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That Old Keely Magic

Back on the charts again, singer and swinger Keely Smith brings her Sinatra tribute to Feinstein's at the Regency. logo
Keely Smith
Keely Smith, the Queen of Swing, will reign at Feinstein's at the Regency for three weeks (May 8-26), singing songs from her new, must-have CD, Keely Sings Sinatra. This engagement comes during a revival of the Grammy winner's career, a revival that began when a Gap ad used a recording of "Jump, Jive and Wail" that she made years ago with her then-husband, the late Louis Prima. Last year's Swing, Swing, Swing charted very high, and Smith was recently awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

TheaterMania pow-wowed with the Cherokee-Irish Virginia native via telephone. Speaking from her home in Palm Springs before she made the trek east, Keely answered questions about the show, the new CD, Prima, and her special relationship with Frank Sinatra.


THEATERMANIA: Tell me about what you're planning to do at Feinstein's.

KEELY SMITH: We're going to try and duplicate as close as we can the sound of the Keely Sings Sinatra CD, which has 35 musicians. I think it'll be a nice sound. We're coming in with four cellos, a saxophone, a synthesizer. My son in law, Dennis Michaels, will be on piano, and I'll have Frankie Capp on drums. They're going to enlarge the stage a little bit, but I think it's worth it. Michael's room is beautiful; I love New York and I'm really looking forward to being there.

TM: You met Sinatra in Vegas, and isn't it true that he would come onstage during your act with Louis Prima?

KEELY: We worked in the Casbah Lounge at the Sahara Hotel and, whenever Frank would be in town, he'd hop up onstage and sing. Sometimes, we'd do duets together. It was a lot of fun.

TM: When you recorded with Sinatra at Capitol, how was his way of working different from yours?

KEELY: I don't say Frank was an absolute perfectionist, but he almost was. He didn't like to do more than one take of anything. Once, we went into the studio not knowing the entrance to the arrangement or the ending. We went over it a couple of times and then he wanted to record it. We did, and it wasn't good. But he said, "Okay, that's a take." I said to him, "Frank, no it isn't!" He looked at me and the musicians looked at me, because nobody in those days ever said no to Frank. I was too young or too dumb to know I was not supposed to do that! And he said, "Okay, Injun, what do you wanna do?" I said, "Let's do it again." So we did about three takes on each of those songs. That was the big difference: He didn't like to do more than one take, and I'll do as many as it takes to get it right.

TM: You dated Sinatra in the early 1960s. What was that like?

KEELY: It was quite nice! You know, I almost married him...but he was from a different world than I was.

TM: He actually proposed to you. What made you say no?

KEELY: Truthfully, it was the language. I had two little girls; I couldn't raise my children around that. And it wasn't just him. Everybody in his crowd swore! Although, I must say, I never heard Jack or Bobby Kennedy swear.

TM: You don't swear, you don't smoke, and you don't drink. Were there lots of temptations in Vegas?

KEELY: Well, you know, I was never into it. When Louis and I became friends with Frank, it bothered Frank that I didn't drink. He used to make me sometimes have a Jack Daniels with some Coca-Cola in it, and Louis would let him do it. I would sip it; I didn't really drink it. But I must admit that, when Louis and I broke up, I drank. I wasn't a lush, 'cause I still didn't like it. But I would go to the clubs with friends and I'd have a couple of drinks, to be part of the gang. Then, one night, I didn't remember driving home. Also, it affects the way you sing, the way you work, your attitude onstage. So I don't drink.

TM: Sinatra brought you to his label, Reprise. When can we expect your Reprise solo albums to come out on CD?

KEELY: I've been trying to buy the masters, but I can't even get past a secretary or an assistant! Sometimes when an artist gets hot, another record company will go back and issue whatever they have. I'm hoping Reprise will do that. My Swing, Swing, Swing album went to #5 on the charts, and this Sinatra album is already on the charts. Also, they've just released on CD the Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre albums, which I'm on.

TM: How was Sinatra different from Prima?

KEELY: Golly, they were both what I would call American Italians. Louis was kind of easygoing; he would play golf everyday, I'd stay home with the kids, and then we'd go to work at night. Frank was more in command. To begin with, he was more powerful in his stature as a performer. He expected more. I would say Louis was quieter, although Frank could be very quiet at times--almost like a little boy.

TM: Do you remember the moment when you realized that your marriage to Louis Prima was over?

KEELY: It wasn't just a moment--it was two years! It's going to be in my book, Keely Smith: The Last Witness. I stopped working on the book because there were some things...when I saw them in print, I thought, "I'm not quite ready for all this to be made public." But I'm gonna start back on it when I get some time.

