His father was a swing legend who voiced King Louie in Disney’s “The Jungle Book.”
This Thursday night, Louis Prima Jr. performs live at City Winery in Northeast D.C.
“I cannot tell you how good it is for my soul and the band’s soul to be back on stage performing,” Prima Jr. told WTOP. “We are a 10-piece band up on stage. … We’ve got a full horn section, a full rhythm section. I share singing duties. … You’re gonna get Prima, you’re gonna get Prima Jr., a lot of surprises, and the dance floor is always open in D.C.”
He has tons of songs to choose from, as his father’s career ranged from jazz in the 1920s, to swing in the 1930s, to big band in the 1940s, to jump blues in the early 1950s.
“You’re gonna get the Prima hits,” Prima Jr. said. “You’re gonna get ‘Jump, Jive an’ Wail,’ ‘Just a Gigolo,’ a couple others, possibly ‘Robin Hood,’ maybe ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from ‘The Jungle Book.’ Then you’ll get things from us. … ‘Go Let’s Go’ [and] ‘Blow.’ … We’re not opposed to throwing anything out there from the Rolling Stones to Sheena Easton.”
Born in 1965, he grew up just outside of Las Vegas listening to his dad’s music.
“As early as I can remember, my dad was bringing us on stage,” Prima Jr. said. “My dad used to love getting me on stage and have me tell jokes, whisper the joke in my ear, and I have no idea that I’m telling dirty jokes on stage. The crowd loved it. To me, it was normal life. … They just went to work at 5:00 at night instead of 9:00 in the morning.”
His mother, Gia Maione, taught him how to play the drums at age 5.
“It was a tiny little blue set and I had two different color drumsticks,” Prima Jr. said. “My mother was an accomplished musician and entertainer and auditioned for my father when she was 21. There was a piano in the house. … [My aunt] gave me piano lessons.”
They moved back and forth from Las Vegas to his father’s native New Orleans.
“Vegas and New Orleans are very similar in a lot of aspects in just the party atmosphere of the town,” Prima Jr. said. “New Orleans really set the soul for what my father was. American music can be traced back to New Orleans street musicians. … The way you’re treated, the food, the atmosphere, it’s the reason my father loved this place so much.”
Prima Jr.’s high-school marching band performed at college football’s Fiesta Bowl and Sun Bowl before forming his own band called Problem Child in 1995. He also briefly performed with his sister, Lena, alongside his father’s keyboard player, Bruce Zarka.
“There’s times in your life you won’t trade for anything,” Prima Jr. said. “We set out and did original music and did it successfully for nine to ten years. … We were well liked, but we never got that record deal. I got frustrated with the music business end of it and the changing tide to grunge music … so I decided to take a break.”
For years, he tried his hand as a businessman.
“My mother’s family was all in the restaurant business, so I broke into the restaurant business,” Prima Jr. said. “I weaseled my way into a management position at food and beverage at Las Vegas airport for HMSHost. I was the acting assistant general manager for the entire airport, we did $115 million a year in sales and had 3,000 employees.”
At age 44, he quit his day job and returned to music full-time.
“I wanted my kids to grow up, have a father and have some stability,” Prima Jr. said. “When I knew that they were both old enough to take care of each other when I was on the road … I got back into it and started doing my own stuff. … I ran into a friend of mine in Vegas [who] had an opportunity with some people looking for a Louis Prima-style act.”
In 2010, his father received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to honor his 100th birthday. That same year, Prima Jr. performed at the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
“The first big show we did was Jazz Fest down in New Orleans,” Prima Jr. said. “It just felt right and I went home and quit my job and said let’s move forward. Who would have thought that I would get a record deal? … At [age] 45, somebody believed in us enough to say, ‘Here, sign on the dotted line and I’ll put you in the studio.'”
Thus, Prima and the Witnesses released their debut album, “Return of the Wildest!” (2012), on Warrior Records before moving to Capitol Records for subsequent albums.
“Our second album and our upcoming third album, our record label, Capitol Records, put us in the same room that my father used to record, so it was serendipitous,” Prima Jr. said. “The name of my dad’s band [was The Witnesses]. I did it for name recognition. … People yell at me because they can’t fit it on the marquee, but it’s the name and it sticks.”
What does fit on a marquee is “The Jungle Book,” in which his father voiced King Louie, singing “I Wanna Be Like You” in the last film produced by Walt Disney before his death.
“[I was] three or four when the movie premiered in Vegas,” Prima Jr. said. “I consciously remember hearing my father’s voice up on the screen, then turning and looking at my father and going, ‘How is that happening?’ … If I’m traveling around and somebody says, ‘Who’s Louis Prima?’ … if you mention ‘The Jungle Book,’ they know it immediately.”
Today, Disney+ runs a disclaimer, citing racial stereotypes for King Louie.
“The Schwartz Brothers, who wrote the song, approached Walt Disney and said, ‘We found a guy for this character,'” Prima Jr. said. “They weren’t trying to stereotype anything. I’m glad people talk about issues because they are important, but I’m OK with a warning label going on things rather than just erasing it completely. … It’s history, good or bad.”
Still, he finds that multiple generations fondly remember the movie, including a mother and son who approached him after a show in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.
“Her and her son had to leave the city and left everything behind,” Prima Jr. said. “They lost absolutely everything, but when they were running from the house, the only thing her son grabbed was a VHS copy of ‘The Jungle Book.’ … He had it in his hand and I cried. It’s an iconic song, a memorable part of the majority of the world’s childhood memories.”