Sam Butera, 81, a saxophonist who played with jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Bellson, and led the band of Louis Prima for 21 years, died June 3 in Las Vegas after battling Alzheimer’s disease.
A native of New Orleans, Butera was naturally drawn to swing and bebop at a young age, being heavily influenced by sax legends Charlie Ventura, Leester Young, and Charlie Parker. Immediately out of high school, the sax prodigy gigged with Ray McKinley and later played in the bands of Tommy Dorsey and Joe Reichman.
Unarguably though, his greatest accomplishment was being Louis Prima’s right hand man leading the Witnesses, captivating audiences with their loud, rambunctious jazz style in Las Vegas from 1954 to 1975.
Gia Prima, Louis Prima’s widow and singer in the band from 1962 to 1975, told Billboard.biz: “Make no mistake. Louis’ true ace-in-the-hole was Sam Butera. For 21 years, Sam and Louis kicked Las Vegas butt!” They truly did “kick butt” with hit songs like “That Old Black Magic,” “Just a Gigolo,” and “Jump, Jive, an’ Wail.”
Most of those songs reached success because of Sam’s trademark wailing of the saxophone. When asked about hearing Butera for the first time, Gia replied, “I was fourteen years old. Best thing I ever heard and saw. He was an amazing technician of his instrument.” She even goes on to say, “Every night on stage and feeling the camaraderie, for me, are my fondest memories of Sam. Every night was a new experience. It was beautiful.”
Their music has been relevant for decades, being featured in numerous movie soundtracks and even in a popular 1998 Gap campaign. Gia reminisces, “Our lives were in that music. After the Gap commercial, it helped not only Louis but Sam’s career re-energize as well.” She adds on, “With David Lee Roth’s cover of ‘Just a Gigolo’ and Brian Setzer’s cover of ‘Jump, Jive, an’ Wail,’ I think our music will continue to live forever.”