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October 25, 2014

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Q&A: Play It Again, Sam

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AARON MAYES / LAS VEGAS SUN

Legendary saxophonist Sam Butera poses Wednesday, April 19, 2000.

Sam Butera has an easy stride, a quick smile and an arsenal of jokes that he has committed to memory. Even as the famed saxophonist/music arranger is waiting to pose for photos outside the Las Vegas Sun, he can't help but throw some jokes out, such as the one about the elderly man and his prolific sex life (we can't repeat the joke, but you can ask Butera to tell it when you see him at a local lounge).

The 72-year-old Butera displays a lust for life usually reserved for someone 50 years his junior.

But there's another side to Butera: the man who still gets misty-eyed when talking about his late longtime boss, Louis Prima.

The two met in Butera's hometown of New Orleans and joined forces in Las Vegas in the mid-'50s. Theirs was a partnership built on respect and musical ability, with friendship sandwiched somewhere in between. Together the duo practically created the lounge sound that helped define the emerging Las Vegas scene -- creating such swing staples as "Jump, Jive an' Wail" (think Gap commercial) and "Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody" (Think David Lee Roth solo hit) in the process.

Butera and his band still perform around town and throughout the world. He also has a personal life: He's been married to his wife, Vera, for 52 years, they have four children and six grandchildren. "The kids say the only reason why (the marriage) lasted so long is because (I) was never home," Butera joked.

In a recent interview, Butera, who is scheduled to perform at the Tropicana hotel-casino May 8-9 and 12-14, answered questions about his life.

Sun: What have you been doing?

SB: I perform 48 weeks a year.

Sun: Mainly in Vegas?

SB: Mainly in Vegas? There's no work here in Vegas. They won't pay no money here in Vegas.

Sun: Why's that?

SB: You're asking me? I don't know. They call it corporate structure. So I have to go on the road.

Sun: How does that make you feel?

SB: Makes me feel terrible. Everybody else wants me -- why not Vegas? Because they don't want to pay the price. So I've got to go out and scrape for work.

Sun: Where are you performing?

SB: I'll be going to Europe in November and we're going to record an album with Van Morrison there, plus we do a jazz festival and album in London. I've worked with Van Morrison before. He loves our music.

Sun: What type of music do you record with him?

SB: He wants to do our music. The kids call it swing today. We were playing that (expletive) for years.

Sun: Today's swing music, I've read where you don't speak very highly of it.

SB: They have a different approach to it, but I grew up in a different era. I incorporated the shuffle beat with rock 'n' roll. There's no rock 'n' roll cats can play what we played with the shuffle beat. We're original.

Sun: You wrote the arrangements for "Jump, Jive an' Wail" and "Just a Gigolo / I Ain't Got Nobody" on the same day in 1956. Were you on a roll that day?

SB: Whenever Louis wanted to rehearse we got an arrangement together.

Sun: How long did it take you, typically, to do an arrangement?

SB: Not long -- an afternoon, maybe two days.

Sun: How did you come up with these arrangements?

SB: Right here (as he pointed to his head). It just came to me. ... I admired Louis. (Butera's eyes began to water, with a solitary tear streaking down his face) ... talented man. His timing was impeccable: saying lines, making people happy. Unbelievable.

Sun: Yet he kept his distance with his friends.

SB: Well, that was the way he lived his life. His whole thing was "familiarity breeds contempt." That's how he lived his life.

Sun: Did that bother you?

SB: Why? We played golf, and he said "I'll see you later, Sam." "OK, see you at the job tonight." No hanging out. He pays you and he didn't have to hang around you. But on stage you did your job, too. ... He made me laugh -- listening to him, and the way he did things and the way he moved. Nobody could (mess) with him. Frank Sinatra came on stage, Dean Martin came on stage, Jerry Lewis ... no matter who, they could not mess with Louis Prima. He had a certain way. He laughed at them and the people were looking at him instead of looking at them.

Sun: You guys kept playing all the way up till he got sick.

SB: We were working at the Melody Fair in Tonawanda, N.Y., which is right near Buffalo. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were working opposite Jerry Vale. Prima was taking like eight or nine Tylenol before each show -- terrible headaches. He told me a couple months prior that, "Sam, we're going to have to lower the keys in these songs because I can't make those high notes anymore." I said "Look, whatever you want to do, we'll do."

We got through working at Tonawanda, and we went home. The doctor said, "We got a new thing out, Louis, called CAT scan, I want you to go take one right away." He found out he had a brain tumor. And they didn't know how big it was. So they thought they were just going to go in and drill a hole to relieve the pressure -- to get the water out, or whatever it is -- and (Prima) said, "go on the road trip, fulfill the dates I have left." They went in and found out the thing was as big as an orange and they operated on it -- but it was benign. And he went into a coma in 1975 for three years and he died. That's why he couldn't hit the high notes -- the tumor was pushing down on the vocal chords.

Sun: I understand you're writing a book about your life.

SB: All about Sam Butera, with and without Louis. There's no title, (but) I'm pretty far into it. Also, I'm helping a guy do a movie about Sam Butera, (which) tells the life story of Louis Prima and Las Vegas.

Sun: What about the arrangements on all these songs you've done ...?

SB: Never got a dime. The publishing company, when David Lee Roth came out with "Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody," they copyrighted my arrangement so they wouldn't have to pay me. I didn't want to go through a bunch of legal (expletive). One night he (Roth) came to see me at the Tropicana where I was working. He and three other people were sitting on my left, and after the show he came backstage and said "Hi, Sam." I said "Who are you?" He said "I'm David Lee Roth." You know what I told him? "Give me my money." He turned around and walked out. The Gap people? I got nothing for that. I might have got three to four hundred dollars, oh and they sent me a coupon to go to the store to get three pair of pants (laughs). I swear to God.

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