Louis Prima Jr. followed his father, New Orleans’ king of swing, into show business. Prima Sr.’s best-loved recordings include “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” and, from Disney’s The Jungle Book, “I Wanna Be Like You.”
Like his dad, Prima sings and plays trumpet. Based in Las Vegas, he tours frequently with his eight-member band, the Witnesses. The group released its album debut, Return of the Wildest!, in July.
A musician since childhood, Prima grew up in Las Vegas, New Orleans and Covington. He’s moved in and out of music through the years.
In 2010, Prima left a great job as a food and beverage manager at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas to devote himself to Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses, the musical venture he founded began in 2004.
Building a renewed music career and assembling a great band, the 47-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist said this week, has taken time.
“When I first started doing this, it was hired guns behind me,” he said.
Bassist Michael Gerbino, an old friend from Prima’s rock ’n’ roll days in a band called Problem Child, helped him assemble the Witnesses.
“I said, ‘You can play this, you know the music,’ ” Prima recalled. “ ‘Help me find people who are serious about their craft.’ Because I had to find the right mixture of people. If I was going to do this, I wanted to do it correctly. And once I found the right guys, it was practice together, get used to each other, and then we put the CD out.”
Recorded in Las Vegas, Return of the Wildest! features some gems from the Louis Prima Sr. catalog.
“I put ‘Gigolo’ and ‘Jump, Jive, an’ Wail’ on there because those are probably what he’s best known for,” Prima said. “And people want me to put that out on our first album. The rest of it is songs that I arranged to show off the talent in the band. I think we did a good job of getting the live show onto a CD.”
Despite Prima and the Witnesses’ inclusion of Prima Sr. classics in their act and on the CD, he doesn’t see the band as a nostalgia act.
“My father changed his music to stay current with the times,” he said. “That’s what we do on stage and on this record, play the music like it’s 2012.
“We’ve been called a million musical styles, but when I step back, the eight people that surround me on stage really put, if it’s possible, more than 100 percent into every performance. A lot of people are shocked at first, because they expect a retro feel to it, but we play it like we own it.”
Prima and the Witnesses are regulars at the annual Gretna Heritage Festival. The group is performing there Friday, Oct. 5, and Saturday, Oct. 6.
The Gretna appearances are part of a Southern swing that includes shows in Biloxi, Miss., and Destin, Fla.
Prima Sr. received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010. Also in that 100th anniversary year of his father’s birth, Prima Jr. played the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The festival’s 2010 poster features a portrait of Prima Sr. painted by singer-artist Tony Bennett.
“We love playing down there,” Prima said. “New Orleans and Louisiana, in general, just appreciate music.”
The group’s Sunday show in Destin, Prima added, will be the first time that his Florida-resident mother, Gia Maione Prima, will see him on stage with the Witnesses.
“She’s looking forward to meeting everybody in the band,” he said. “I can’t wait to perform for her.”
The earliest shows that Prima and the Witnesses played included a post-Hurricane Katrina appearance at New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone in March 2006. His vocalist sister, Lena, performs regularly at the hotel’s Carousel Bar. She has moved back to New Orleans but he’s still in Las Vegas.
“Vegas is home,” Prima said. “But New Orleans has always been the extended home. I love the people, the food, the atmosphere down there. Lena has always felt the same way. That’s probably why she’s back.”