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Sam Butera, Sax Star, Dies

Adam Bernstein

Sam Butera, who died June 3 at 81, was a hard-swinging tenor saxophonist who formed a rowdy and successful onstage partnership with entertainers Louis Prima and Keely Smith in the 1950s.

Butera's not a household name. He's not a John Coltrane or a Coleman Hawkins. And frankly, when you listen to him for an entire album, you sort of get the idea of what he's all about.

But for many years, Prima, Smith and Butera were a fun showbiz team who clowned around to great commercial success in Las Vegas and New York night clubs. A Time magazine reviewer in 1959 called their act "doggedly vulgar" for Prima's sexually suggestive reworking of lyrics -- as well as his humorous efforts to undermine Smith's stoic stage presence and Mr. Butera's professionalism.

But they packed in crowds and by 1959 were making $10,000 a week. Mr. Butera later said of Prima: "The whole thing is entertainment, man. 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."

Here's some of their best-known collaborations:

Three more on the next page....

I also came across this early look at Prima's antics, which if I am not mistaken includes a very young Lucille Ball.

By Adam Bernstein  |  June 5, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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