HELLO AMERICA!—Hearing about the passing of Keely Smith, one of the music industry’s most talented performers was quite sad. I first was introduced to Keely during the early ‘60s. She was appearing in one of the major theaters on Sunset Boulevard with partner Louis Prima who was dynamite! Keely was cool and captivating. Backstage it was as though I was communicating with an old friend or the “girl” next door. Nothing phony, just a sweet girl who seemed extremely grateful to hear how much the audience enjoyed her performance. She was so wonderfully real and it made the evening quite special.
Keely was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1928. She is Irish and Indian. Her parents were divorced when she was nine. Life for her meant constant changes and movement. She was married three times; the most publicized, as well as stormy, was her union with Louis Prima. His Italian creative temperament dominated each day and moment of their relationship, not only as co-stars in an act but in the marriage as well. She claimed that it was impossible to relax or have quiet moments just enjoying life for what it was. Louis was always trying to find ways to examine or experiment with something new and different with their act.
She claimed that her marriages didn’t work because of being a woman married to men determined that everything they uttered was truth and what she had to offer, it had to be examined totally. To her, it was insulting and being placed in a position of very little credibility. As a result, she didn’t hesitate to let someone know her feelings and ideas. Keely was definitely a lady who demanded RESPECT or else. As a result, it was she who locked her door for a night alone or eventually packed her bag, preparing for another time of complete freedom from anyone who desired to control everything about her. She believed she deserved not only respect as a talent but freedom.
Once, when interviewing her about the effect all the music awards she had received in her life. She laughed and said, “Oh, it’s very nice but you’ve got to remember is that it is important to feel that you’re delivering, that what you are being given all the attention is because it is your job. That’s what it is all about. You deliver, then the company or boss, simply reward you. Am I happy, impressed to receive that kind of attention? Of course! However, you’ve got to realize how fortunate you are to deal with business reality.”
I was quite amused when once at an Academy Awards presentation, I spotted my old friend Rock Hudson who surprisingly was alone. He asked if I might be going to the big dinner following the Oscars. I indicated I was alone as usual, he insisted that I come along with him. He emphasized it wouldn’t be a problem. The evening turned out quite interesting, but it became more special when Keely Smith and I spotted each other. She shot me a big smile and even came over to my table with Rock. She and Rock immediately took to each other as if they had known each other. Rock even invited her to his house for dinner whenever she and Louis returned to Hollywood. Their instant friendship was quite special. It made my evening.
When I asked her favorite singers, she didn’t hesitate and said, “Ella Fitzgerald and June Christy. Without a doubt.” Ella was very special because she, too, had begun her career when she was a teenager. She also didn’t stand for any nonsense and when it was time for work that is what was concentrated on, no matter what her personal relations were. Keely informed me that Ella had been around long enough to know how to deal with all the games producers or other musicians might try when dealing with concerts films or any other entertainment media. “They all have a game,” she said.
Having been fortunate enough to sit with someone like Keely Smith was another type of Masters Class in survival as well as truth and not being ashamed of who you are or where you come from. I keep reminding myself of those truths, hopefully, as well as my few sessions with Keely Smith, a singer.