Prima rode the musical trends of his time, starting with his seven-piece New Orleans style jazz band in the 1920s, then succesively leading a Swing combo in the 1930s, a Big Band in the 1940s, a hot Vegas lounge act in the 1950s, and a pop-Rock go-go band in the 1960s, in all cases projecting his exuberant personality.
Prima was born into a musical family of Sicilian descent in New Orleans. He studied violin for several years as a child. His older brother Leon Prima was a well regarded local bandleader. Prima was proud of his heritage, and made a point of letting the audience know at every performance that he was Italian-American and from New Orleans. His singing and playing showed that he absorbed many of the same influences as his fellow Crescent City musician, Louis Armstrong, particularly in his hoarse voice and scat singing.
In his youth in New Orleans Prima played trumpet with Irving Fazola, his brother's band, and the pit band of the Sanger Theater before forming his own group, Louis Prima's New Orleans Gang. He moved to New York in 1934, working regularly on 52nd Street. His 1936 composition "Sing, Sing Sing" became one of the bigest hits and most covered standards of the swing era, famously being performed in Carnegie Hall by Benny Goodman with a featured performance by Gene Krupa on drums.
He moved to Los Angeles to headline at the "Famous Door" nightclub. He appeared in several Hollywood movies, including a featured performance with Bing Crosby in the 1936 film Rhythm on the Range. In the late 1940s he added young singer Keely Smith (who was to become Prima's 4th wife) and saxophonist/arranger Sam Butera to lead his band, called Sam Butera and the Witnesses.
The act, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, was very much the model for Sonny and Cher, the exuberant Italian musician and the serious, unsmiling exotic female singer. (Smith was of Cherokee descent; Cher was Armenian.) Prima, Smith, and Butera put on a live show that rocked as hard as anyone's.
In 1967, Prima made a memorable contribution to the Walt Disney film The Jungle Book, as the voice of the raucous orangutan King Louie. "I Wanna Be Like You" was a hit song from the movie that led to the recording of two albums with Phil Harris: The Jungle Book and More Jungle Book, on Disneyland Records.
Prima performed shows in Las Vegas throughout the 1950s and '60s, before returning to New Orleans in the early 1970s. In 1975 he went into a coma following surgery to remove a brain tumor. He never recovered, and died three years later. The Prima-Butera arrangements and recordings continued to be copied by younger musicians, including David Lee Roth, who covered his medley of "Just a Gigolo"/"I Ain't Got Nobody" in the 1980s, and Brian Setzer, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and other nouveau swing bands of the 1990s, covering such Prima standards as "Jump and Jive and Wail". And Butera and the Witnesses also continue to tour.