Sam Butera: Saxophonist and entertainer who found fame as Louis Prima's 'Big Horn'

The Las Vegas entertainer, Louis Prima referred to Sam Butera as "The Big Horn". For 20 years, the tenor saxophonist led the Witnesses, who accompanied Prima and his wives, Keely Smith and Gia Maione, and wrote most of the arrangements. After Prima's death in 1978, he continued as a lounge act, often working with Smith.

Sam Butera was born into an Italian family in New Orleans in 1927. His father, Joe, was a butcher who played the guitar and concertina for pleasure. He introduced his son to big band music and bought him a clarinet and then a saxophone. From the age of 14, Butera was accompanying strippers in local clubs. Butera worked with Ray McKinley and Paul Gayten's bands and then formed his own band. At the age of 18, he was cited as a promising teenage musician in Look magazine, which led to an appearance at Carnegie Hall.

Butera married his high school sweetheart, Vera, in 1947 and they remained married until he died, raising four children. During their first years, he had a long residency at a New Orleans club and he was heard by Leon Prima, who recommended him to his brother, Louis.

By 1954, Louis Prima was in a double act with his fourth wife, Keely Smith, and part of their humour was based on the disparity in their ages. Prima was desperate to break into the lounge entertainment now provided by the Las Vegas casinos. When he secured a residency at the Sahara, he needed a small band. He asked Butera to join him and on their opening night, Prima introduced him and the other musicians as "Sam Butera and the Witnesses." They became a permanent feature, playing five shows a night.

Butera was an inventive musician, writing new arrangements for Prima's existing material as well as adding material. He enjoyed putting unlikely songs together such as the famed combination of "Just A Gigolo" and "I Ain't Got Nobody". Prima liked to give standards a swing and clown around with the lyrics, often adding Italian scat. Most Prima records include a sax break from Butera, and the two men have a jive talking conversation on "There'll Be No Next Time" (1957), which is the equal of any record by the Coasters. They had a US hit with "That Old Black Magic" and a UK one with "Buona Sera", both in 1958, but it was mainly on albums that they excelled such as The Wildest! (1957), and they were recorded live in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. They are featured in the films, Hey Boy! Hey Girl! (1959) and Twist All Night (1961), and one of Butera's tracks, "Bim Bam" later became a favourite with UK rock'n'rollers.

By 1961, Prima was becoming uncontrollable: drinking, gambling and womanising to excess. Smith said she could have tolerated one fault but not all three, and left. Prima told her he would continue with a new singer called Kelly Smith, but his girlfriend appeared under her own name, Gia Maione. Unfortunately, she was not as talented as Smith, but the band continued its success. There is a superb version of "St Louis Blues" on The Wildest Comes Home (1962). Prima and Butera were monkeying around on "I Wan'na Be Like You" for The Jungle Book (1967).

Butera appeared as a con man as well as scoring the film The Rat Race (1960) with Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds. He made the solo album, The Whole World Loves Italians (1966), recorded When The Feeling Hits You with Sammy Davis Jr (1965) and played a solo on Frank Sinatra's version of Neil Diamond's "Stargazer" (1976). Sinatra introduces him by saying, "Jump on it, Sam; get all over that thing."

Prima fell into a coma in 1975 and died three years later. Prevented by Maione from calling his band the Witnesses, Butera formed the Wildest and created his own lounge act including Prima's successes, but with more straight jazz. He was singing as much as playing and he often worked with Keely Smith. His closing words were "It's nice to be important but it's more important to be nice" and he and his musicians would move around the patrons, shaking hands and playing "When The Saints Go Marching In".

Butera was unimpressed when David Lee Roth from Van Halen revived "Just A Gigolo / I Ain't Got Nobody" (1985), complaining that Roth had stolen his arrangement without permission or payment. The Brian Setzer Orchestra won a Grammy for their recording of "Jump, Jive An' Wail" (1999), which is also in the repertoire of Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings.

Spencer Leigh

Sam Butera, saxophonist: born New Orleans 17 August 1927; married (two sons, two daughters); died Las Vegas 3 June 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot