Jazz saxophonist Sam Butera dies

Musician made mark with Louis Prima in Las Vegas


Courtesy of Prima Music, L.L.C.

Sam Butera, right, performs with Louis Prima, left, Rolondo “Rolly-Dee” Diloria (bass) and Jimmy Vincent (drums). This photo, according to the Louis Prima Archives, is from the mid 1960s in Las Vegas. They often performed in the Casbah Lounge in the Sahara Hotel and Casino.

Wed, Jun 3, 2009 (6:22 p.m.)

Click to enlarge photo

Legendary saxophonist Sam Butera poses Wednesday, April 19, 2000.

Sam Butera and Louis Prima

Sam Butera - Chantilly Lace

Another link to Las Vegas’ storied past was cut Wednesday morning with the passing of legendary jazz saxophonist Sam Butera, sideman to another Vegas legend, Louis Prima.

Family friends said Butera died at about 6 a.m. at Sunrise Hospital, where he had been since early January suffering from the effects of Alzheimer's Disease.

Butera, who retired in 2004, would have been 82 in August.

Prima died at the age of 67 in 1978, three years after lapsing into a coma during surgery to remove a brain tumor.

The music of Prima and Butera resurfaces from time to time, played in film sound tracks an commercials. A Gap commerical in the '90s, featuring “Jump, Jive and Wail” gave Butera’s career a boost.

“Louis Prima’s true ace in the hole for 21 years was Sam Butera,” Prima’s widow, Gia Maione, said during a telephone call from her home in Florida. “I don’t care what vocalists were with Louis, his true ace in the hole was Sam Butera. Side by side, Louis and Sam kicked Las Vegas’ butt for 21 years.”

Maione joined Prima’s group after Prima and vocalist Keely Smith divorced in 1961.

“I really do not believe over all of these years that Sam Butera got the accolades he deserved as a tenor saxophone player,” Maione, 67, said. “I defy anyone to name someone that played better tenor sax that Sam Butera.

“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 that he was. And you put those two side by side, Prima and Butera, that was it.”

She says her husband didn’t get the credit he deserved, either.

“Both of them were such great showmen and they had so much fun that people overlooked the skill because they were having too much fun,” she said.

Maione remained close to Butera and his family after Prima died in a hospital in New Orleans, the home town of both Prima and Butera.

“It’s a very, very sad day,” she said. “We were very close through the years. I was in very close communications with Sam, especially since he retired. I’ve been in touch with his wife, Vera, weekly since he became ill. He was in the hospital from Jan. 3 until now. He was in the grips of Alzheimer’s. He lapsed into a coma, and then he was gone.”

Sam and Vera Butera were married 62 years.

“They were high school sweethearts,” Mainoe said.

The couple had four children.

Maione said four or five days ago Mrs. Butera was injured while going to the hospital to see her husband.

“She was walking through the parking lot at hospital and got hit by a truck,” Maione said. “Miraculously, nothing was broken but she has an injury to her back. She’s at home now but isn’t speaking to anyone because of the severe pain form her back. The family doesn’t know when the funeral arrangements will be made. They don’t know when their mother will be able to attend the funeral.”

Butera was born on Aug. 17, 1927. His father owned a butcher shop and played guitar and the concertina in his spare time. Butera studied clarinet in school but eventually turned to the saxophone. At the age of 18 was featured in Look magazine as one of the top young jazzmen in the country.

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.

He quickly began performing around the country with the top bands of the day, including Tommy Dorsey and Joe Reichman. His said his major influences in those years were Charlie Ventura, Lester Young, Gene Ammons, Charlie Parker and Big Jay McNeely.

Butera formed his own group after returning to New Orleans and began a four-year engagement at the 500 Club.

Ron Cannatella, official archivist for Prima Music LLC in New Orleans, had a personal relationship with Butera.

“Both of my grandfathers knew Sam,” Cannatella said.

He said Prima’s brother, Leon, saw Butera performing at the Perez’ Oasis club and told Louis about him. Prima liked what he saw and in 1954 when he and Keely Smith were booked at the Sahara in Las Vegas he asked Butera to join them.

“He wanted Sam to start on Christmas Eve, 1954, but Sam told Louis he needed to spend Christmas with his family, which he did,” Cannatella said. “The Day after Christmas, on Dec. 26, 1954, Sam joined Louis in Las Vegas and was his sidekick and sideman until 1975, when Louis was operated on for the brain tumor.”

Together Prima and Butera appeared on every major television show in the '60s and '70s, including Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin, Danny Thomas, Bob Hope and Mike Douglas.

“Their last appearance together on television was 'The Merv Griffin Show' in 1975,” Cannatella said.

They made many albums together, including “The Wildest” and “The Call of the Wildest” (both in 1957), but Butera also made albums on his own, including “The Rat Race” (in 1960), which was a soundtrack from a film Butera appeared in with Tony Curtis.

They recorded albums for Capital, Dot and Buena Vista record labels, Cannatella said.

They appeared in movies together (“Hey Boy, Hey Girl” and “Twist All Night”).

“Sam also worked with Louis on the film 'Jungle Book’ for Disney,” Cannatella said.

Butera was not selfish with his music.

“Back when Allen Toussaint composed the song 'Java,’ Allen had initially given the song to Sam but Sam felt that Al Hirt should be the one to record it and Sam gave it Al and it became a big hit.”

After Louis became incapacitated, Butera’s career continued to flourish until the early 2000s when work in Las Vegas began to slow down and he had to spend a lot of time on the road.

He made his last appearance in New Orleans in 2003 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame there.

Cannatella visited with Butera in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated his home town.

“He was saddened to find out so many of the clubs and places he had played were no longer there,” Cannatella said. “Sam was a wonderful guy, a family oriented man.”

He called Butera’s passing, “A great loss to his family and to the musical world, because Sam was one of the greatest saxophone players of all time.”

Louis Prima Jr. knew Butera well because of his father, but had no personal relationship with him.

“I’ve known him most of my life,” said Prima, who has his own band and is trying to keep his father’s music alive, though it is difficult in these economic times. “Unchallenged, without a doubt Sam Butera was the most talented, greatest sax player there ever was and probably will be.

“He was an incredible musician who never missed a beat.”

Prima’s sister Lena has performed a tribute show to her father for many years.

She says she and Butera never performed together, but once placed opposite each other at Palace Station lounges.

“There wasn’t anybody like him,” Lena Prima 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.”

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