Friday, June 5, 2009

R.I.P. Sam Butera

In the late 1990s I realized a dream of many years, to see Sam Butera. The event could not have been better: he was the "headliner" at St. Anthony's Feast in Boston's Northend.

To me, Sam Butera is among the greatest of all saxophonists. His mastery of the instrument predated and foreshadowed rock 'n roll, and though he was not a jazz player by reputation, his improvisational skills put him up there with Sonny Rollins. Seeing him jump, jive and wail with mad ferocity, at an Italian street festival in the twilight of his career, put me beyond words.

He is reported to have passed away in Las Vegas at age 81, on Wednesday, June 3, 2009.

Sam Butera is best known for his work with Louis Prima, and he is the first saxophonist to have attained fame as a sidekick. Let's not underestimate this achievement. Louis Prima and Keely Smith, who paved the way for Sonny & Cher, both had a high level of musicianship which is underrated today. Prima was as good as Louis Armstrong but used his skills differently, and unlike Armstrong, had no problem sharing the spotlight. Prima and Smith's dynamic 1950s and 1960s stage show would have been quite different without Sam Butera, who did the arrangements, wrote some songs, and stepped in to sing from time to time. But most often, he played voluminous honking tenor sax solos. He did so with absolute virtuosity, recalling the technique of Earl Bostic and Al Gallodoro, the soul of King Curtis, the lyricism of Vido Musso, and the raw professionalism of Joe Houston and Illinois Jacquet. He could command a stage all by himself, having grown up in an era of tenor sax stars. The banter between him and Louis Prima foreshadowed that in the E Street Band between Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons.

He joined Louis Prima in 1954 to play at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, and when Prima fell into a coma in 1975, he fronted his own band. Valiantly, he adapted his style to the pop music of the 1960s and 1970s, and though the instrumental backgrounds of the 1970s recordings are outdated now, Sam Butera's playing was always for the ages.

Most people don't know the influence of Sam Butera. If you remember David Lee Roth doing the medley of "Just a Gigolo" and "I Ain't Got Nobody" in the 1980s, you are hearing an arrangement originated by Sam Butera. Butera's signature arrangement was held in such respect in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas, that no other band would play it there. Yet it was copied by countless artists, including Delbert McClinton in his early garage band The Straightjackets. His arrangement of "Jump, Jive and Wail" was revived by the Stray Cats and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and inspired those bands to create a swing dance revival in the 1980s.

It is impossible to listen to Sam Butera play a ballad without thinking of the great Italian American heritage (shared by Prima), a heritage which is often overshadowed in discussions of New Orleans jazz. New Orleans was their hometown, and the invention of jazz in New Orleans is as much a product of Italian American bandsmen, as it is an African-American tradition. Butera once told the story of his mother, an Italian immigrant who got off the boat in Argentina and then promptly walked back up the gangplank and back on the boat.

"Wrong America," she said.

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