. This is a must-own album and a perfect way to re-acquaint yourself with a Las Vegas singer who should have been as widely known as any of the great jazz-club vocalists.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Intimate Keely Smith (Real Gone) here.
JazzWax clips: Here's As Long As He Needs Me. from Oliver! (1960).
I hope you're sitting down for this one. Here's Irving Gordon's Sinner or Saint...