TM: What did you learn musically from Prima and Sinatra?

KEELY: Frank never gave me any tips or taught me or tried to change me in any way; nor did Louis. The only thing Louis ever said to me was, "When you sing a song, you're telling a story." So I sing like I talk. I'll give an example: If I say to you, "I'm gonna go to the store and buy a loaf of bread," that's how I'd sing it. I wouldn't sing, "I'm gonna the store a loaf of bread." I don't believe in breaking up phrasing. I think that's one of the reasons why Dean Martin and Sammy Davis called me "the female Sinatra." Frank was still alive when I did the [Keely Sings Sinatra ] CD, and he got to hear it. He asked specifically that I record "Angel Eyes."

TM: Did anybody ever tell you to lose your accent?

KEELY: Well...for my very first album, I Wish You Love , the producer at Capitol Records told me I couldn't sing "hawt." A lot of people have never picked up on it but, on those records, I sing "heart." I had to mark it down and really concentrate on singing it each time the word would come up! I told Louis after that session, "I'll never do that again. You cannot change me now. Just leave me alone and let me sing." That man at Capitol tried to change me, but he's the only one who ever did.

TM: What are your favorite albums of your own and others?

KEELY: My own favorite is I Wish You Love, and this Sinatra one is second. I love Frank's Only The Lonely and Moonlight Sinatra, Nat Cole's Unforgettable. Have you heard the Jackie Gleason albums where he conducts the orchestra? Those are my absolute favorites! I have about five of them on CD, and I love 'em.

TM: You've said that you listen to CDs in your truck. What kind of truck is it?

KEELY: Actually, it's an SUV. I call it a truck, but it's a Mercedes ML-55.

TM: You won a Grammy with Louis Prima in 1958, the first year that Grammys were awarded. Would you like to get another one for Keely Sings Sinatra?

KEELY: I would love to have one by myself. But they have me in the Jazz category, and I don't feel that I have a chance of winning there. Last year, the company--Concord--put me and Rosemary Clooney in Pop Vocal, and the Grammy people themselves moved both of us into Jazz. I'm told they've combined Jazz Vocal with Traditional Pop, which is wrong. Because when you've got Diana Krall up there for 50 some odd weeks on the charts, how the heck is anybody going to beat her? It's really not very fair.

TM: What do you do to stay in shape?

KEELY: Actually, I didn't stay in shape! I'm on a diet right now. I don't want to be pencil thin anymore because, at my age, it would all be wrinkles and lines. But I think positive. I think young. I have two things in my head that I live by: I refuse to get old and I refuse to get sick. And I keep telling everybody I'm gonna sing till I'm 90.

TM: And then what?

KEELY: I don't know. I may retire!

TM: You once played Julie in a production of Show Boat.

KEELY: Yes. That was an interesting experience, and I really liked doing it. But what I didn't know is that you can be playing [in a large theater] and the people in the last row won't know that you're crying up on stage if you don't over-portray your crying. I learned that the hard way.

TM: Have you ever thought of doing a Broadway musical?

KEEL: Being confined to the same dialogue day in and day out would get to me eventually, I think. Right now, we're in the talking stage of putting together a one-woman show for Broadway--just my music, you know? That I could handle, 'cause I could say whatever I want to and I wouldn't be stuck into a storyline.

TM: Are there any projects you've turned down that you wish you had taken on?

KEELY: I turned down the Carolyn Jones part in The Addams Family, years ago. It was a big hit, but it so associated her with that role that I'm glad I did turn it down.

TM: When is the Keely Smith story going to be made into a movie?

KEELY: I figured I'd finish the book first. I was talking to Norman Jewison, to Richard Donner's people, and there was some interest from HBO. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro expressed interest, but they wanted a script or a book. And the same thing with Clint Eastwood.

TM: Who would play you?

KEELY: Cher was mentioned to me--and, at one point, Liza Minnelli. I said no to both of them. Right now, the only one I've seen who I think could come close is Winona Ryder. I'd still like to have De Niro play Louis.

TM: You signed a five-CD deal with Concord. What are the others going to be?

KEELY: We were going to call the next one In the Keely Mood and have it be a mood album, pretty similar to I Wish You Love. Or we may go and do a Sinatra Vol. 2. Bobby [Milano, Smith's husband and producer] wants to call it Keely Sings Sinatra--One More Time!


[Click here for schedule and other information regarding Keely Smith's show at Feinstein's.]

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