(From Russ) I can’t think of a more colourful musician who personified the stereotypical rocking, wild, wailing tenor sax man image, than Sam Butera.
A rock, R&B, and jazz legend, Butera was a towering crossover figure on the saxophone and as a bandleader. He could perform with equal ease in both R & B and the pop style of small combo jazz that permeated the early Vegas nightclub scene.
One of the most successful attractions in show business was the musical partnership of Sam Butera and his band, The Witnesses, with Louis Prima & Keely Smith. Anyone with the slightest appreciation for Louis Prima’s incredible Vegas shows of the ’50s and ’60s will recognize Sam Butera’s name … and his hard-driving, don’t-tell-’em-it’s rock ‘n’ roll sound.
Sam Butera was noted for his raucous playing style, his off-color humor, and the innuendo in his lyrics. Butera and The Witnesses backed Prima, but Butera had an equally interesting career before, and after, the Vegas. run.
(August 17, 1927 – June 3, 2009
Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody / Louis Prima, Keely Smith, Sam Butera / Capitol / 1957
Alright Ok You Win I’m In Love With You (1961)
Sam Butera and The Witnesses (AFTER pRIMA)
Jump, Jive and Wail – Butera really puts the Wail in this number!
Bim Bam / Sam Butera & The Witnesses / Capitol F4014 / 1958
Ton Of Bricks / Sam Butera & The Witnesses /Dot 15983/ 1959
Let the Good Times Roll / Sam Butera & The Witnesses / Dot DLP-3272 / 1960
Route 66 / Sam Butera & The Witnesses / D0t DLP-3410 / 1961
I Feel Good All Over / Sam Butera & The Witnesses /Capitol 4862/ 1962
If You Really Love Me / Sam Butera & The Witnesses / Brunswick BL-754183 / 1972
When A Man Loves A Woman / Sam Butera & The Wildest / Poor Boy PB-1004 / 1978
French Poodle / Sam Butera & The Wildest / Poor Boy PB-1001 / 1978
Ten Little Women / Sam Butera & The Witnesses / Prep F105 / 1957 – this was another of his contemporary pop songs
Sam Butera was born Aug. 17, 1927, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
His father, Joseph, owned a butcher shop and played guitar and the concertina in his spare time. Joseph encouraged young Sam’s interest in music. At the age of 7, he was taken to a wedding and, upon being enthralled with a band that was playing, his father asked him which of the instruments the boy liked best. Sam pointed to the saxophones, so the next day, his father bought him a horn. This would ultimately lead to a remarkable life in music.
Sam began studying clarinet and saxophone when he was 7. He eventually focused on the saxophone and became a professional musician at 14, playing at this tender age in a strip club on Bourbon Street.
Butera was also an excellent athlete. He received a track scholarship and a music scholarship to Notre Dame, but a leg injury ended his track career and he decided to pursue music instead of going to college.
At the age of 18 Sam was featured in ‘Look’ magazine as one of the top young jazz men in the country. At 19 he won a talent contest sponsored by Look magazine, which led to an appearance at Carnegie Hall with other winners from around the country.
By his early 20s, upon graduation, he went on the road with Ray McKinley, with whom he made his recording debut on McKinley’s versions of “Civilization” and “Celery Stalks At Midnight”.
As a sax player, Butera has said that his major influences in those years were Charlie Ventura, Lester Young, Gene Ammons, Charlie Parker and Big Jay McNeely. Ultimately, however, the biggest influence on his playing was Lee Allen, a member of Paul Gayten’s band, with which he frequently played.
After stints with various bands including Tommy Dorsey, Joe Richman, and Al Hirt, Sam — inspired by Gayten’s band, Butera went back home to New Orleans.
Sam formed his own group and quickly began a four-year residency engagement at the 500 Club in New Orleans, which happened to be owned by Louis Prima’s brother, Leon – this little point would ultimately become is a significant piece of the Sam Butera story.
Butera’s sound reflected a vast range of influences, including modern jazz and R&B, and in 1951 Butera cut a pair of raunchy R&B instrumental sides that could have figured in the early history of white rock & roll, if only they’d been released at the time.
He also had a featured spot in a Woody Herman concert that yielded both a chance for a new tour and a recording contract with RCA. The resulting sessions in the fall of 1953 gave Butera a chance to rock out in an alternately soft and sweet, or hard and playful manner.
