HOLLYWOOD (CBSLA) – Keely Smith, a Las Vegas legend and one of Palm Springs’ most popular singers in the era of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, died of heart failure over the weekend after a long period of declining health. She was 89.
A family spokesman said she died in Palm Springs Saturday while under a physician’s care, the Desert Sun reported. Funeral arrangements are pending, but her son-in-law and long-time music director, Dennis Michaels, said the burial will be in Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills.
Smith won the first Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group in 1959 with her late first husband Louis Prima. Together they are credited with virtually inventing the Las Vegas lounge act. They won the Grammy for the mid-tempo ballad, “That Old Black Magic,” but also had lasting influence on the rock generation with Brian Setzer’s recording of their “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” and David Lee Roth’s version of their hits, “Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody.”
Smith established a notable solo career with her milestone recording of “I Wish You Love” in 1957, according to the Desert Sun. She made frequent appearances at the McCallum Theatre, had pitch-perfect tone and an effortless way of making unorthodox vocal leaps seem like natural progressions.
She called herself “a saloon singer,” like Frank Sinatra, with whom she was linked professionally, artistically and in her personal life after her marriage to Prima began to fray, according to the Deszert Sun.
She received another Grammy nomination for her 2001 CD, “Keely Sings Sinatra,” which she recorded with Sinatra’s blessing before his death in 1998. The album’s liner notes say Rat Pack pals Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. called her “the female Sinatra.”
Born Dorothy Jacqueline Keely of Cherokee and Irish heritage in Norkfolk, Virginia, Smith got her first job as a band singer at age 15 during World War II. She joined a group led by Prima, who had written Benny Goodman’s Swing Era standard, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” while still a teenager in 1948. They were married in 1953. Smith was soon dubbed “the Queen of Las Vegas.”
She parlayed her singing career into success in such movies as “Thunder Road,” opposite Robert Mitchum, and “Hey Boy! Hey Girl” and “Senior Prom” with Prima.
Smith later began a long relationship with Palm Springs-based singer Bobby Milano in the mid-1970s, according to the Desert Sun. Milano, whose real name was Charles Caci, was the brother of Southern California mob leader Vincent “Jimmy” Caci, and Smith also maintained a friendship with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, attending his funeral after his assassination in 1975.
Smith has stars on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars and the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and she is a member of the Las Vegas Hall of Fame. Flowers were expected to be placed on Keely Smith’s star by the Hollywood Historic Trust, which manages the Walk of Fame, at 7080 Hollywood Blvd.
Smith is survived by her daughters Toni Prima of Palm Springs and Luanne Prima of Los Angeles, the Desert Sun reported.
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