BY RICH COLLINS

Walk into Nor-Joe Importing Co. on Frisco Avenue in Old Metairie and there, among the giant blocks of cheese and jars of Italian spices, you'll see a petition supporting the "Louis stamp."

Don't worry. The folks who commissioned the petition aren't totally behind the times. They know perfectly well that a Louis Armstrong stamp was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in New Orleans earlier this year. But the 500 Nor-Joe customers, along with many other jazz and big band fans, want a stamp to honor Louis Prima, a New Orleans musical export from the Armstrong era who many fans feel is too often overlooked.

"Aside from the two great guys - Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong - Louis is the next logical guy [to get a stamp]," says Ron Cannatella Jr., a Prima booster and a local radio personality. "Everybody that talks about Louis shares the same sentiment: here's a guy who deserves more honors because of all the things he did over the years: the TV shows, the movies."

A quick Prima primer, courtesy of The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music: He was born in New Orleans on Dec. 7, 1911, and died here on Aug. 24, 1978. In between, Prima learned to play jazz trumpet and, by the late '20s, he had started some local musical groups. Prima moved to Cleveland, then Chicago and New York City, where he played as Louis Prima & his New Orleans Gang in 1934.

In this phase of his career, Prima appeared in Hollywood films and wrote several memorable tunes, including "Sing, Sing, Sing," (later a showcase for Benny Goodman). Throughout the '40s, Prima cut hit records featuring his "mixture of jivespeak, Neapolitan slang and plain bad English." Then, in the '50s, sax player Sam Butera became a featured sideman and Prima moved comfortable into the Vegas scene, scoring a hit with the same "I Aint' Got Nobody"/"Just a Gigolo" medley that rocker David Lee Roth would make his own many years later. Prima's albums kept charting throughout the '60s, and he jumped back into film to provide the voice of a cartoon orangutan in Disney's Jungle Book in 1969. It was a nice exclamation point to a career that began more than 40 years earlier.

But to a Prima fan like Cannatella, there's much more to know about the man who left New Orleans as a trumpet player with a quick wit and returned decades later as an established hitmaker, a film star and a Vegas sensation.

Some facts:

  • These days, Prima's big band, novelty and instrumental jazz music preserved through its use in films by fans Martin Scorcsese (Casino, Raging Bull), Billy Crystal (Mr. Saturday Night, Forget Paris) and others.

  • Frank Sinatra invited Prima to perform at the 1960 JFK presidential inauguration, which also featured Nat King Cole and Jimmy Durante.

  • Prima's crooning in Italian was known to have a strong effect on some of his female fans. In fact, at some concerts, women would express their adoration by lining the stage with pans of lasagna.

  • In addition to his film career (including an appearance in Rhythm on the Range with Bing Crosby and Martha Raye), Prima was known to bring the house down on The Ed Sullivan Show, where he would take a significant portion of the show's running time to do much of his lounge act.

  • When the Grammy Awards began, Prima was right there, winning a nod for his version of "That Old Black Magic" with Keely Smith.

  • For these accomplishments and more, Prima has devoted fans across the country, particularly here in his hometown. There's a Louis Prima Drive and Louis Prima Court in eastern New Orleans. His songs are a featured part of the annual St. Joseph's Day festivities in the French Quarter. And there's even talk of reissuing some rare Prima tracks from yesteryear. In honor or Prima's birthday last Thursday (it would have been his 85th), Cannatella devoted an hour to all things Prima on his radio show on WADU-FM (94.9).

    But the recognition only goes so far. There's no Louis Prima statue in town. There's no museum exhibit detailing the man's musical contributions to the big band and Vegas scene. And Prima isn't as much of a household name as Sinatra or Bennett - or New Orleans' most famous Ambassador of Jazz for that matter.

    That's where the stamp drive comes in.

    Cannatella, members of the 100-strong Louis Prima Fan Club and former colleagues like Sam Butera and Jerry Vale all hope to get enough signatures together to convince the Postal Service that the nation will benefit by seeing Louis Prima's visage decorating its monthly bills.

    "I kicked the petition off on my radio show months ago. . .with the help of a few people," Cannatella says. "And those petitions are all over the country now. We've got guys will all the major Italian-American organizations. We're featured in the Italian-American Digest. Most of the national publications have put little things in and sent out things to their members."

    And, Cannatella says, the drive has snowballed.

    "I'm getting phone calls when I'm on the radio from people all over the country about this," he says. "We kicked it off here, but then a lot of people fax it or send it to other people."

    If the stamp dream ever becomes a reality, Cannatella would like to see an issuing ceremony here in New Orleans. He's already got a vision of the celebration in his head: Prima fans gathering at the Piazza d'Italia, with Sam Butera flying in from Vegas to perform.

    So, who knows? With support from old fans - plus the lobbying of enthusiastic youngsters like Cannatella (he's 25) - the man who beat David Lee Roth to the punch by several decades might finally get his 32 cents worth.

    And, hey, can Mel Torme be far behind?





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