There weren’t any significant sales, but RCA had him back in early 1954 for a series of sessions of its R&B-oriented Groove label (home of Piano Red, amongst others), and his version of “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” was a modest regional hit.
Butera played some R&B shows, including a celebrated tour as part of Alan Freed’s first East Coast rock & roll showcase, and his loud, wild sax sound won him an enthusiastic following.
By 1955, however, he was back doing jazz with Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Bellson. Then, after nearly a decade of paying his dues with a variety of big bands and small combos, Sam Butera’s big break finally came…
One day, Louis Prima’s brother, Leon (remember the 500 Club?), saw Butera performing at the Perez’ Oasis club. Now, Leon was blown away by Sam’s talent and performance and raved about him to Louis, who at that moment had just gotten booked into the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas (along with his then wife and singing partner, Keely Smith).
But Prima needed to have a back up band for this gig, so, from his Vegas hotel room he phoned Butera in New Orleans and immediately hired him to assemble a band posthaste. Butera and his new band drove from New Orleans to Las Vegas in such a hurry that they had not taken time to give their act a name.
On opening night in 1956, in front of a live audience, Prima asked Butera what was the name of his band. Butera responded extemporaneously, “The Witnesses,” and the name stuck.
The Witnesses original line-up included: Sam Butera (tenor sax), James “Red” Blount (trombone), William “Willie” McCumber (piano), Jack Marshall (guitar), Amado Rodriques (bass) and Robert “Bobby” Morris (drums).
“From the day I got the job with Louis, before every show every night, emanating from the dressing room you would hear Sam running his scales, running his fingering, making sure his mouthpiece and reed were perfect. He was a technician beyond belief with that instrument, let alone the showman and bandleader that he was. And you put those two side by side, Prima and Butera, that was it.”
The success of this act gained Louis Prima a recording deal with Capitol Records, which aimed to capture on record the atmosphere of his shows.
Prima’s first Capitol album, titled “The Wildest!” (November 1956), opened with “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”, which then became Prima’s signature number and helped launch his recording career with Capitol.
The “Wildest” recording session took place in April 1956 at Capitol Tower Studios, Los Angeles. Prima was backed by his Las Vegas group, Sam Butera & the Witnesses. Keely Smith, joined the Witnesses for the characteristic backing vocals. Prima sang the lead but didn’t play the trumpet on this track.
Butera and Prima recorded many albums together for Capitol, Dot and Buena Vista record labels, including ‘The Wildest’, ‘The Call Of The Wildest’ (both in 1957), and later on ‘Blast Off’ (1970).
From the Blast Off album…
Hava Negila / – This is an excellent performance by Sam Butera!
In the mid-1990s, with his a later band, “The Wildest”, Butera also released a few albums for the Jasmine label.
Las Vegas and Television
Prima and Butera worked together, side by side, kicking Las Vegas’ butt for 21 years. They also appeared on every major television show in the ’60s and ’70s, including Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin, Danny Thomas, and Bob Hope. Their last appearance together on television was ‘The Merv Griffin Show’ in 1975.
In addition to his work with Prima, Butera enjoyed a prolific side career performing with such entertainers as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
Butera also made albums on his own, including ‘The Rat Race‘ (1960), which was a soundtrack from a film he appeared in with Tony Curtis.
Sam Butera and the Witnesses continued to work with Louis Prima, in Las Vegas and later in New Orleans, until Prima tragically fell into a coma after undergoing brain surgery in 1975. He ultimately died in 1978.
After Louis Prima
After Louis Prima became incapacitated, in the late 1970s, Butera stepped into the spotlight. Doing as much singing as sax playing, he led a band that performed songs from the Prima repertory and frequently accompanied Ms. Smith, who had divorced Prima in 1961.
When Sam fronted The Witnesses by himself, the music got even more intensified and younger (if not straight-up teenage) in feel. The Sam Butera and the Witnesses material was essentially a whole alternate avenue that jump blues and rock and roll could have traveled down but didn’t.
A crowd-pleaser throughout his career, Butera’s appreciation for his audience was palpable. “I love ’em,” he said in a 1999 radio interview. “I try so hard, each show, to make [the crowd] happy.”
