Louis Prima was a legendary jazz musician, singer, entertainer, and bandleader who influenced many genres and generations of music lovers. He was known for his exuberant onstage personality, raspy voice, and composition of the swing music classics “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Jump, Jive, an’ Wail.” He also provided the voice for the orangutan King Louie in the 1967 Disney film The Jungle Book. But how did this musical icon die? What was Louis Prima’s cause of death?
Louis Prima’s Early Life and Career
Louis Prima was born on December 7, 1910, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He came from a musical Italian American family. His father, Anthony Prima, was the son of a Sicilian immigrant, while his mother, Angelina Caravella, had emigrated from the island of Ustica north of Sicily as a baby. Prima was the second child of four; his older brother, Leon, was also a musician and bandleader.
Prima started playing the violin at a young age, but soon switched to the trumpet after being inspired by jazz legends like Louis Armstrong. He formed his first band, the New Orleans Gang, in the late 1920s and moved to New York City in the mid-1930s at the suggestion of bandleader Guy Lombardo. He quickly gained popularity with his lively and upbeat style of swing music that blended elements of his Italian and Sicilian heritage with jazz and blues.
Prima went on to form several other bands and combos throughout his career, such as the Gleeby Rhythm Orchestra, the Hotcha Trio, and the Witnesses. He also collaborated with many talented singers and musicians, such as Keely Smith (his fourth wife), Sam Butera (his saxophonist), and Gia Maione (his fifth and final wife). He recorded many hit songs and albums, such as “Angelina,” “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Buona Sera,” “That Old Black Magic,” and “The Wildest!”
Louis Prima’s Health Problems and Death
Prima continued to perform and record until 1973, when he suffered a heart attack that affected his ability to sing and play. He underwent open-heart surgery in 1974 to repair a damaged valve. However, he developed complications from the surgery and was diagnosed with a brain stem tumor in 1975. He underwent another surgery to remove the tumor, but suffered a cerebral hemorrhage during the operation that left him in a coma.
Prima never regained consciousness and remained in a coma for three years. He was transferred to a hospital in New Orleans in 1978 to be closer to his family. He died on August 24, 1978, at the age of 67. The official cause of death was listed as cerebral hemorrhage due to complications from surgery.
Prima’s funeral was held at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. He was buried at Metairie Cemetery in a mausoleum with a bronze statue of him holding his trumpet. His epitaph reads: “He played from the heart.”
Louis Prima’s Legacy and Influence
Louis Prima is widely regarded as one of the most influential and versatile musicians of the 20th century. He is credited with popularizing swing music, jump blues, boogie-woogie, rock ‘n’ roll, and Italian folk music. He also opened the doors for other ethnic musicians to express their identity and culture through music.
Prima has been honored with many awards and recognitions for his contributions to music and entertainment. He was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1985 for his recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing.” He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010. He was also posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
Prima’s music has been featured in many films, TV shows, commercials, video games, and stage productions. Some examples are Casino (1995), Swingers (1996), Elf (2003), Fallout: New Vegas (2010), Jersey Boys (2014), Mafia III (2016), and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017).
Prima’s style and spirit have also inspired many artists and performers who have covered or sampled his songs or paid tribute to him in their own works. Some examples are David Lee Roth, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé, Robbie Williams, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Lil Wayne.
Louis Prima’s cause of death may have been tragic and premature, but his legacy lives on through his music and his fans. He will always be remembered as the King of Swing, the King of the Jungle, and the King of Hearts.