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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Kim Sears is reported to have directed abuse at Berdych
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee