Let's work backwards. Familiar with the Jonas Brothers' version of "I Wan'na Be Like You"?
Well, if you are, then you surely know that the song comes from the old Disney film The Jungle Book, where it was performed by the royal primate "King Louis"--aka Louis Prima, the legendary Vegas wild man, backed by his band the Witnesses, led by shotgun-riding sax man Sam Butera. (WATCH HERE.)
Familiar with Brian Setzer's '90s version of "Jump, Jive An' Wail"? That was a Louis Prima original, too--and whose wailing saxophone is all over that song? Sam Butera's.
How about David Lee Roth's '80s hit version of "Just A Gigolo?" Roth learned that one from the Prima catalogue, too--and whose arrangement was it? Sam Butera's.
Like Prima, Sam Butera grew up in the Big Easy, and carried the unmistakably joyous swing of that city's jazz tradition proudly--and, yes, wildly--throughout a career that began back in the mid-1940s when, as a teenaged sax prodigy he got to play at New York's Carnegie Hall with a group of "All American" young jazz musicians selected by Look magazine.
After nearly a decade of paying his dues with a variety of big bands and small combos, Butera's big break came in late 1954 when Prima's brother saw Butera performing at a club and raved about him to Louis, who had just gotten booked into the Sahara Hotel in Vegas with his then wife and singing partner Keely Smith.
For the next 20-plus years, Butera played the ever-faithful sideman/ sidekick to Prima as the two presided over a raucous, often all-night Vegas lounge act that quite accurately became known as "The Wildest Show In Town."
Long after Prima's career tragically ended — he lapsed into a coma in 1975 during brain tumor surgery, never recovered and died in '78 — Butera kept Vegas revelers hopping, and bopping with his ever-energetic, ever-generous spirit, until heart problems finally led him to retire in 2004.
Here are a couple choice clips of Sam Butera in action and, naturally, wailing. And that is the key word: wailing. For if ever there was a player who personified the wild, wailing sax, it was Sam Butera. He will be missed.
- Sam Butera