“Just A Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody“
The coupling of these two songs had its genesis in a Louis Prima recording from 1945, which was then adapted by Sam Butera for Prima’s 1950s Las Vegas stage show, using an updated jive-and-jumping style.
Although these songs have nothing else in common, the popularity of Prima’s combination has led to the mistaken perception by some that the songs are two parts of a single original composition.
Butera had the knack of concocting and honing many such musical arrangements that would become classics and endure the test of time, and other artists would come along and “cover” a few of these. Now, covering is one thing, a form of flattery; but ripping off is entirely another.
Apparently, “Gigolo/Nobody” was ripped. Much to Butera’s chagrin, this medley was recorded 30 years later by rock singer David Lee Roth. Roth “lifted” Butera’s complete arrangement and scored a huge pop hit with it in 1985, never paying Butera any royalties.
Butera: “He copied my arrangement note for note, and I didn’t get a dime for it,” Mr. Butera told The New York Times in 1997, “…but [back in the day] there wasn’t an act in Atlantic City or Las Vegas that would do that song, out of respect for me.”
“I wrote that arrangement thirty four years ago, the one that David Lee Roth stole from me. He came in one night to see me, you know, and after the show he walked up to me and said ‘Hey Sam!’, and I said ‘who are you’, he said ‘I’m David Lee Roth'”. “‘You know what’ I tell him? I said ‘give me my money’ and he turned right away and walked out.”
Butera was very upset with Roth, but his career continued to flourish until the early 2000s when work in Las Vegas began to slow down. He had to spend a lot more time on the road. He made his last appearance in New Orleans in 2003 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame there.
On January 11,2003, the legendary Sam Butera was inducted into the Italian American Hall of Fame with a lifetime achievement award. Jazz legend Pete Fountain paid tribute to Sam and presented him with the award. He retired the following year.
On June 3, 2009 Sam Butera died in Las Vegas at age 81. Family friends said he passed away at about 6am at Sunrise Hospital, where he had been since early January suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Butera, would have been 82 in August.
Mr. Butera’s survivors include his wife, Vera; two daughters, Cheryl and Diane; two sons, Sam Jr. and Nick; eight grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Louis Prima’s daughter Lena, praising the work of Sam Butera, said: “He had that New Orleans style and sound that a lot of sax players who came out of New Orleans had. But he was special, one of a kind. In combination with my father, they were amazing. He was very talented. I loved his singing too. He had a really unique singing voice.”
In addition to his accomplishments as a saxophonist and composer, Butera is widely regarded as the inspiration for the vocal style of fellow New Orleans-born jazz singer, Harry Connick, Jr.
The kind of posting I like to see! There’s not much more that can be said about well-known names like Chuck Berry or Gene Vincent.
Do you by any chance happen to know where the clip of “Night Train” you show here, is from? Is it from a movie? Has this particular version ever appeared on vinyl or CD? I know Louis and Sam did other versions, but none come close to this one. Wild indeed!!
PS – I have already submitted “The Three Phases Of The Regents” for my column, Looking Back, and expect to see it published soon. I spoke to both Peter Groschel and Bruce Staubitz regarding the piece. When it comes out, would you like me to send you a copy?
Thanks for your kind words, Andy.
Sam’s performance of Night Train can be found in two versions:
(1.) with Louis Prima on several LPs; one of them is called “The Wildest” (Capitol T-755);
(2.) on Sam’s own LPs; one of them called “The Big Sax And The Big Voice of Sam Butera (Capitol T-1521)
Sam really puts a lot of SOUL into his performance of Night Train. I like it a lot more than Jimmy Forest’s version for that reason. He really nails those low B flats, too. The only thing missing is the “C” section that Forrest used to do as a bit of an interlude.
As for the video clip of Night Train with Louis Prima, I do not know the source, except for seeing it on YouTube… sorry. It looks like it was a Kinescope taken from a TV show.
Yes, I would definitely like to receive a copy of your piece, “The Three Phases Of The Regents”. Bruce Staubitz visited us about a month ago where I live in Barrie. Unfortunately, Peter Groschel passed away just recently.
Nice to hear from you, Andy. Take care.
Will send you a copy of the column.
Sorry to hear that Peter Groschel passed away. He was very helpful in providing many details of his music career.
Do you know the exact date and cause of his passing?